In an evening, a group of men, disguised themselves as Native American warriors, stealthily boarded the British East India Company tea ship. They were ordered to search for all the tea on the ship, with the due care not to damage anything else. Speedily, they gathered one chest of tea after another, and a total of 342 chests was found. Not being interested to appropriate them, they threw them all overboard. The British armed ships promptly surrounded them. The deeds of these men, known as ‘Boston Tea Party’, draw the curtain for the American War of Independence.
The American War of Independence during 1775–1783 sounds historical and is a distinctive American event that is no way related to Hong Kong. Few realizes, however, that the causes of grievances driving the Boston Tea Party to throw the British tea overboard are strikingly similar to Hong Kong’s demand for democracy and universal suffrage.
The ostensible reason behind the destruction of tea is tax. The Boston Tea Party was appalled by the amount of tax that the British government in England was imposing. However, as Niall Ferguson has noted in Empire, the tax was merely three pences and was gone by 1763. Further, the ‘Party’ was not organized by dissatisfied consumers but wealthy smugglers who had most to lose out. The crux of the matter, therefore, lies not in economic hardship, but in somewhere else.
Likewise, Hong Kong’s call for more accountability and democracy is not grievances merely caused by economic problem. PRC seems unheeded and shows its willful ignorance when it tries to sooth Hong Kong ‘troublemakers’ with RMB offshore dealing and more freewalking that could presumably bring forth more GDP for Hong Kong. However, these measures only served to intensify the desire for democracy and, eventually, benefited the radical parties, which have witnessed a recent surge of popularity.
In both cases, economics is a fog that hides the real cause of the problem. Representation is the heart of the matter. The American colonies had their own representative assemblies that had little power to decide policies made at the Parliament far back in England. The British Governor was ultimately accountable to the Crown, not to the American colonists. Hence the tax issue was nicely put by Samuel Adams as about ‘no tax without representation’.
Hong Kong faces almost exactly the same problem. The Legislative Council has no formal channel to decide Hong Kong policy at the National People’s Congress (NPC). Delegates were sent to represent Hong Kong but these people were in no way elected by Hong Kong people. Moreover, look at the second limb of Article 43 in Basic Law, which reads
“The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be accountable to the Central People’s Government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in accordance with the provisions of this law.” (emphasis added)
In other words, the CE is to be accountable to both PRC and Hong Kong people. However note that the wording places CPG before HKSAR. Nothing is coincidental in legal drafting. It means the CE’s primary accountability shall be to the PRC. Hong Kong is of secondary concern. Therefore, the CE, like the British Governor, is ultimately accountable to a government far back in Beijing, not to the Hong Kong people.
With these striking similarities between Hong Kong and American War of Independence, does this imply that Hong Kong, like those thirteen American colonies, should fight for Independence? That’s where the analogy breaks. First, let’s admit it. Hong Kong is a small tiny island with few resources. Unlike the thirteen American colonies, it can never amass sufficient resources and people to fight a war. Secondly, the American colonies were crucially assisted by the French armies. America was not was going to rage a war against China and to provide any substantial military assistance to a tiny island.
It is, however, not totally hopeless. The coming 2017 Universal Suffrage is an opportunity to address the representation problem, as it gives a chance for Hong Kong people to truly hold the CE accountable with their votes. Nevertheless, I remain very cautiously optimistic of this hope. The Alliance for True Democracy has foolishly proposed a Nomination Committee mechanism that will interfere the kind of candidates to run for the election. The recent speech by Zhang Xiao Ming, the director of the Liaison Office, in the Legislative Council also confirmed the need for a selection process. The road to Universal Suffrage is unsettled. I hope the PRC will learn from the American War of Independence and the lesson that if people’s call for representation went unheeded, a dire consequence will certainly follow.