The administrative absorption of politics in Hong Kong, with special emphasis on the City District Officer scheme


Jin, Yaoji

TitleThe administrative absorption of politics in Hong Kong, with special emphasis on the City District Officer scheme
PublisherSocial Research Center, the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Publication DateMay 1973
Keywords:Local government

Politics and government

Abstract/ Concluding Remarks:In this paper we have pointed out that Hong Kong as a colonial city may share some features with other cities in the Third World, which also have been baptized by rapid urbanization. But, Hong Kong is unique in one basic sense that other cities in Asia or in other developing areas, with the exception of Singapore, part of total national system, while Hong Kong is a totality in itself: Hong Kong is a city-state. The focus of this paper is on the political side of city life. We have argued that political life is not an epiphenomenon; it is not just the reflection of socio-economic structure. Politics has a life of its own, and politics should be treated as both a dependent and an independent variable, this is especially necessary in order to understand the cities in the so-called Third World. In the case of Hong Kong, we found that it’s particular brand of politics shapes and is also shaped by the socio-economic structure of the society.

We have attempted to provide a conceptual framework to describe and analyze the nature of the political system of Hong Kong. Basically we are of the opinion that Hong Kong’s political stability in the last hundred years could be accounted for primarily by the successful process of the administrative absorption politics. The administrative absorption of politics is a process through which the British governing elites coopt or assimilate the non-British socio-economic elites into the political-administrative decision-making bodies, thus, attaining an elite integration on the one hand and a legitimation of political authority on the other. We have witnessed a system of synarchy, through lopsided, or closed to what Professor Endacott called “government by discussion” operated in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not a democracy, but the government does have a special brand of politics which is concerned with the opinion of the governed. However, the synarchy or “government by discussion” is only open to a rather small sector of the population: men of wealth, established or new. The ingenuity of the British governing elites is in their sophisticated response in timely enlarging and modifying the structure of ruling bodies by coopting or assimilating emerging non-British socio-economic elites into “we” group at critical periods. Consequently, any strong counter-elite groups are prevented from being developed in the first place. In short, Hong Kong has been governed by an elite consensus in the last century or so. However, it is our contention that elite consensus or integration could constitute a sufficient condition for legitimacy of government only in a society in which the political stratum is rather small; but once a society is baptized by rapid urbanization, or more specifically, social mobilization, whereby the apolitical strata transform into politically relevant strata, then, it is not elite consensus or integration, but elite-mass consensus or integration which becomes necessary for a stable political system. Hong Kong has in the last two decades been undergone that exact process of social mobilization. Hong Kong today is no longer just an economic city but also a political city; more people, especially the young literates, demand ever-increasing participation in the political decision-making process. The riots of 1966 and 1967 exemplify the gap between the governing bodies and the masses. The basic problem of legitimacy in Hong Kong today lies not in elite dis-consensus but in the elite-mass gap.

Hong Kong Government’s response to the political crises of 1966 and 1967 was not more democracy, but the creation of the City District Officers Scheme, again, a special brand of politics. The explicit goal in the establishment of the CDO Scheme is to bridge the so-called “information gap” between the Government and the people, or to achieve an elite-mass consensus or integration. But, it seems to us that the CDO Scheme could be best understood as an extension of administrative absorption of politics at the local level. As discussed above, the CDO Scheme is in the some measure a plausible administrative-political mechanism response to the problems facing the big cities; centralization and bureaucratization. The CDO in theory and to some extent in actuality has removed the bureaucratic wall between the Government and the people; has made the Government more intelligible to the governed; has humanized the impersonal bureaucracy and has mitigated the political alienation of the politically weak. It is no exaggeration to say that the CDO has performed a significant role in administratively absorbing community politics through various mechanisms, such as Monthly Meeting, Study Group, and other formal or informal structures. One thing certain is that the CDO in Kwun Tong has tried very hard to bring the “government by discussion” to the district level. In a community like Kwun Tong where no strong voluntary associations are fully developed, the CDO does play a vital boundary role linking together the polity and the society.

But, it should be emphatically noted that despite the usefulness of the CDO Scheme at the district, especially as a communication facilitator, the CDO Scheme has its limited function as an administrative absorber of community politics, and this will become more evident when community life becomes progressively politicalized in scale. Some fundamental features of urban life in Hong Kong seem to be working in the direction that despite the artificial administrative-political boundaries defined by the CDO Scheme; no important socio-economic-political issue is confined to any District, that is to say, all important public issues tend to be escalated to a level which could only be solved at the centre of the political system of Hong Kong. The CDO Scheme is good at handling personal problems but not public issues. Not only the image but the actuality of limited power of the CDO has seemingly led people in the community to believe that big and sensitive issues could not afford to leave to the CDO, instead, they feel the only effective way is to march to the centre of powers, ultimately, of course, the Governor House which is the symbol of authority of the city state. The best case at hand was the Jordan Valley Hawker issue in March 1972 in which the CDO of Kwun Tong was considered by Hawker protestors not important enough to speak to, and they approached the Resettlement Department first, then , to the Colonial Secretariat, and then finally to the Governor House. And this seems to be the pattern of “politics of escalation” in Hong Kong.

The last point we would like to make is that the Government’s diagnostic statement which Hong Kong’s current problem between the Government and the people as an “information gap” is at best a half-truth, another half-truth might be due to incompatibility of goals or interests between the elite and the masses. Politics is not just who knows what and how, but also who gets what and how. The CDO Scheme is effective in bridging the information gap which result from misunderstanding or misperception of the goals or interests between the rulers and the ruled, but it is too much to be expected to reconciliate the conflict out of incompatibility of goals or interests between the governors and the governed, therefore, it cannot be that useful as an administrative absorber of community politics as such. All in all, the CDO Scheme can be no substitute for sound and responsive government itself, and it certainly is no panacea for urban politics.

Hong Kong today is facing a new challenge of policy which arises basically from rapid urbanization. The kinds of issues and problems of this city-state have become increasingly a political nature. How Hong Kong can maintain a viable political system for years to come poses a question of the first order to the students of the art or the science of governing. The century-old practice of administrative absorption of politics which has contributed to the stability of the city-state up to the present cannot be free from being subjected to change either in form or in substance, or in both.
NoteBibliography: leaves 39-44
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