Utilitarianistic familism: the basis of political stability in Hong Kong


Liu Siu-kai

TitleUtilitarianistic familism: the basis of political stability in Hong Kong
PublisherSocial Research Center, the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Publication DateMarch, 1978
Keywords:Political sociologyFamily

Politics and government

Abstract/ Concluding Remarks:Under the sole intention to depict in an ideal-typical way the relationship between utilitarianistic familism and political stability in Hong Kong, many conditional factors and qualifying statements have temporarily been brushed aside. However, now is the time to bring them back into the discussion so that a more realistic assessment of the prospect of political stability in Hong Kong can be undertaken, otherwise the readers might be left with a rosy picture of the political situation in Hong Kong in which long-term stability is guaranteed by the continual existence of that socio-cultural syndrome of utilitarianistic familism.

Utilitarianistic familism is neither an 'absolute' phenomenon nor is it a fixed, unchanging one. As a matter of fact, it is contingent upon a host of other factors whose configuration more or less affects its content and intensity. Moreover, as these independent factors change, and we have reason to think that they have experienced changes in the last several decades, the distribution of utilitarianistic familism among the different sectors of the population as well as its contributory role in the maintenance of political stability will also undergo accompanying changes.

Utilitarianistic familism is a historical-situational occurrence, and many of the phenomena subsumed under this overarching concept can be understood as the adaptation of traditional socio-cultural patterns to a society made up largely of immigrants and to an economy which is dependent on the world both for its markets and for the supply of raw material (including food). As a majority of the immigrants came from the province of Kwangtung, it thus means that the Cantonese imprint is very much in evidence in Hong Kong. With the large clan system still in vogue in Kwangtung before the Communist takeover, as compared to north China, it is not surprising to find that “familism” can be transplanted so smoothly into the Hong Kong context among the Cantonese Chinese there.

The emergence of utilitarianistic familism in Hong Kong can be briefly explained in a sequential manner:

(1) The sudden intrusion of a huge number of refugees and immigrants since 1947 placed serious strains on the Hong Kong society and economy, and given the small indigenous population (most of whom were also immigrants in the past), assimilation of the immigrant people by the “localities” was out of the question. Rather, most of the immigrants had to rely on themselves in adjusting to the new environment. In this spontaneous and natural process of adjustment, with all its insecurities and psychological strains, the family system had to play a salient role.

(2) As many of the immigrants came from the rural areas, they were predominantly traditional in outlook, and, as mentioned before, familism was a major constituent element in this traditional weltanschauung. Even those arriving from towns and cities were not immune from this traditional orientation.

(3) The fact that the political status of Hong Kong is contingent upon the interplay of power politics in the international scene and the presence of the colonial government have practically debarred the Hong Kong Chinese from any opportunity to exercise political rights and responsibilities. There are substantial limits on the amount of political power the Chinese can exercise, and the residual power which might be available is not enough to allow them to determine their fate. The futility of political participation is well understood by most Chinese people, and this is reinforced by the common understanding that the Hong Kong government is also a 'dependent' government, which means that the acquisition of governmental power by the Chinese would do more harm than good. On the other hand, the capitalistic economic institutions of the colony, coupled with the fact that the growing economy based primarily on international trade seems to be able to whet rising aspirations have managed to focus the Chinese people's attention and cravings onto the economic realm, and, along the process, have also instigated the ethos of materialism and utilitarianism among the Chinese populace.

(4) The laissez-faire policy of the government encourages economic adventures and undertakings of both the Chinese and foreign capitalists. However, for most of the Chinese capitalists, the capital which is necessary for the launching of any economic enterprise has to come from one's family and relatives. The proliferation of small businesses (commercial firms and factories) which are family-owned and under family management testifies to the tremendous importance of the family in the economic development of Hong Kong. Sociologically speaking, the importance of the family in the economic sector reinforces its importance in the social sector.

(5) The laissez-faire policy of the Hong Kong government is also reflected in the outdated social welfare system of the colony. Even though some overhaul of the system has been evident in the last several years, still social welfare facilities are far from adequate to meet the rising welfare needs of a prospering capitalistic socio-economic system. In tackling with the large amount of unsatisfied welfare needs left behind by the formal, institutionalized welfare system, the family as an informal welfare system plays an indispensable role. To a large extent, the social and economic -insecurities have been absorbed by the individual families and familial groups. Along the processes, the potential for social disturbance is lessened, while the significance of the family is also substantially enhanced.

These structural and developmental conditions have left their impact on all Chinese in Hong Kong alike, though it is heaviest on those in the lower socio-economic strata. The effects of these factors converge to foster utilitarianistic familism among a majority of the Chinese in Hong Kong, and, as mentioned, it is most salient among the less disadvantaged.

Many of these factors have been changing rather slowly in the last several decades, and utilitarianistic familism, though diminishing gradually, is still the dominant ethos in Hong Kong. However, as most of the former refugees have settled down, the overriding importance of familism will recede, and there is reason to believe that it is receding. More importantly, the changes in the demographic composition in Hong Kong would mean that a growing proportion of the population will be made up of young people who were born in Hong Kong and who have not experienced the turmoils which their parents had witnessed, but, through westernized education, who had much more aspirations for themselves and for the society as a whole. From the data we have collected, it is very clear that the younger generation is much less utilitarianistically familistic than the older generation. Moreover, emotional appeals, particularly in view of the prevalence of social and political injustice in Hong Kong, will have more effects on them, as can be seen in the 1966 and 1967 riots where the young people played a very significant role. The gradual erosion of parental authority and the diminution of social control exercised by the families, together with the continual modernization of Hong Kong whereby more and more demands will be directed to the decision-makers in the government, we can expect more and more emotionally-charged aggressive behaviour from the young people unless a stronger sense of identification with the Hong Kong society can be instilled in them and the governmental authority is more efficient in gratifying their aspirations. In view of the fact that there is a number of conspicuous lines of social cleavage in the Hong Kong society (for example, allegiance to the Communist regime vs. allegiance to the Nationalist regime, the poor versus the rich, the Chinese versus the British), any social issue, if repeatedly unresolved, will have serious political reverberations. Under the dominance of utilitarianistic familism, there is still a minimum of consensus among the Chinese people as to the major societal goals to be sought and to be respected by all, and the government so far is capable and flexible enough to contribute to the fulfillment of those goals which fall within its jurisdiction, hence these potential social cleavages are made to become relatively dormant. The inevitable decline of utilitarianistic familism in the future does not mean that the Hong Kong Chinese can be politically organized, it simply means that some of the activist and aggressive tendencies in the Chinese culture will be more difficult to suppress, and hence bringing havoc to the society.
NotePublisher's name also in Chinese on cover;
Includes bibliographical references
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