China Centrum Tübingen (CCT)

Workshop: Hong Kong: The Decline of a Liberal Enclave in an Illiberal State

Hong Kong made international headlines in 2014 when thousands of people occupied major roads to demand the introduction of meaningful democracy, which they believed had been promised during the transfer of power from liberal British to illiberal Chinese control. The protest, dubbed Umbrella Revolution, eventually lasted for 79 days and involved almost a quarter of the population. Among those who participated, the movement fostered a strong civic identity centered around the local political community that should be defended and improved. However, as the protests failed to achieve the goal of “real universal suffrage”, divisions between moderates and radicals grew. The fact that liberal democracy was made impossible due to the political control by a domineering illiberal regime strengthened a budding “localist” movement which called for full autonomy, a return to British control, or even independence. While this was a logical extension of the failure of democratization as democracy requires some form of self-determination, it deeply worried the Chinese government in Beijing which perceives these calls as a fundamental threat to national unity. As a consequence, the persistent deliberalization process accelerated, increasingly threatening the very foundations of the Special Administrative Regions’ separate political system. Nevertheless, while Hong Kong’s status as a liberal enclave within China continues to be eroded, it is unlikely that the Chinese government will take full control and completely abandon the “one country, two systems” principle which is important for the Chinese as well as the Hong Kong economy. Instead, it is more likely that the liberal authoritarian regime will be replaced by an illiberal polity that merely maintains the facade of two different systems.

Stephan Ortmann is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong and a core member of the university’s Southeast Asian Research Centre. He currently teaches on politics and society in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, as well as social research methods. He has worked on various aspects of political and social change in East and Southeast Asia, with an emphasis on Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and China. In 2008, he received his PhD in political science from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg with a comparative study of political change in Singapore and Hong Kong. Since then, he has worked at the FernUniversität in Hagen (Germany), Chinese University of Hong Kong, and City University of Hong Kong. His publications have appeared in many prominent academic journals including Asian Survey, China Quarterly, Journal of Democracy, Pacific Review, State and Society, and Government and Opposition. He is also the author of Managed Crisis: Legitimacy and the National Threat in Singapore (VDM, 2009), Politics and Change in Singapore and Hong Kong: Containing Contention (Routledge, 2010) and Environmental Governance in Vietnam: Institutional Reforms and Failures (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).