The government, intermediate organizations and grass-roots politics in Hong Kong


Lau Siu-kai

TitleThe government, intermediate organizations and grass-roots politics in Hong Kong
PublisherSocial Research Center, the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Publication DateAugust, 1980
Keywords:Political participation

Political socialization

Abstract/ Concluding Remarks:We have documented two coexistent processes in Hong Kong which have lead to changes in the interaction patterns between the government and the ordinary people. One process is the depletion of voluntarism, resulting in the decline of intermediate organizations with traditionalistic outlooks, and the failure to supplant them with modernist forms of intermediate organizations, especially locality organizations. The other process is the increasing assumption of service-delivery roles and functions by the government, which turns it into the major dispenser of benefits in society. The main political outcomes of these processes are the politicization of social needs and the structural necessity of the ordinary people to approach the government for need satisfaction. The inability of the defunct intermediate organizations, which are used to be politically docile and deferential, to moderate these demands and to accommodate them within the social sector (so that they will not plague the political sector) has unleashed political demand which overload the politico-administrative apparatus. As the government has opted not to delegate resources and authority to society through nurturing indigenous social organizations and political decentralization, direct interaction between the government and the people without the mediating services of intermediate social groups is the natural outcome. Concomitant with increasing direct political contacts between the two parties is growing indiscipline on the part of the groups engaged in demand-making. In such a situation, the government has turned itself into a merely reactive mechanism, not being able to direct grass-roots politics in accordance with its preference.

The government might be correct in deciding that it is politically and financially costly to resuscitate social organization and to decentralize politically. In our opinion, this option is costly only in the short-run, and in the long-run it will be less expensive than the option of further administrative penetration now undertaken by the government. Our argument hinges upon an expectation that, once a viable social infrastructure has been built, it will generate a momentum of its own to provide more and more social initiative and resources to meet social needs. With the contributions of social resources, administrative overload can be alleviated. The insertion of an intermediate layer between the government and the people will necessarily be depoliticizing, as it is comparatively easier to co-opt a limited number of local leaders into the political process than to control a huge, unruly mass of people. Political and administrative control will thus be augmented by social control. However, long-term solutions of this kind may not appeal to the limited time-span of the administration. While short-term panacea is looked for, further administrative penetration is the automatic choice.

The strategy of further administrative penetration as envisaged by the government is, in our opinion, only a lukewarm and hence ineffective attempt at depoliticization and political integration of the ordinary people. The government simply lacks the coercive means and the will to fabricate a total administrative society. As a result, the penetrative effort, though executed, does not go far enough to reach the grass-roots level. The proposed reforms in local administration, though enlarging the political arena so that more people can participate in the decision-making process, will only benefit the middle strata. The lower strata, without organizations and leaders of their own, will still be politically deprived. The introduction of adult franchise will not affect our prediction. With only limited functions, the Urban Councillors will not be able to satisfy the needs of the disadvantaged. The Urban Council election will still not be attractive enough to the ordinary folk. That an institution of election is no guarantee of political integration of the lower strata is a lessen well borne out in the history of many developing countries.

Administrative penetration in Hong Kong, whilst not going far enough, does have the "negative" effect of bringing the government and the people closer to each other, thus further politicizing the latter. The presence of government representatives in the localities provides convenient targets for political demand-making. And the denial of discretionary power to local representative will very easily transform local issues into global political disputes.

The ambivalence of the government toward both intermediate organizations and administrative decentralization has created a very fluid political arena in Hong Kong. Notably, the governmentis straddling between a control and an integrative approach with respect to the ordinary people. Such conflicting goals and their corresponding policy formations are detrimental to political peace, at least in the short run, which might be real long.

If, as Ambrose King has argued, administrative absorption of politics has been successful in depoliticizing Hong Kong in the past, that "past" must have seen a viable social infrastructure which was capable of containing political demands. Events in the late decade and half have exposed the 1imitations of this strategy. Given the limited capability of the political and administrative system, administrative absorption of politics can only be achieved when social accommodation of politics has done its job, so that only a small amount of issues are allowed to trickle through into the administrative and political realm. With the gradual collapse of social accommodation of politics, changes in the political strategy of the Hong Kong government can no longer be procrastinated.
NoteIncludes bibliographical references
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