The intellectually ingenious but practically challenging “one
country-two systems” formula has enabled Hong Kong to maintain its
British-style colonial institutional façade following its absorption into
the Chinese body politic. A high degree of freedom and a measure of
pluralism have been sustained against the backdrop of orderly governance
architecture. However, a gradual process of mainlandization has been under
way, slowly blurring some of the fundamental distinctions between local
structural patterns and processes and those prevailing across the “border”.
Inter alia, threats to judicial autonomy and effectiveness have possibly
emerged. The picture is explored comprehensively and methodically in
this rich set of extensively researched and soundly constructed studies
on the territory’s Court of Final Appeal. Further vital insights could
potentially be generated by actively encouraging scholars from disciplines
other than the law to contribute to the exploration of the crucial issues
raised by the authors.
The transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from democratic United Kingdom
to authoritarian, even if of the increasingly “soft” rather than previously “hard”
variety, China had been a politically, psychologically and, at times, economically
a highly complicated affair. Expectations, initially decidedly cautious, largely
stabilized at the time of the handover and crossing the proverbial Rubicon turned
out to be a generally orderly and relatively painless experience. Nearly two decades
have passed since that diplomatically and emotionally momentous event and the
new post-colonial entity, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the
People’s Republic of China (HKSAR), has continued to move forward, albeit not
always vigorously and smoothly, on some major policy fronts.
In the crucial, strategic value-enhancing and welfare-sustaining, economic domain,
the “goose that lays golden eggs” has lost little lustre. Output expansion has inevitable
moderated because of aging of the population, sharp decline in the birth rate and
structural change featuring a far-reaching shift from manufacturing to services, which
has unavoidably led to some drop in productivity. However, it has remained healthy,
displaying moderate volatility, generating sufficient activity to ensure full employment
by conventional standards, not exerting excessive upward pressure on consumer prices,
and underpinning a persistently robust foreign trade and investment sector.
Hong Kong’s remarkably swift transformation from a leading international
manufacturing centre to a prominent international service centre has coincided
with its emergence as a “global metropolis”, a genuinely worldwide provider of
intermediary services, merely one of a handful of major cities that may claim to
have achieved such an elevated status.
It could be argued that progress in this
direction has slowed down somewhat because of the impact of bottom-up (business
initiatives) and top-down (government strategies, both in Hong Kong and Beijing)
forces driving Hong Kong inexorably towards China. If so, this trend may have to
be placed on the negative side of the post-1997 economic ledger.
On the other hand, post-colonial Hong Kong has evolved into a vibrant linchpin
of the Greater China economy, a development which may be viewed as an offsetting factor in this intricate context. The large interconnected and multi-layered
region for which the territory now effectively functions as an economic nerve centre
encompasses the Hong Kong –– Guangdong nexus/Greater Hong Kong as its core,
Greater Southeast China (Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland’s Southeast coastal
provinces: Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai) as its inner layer
and the Greater China/Chinese economic area/CEA (Hong Kong, Taiwan and the
Mainland) as its outer layer. This entire structure is firmly and productively linked
to the adjacent Northeast Asian and Southeast Asian economies.
Post-1997 Hong Kong has also experienced tangible gains in its social capital.
The territory’s community has traditionally been predominantly family-oriented
or micro-driven. This pattern has been portrayed as “familial utilitarianism/
In recent years, a stronger sense of identity — and, by implication, community — has crystallised at the macro level.
It is not devoid of
negative undertones, because of the significant role that a desire to assume sociopsychological distance from China and unfavourable exposure to Chinese realities
has played in the process.
Nevertheless, progressively deeper community ties and
wider social mobilization may be considered as a valuable asset for Hong Kong.
On the negative side of policy ledger, there has been a marked deterioration
in the environmental quality of life, although the problem predates the transfer of
sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China.
De-industrialisation normally has
the opposite effect, but this has not been the case in Hong Kong. In this respect, the
territory clearly differs from other leading international service centres, where air
and water pollution, and even their noise counterpart, have been prevented from
escalating to levels seen in Hong Kong. The circumstances are of course not entirely
comparable because of complexities arising from the cross-border relationship.
However, it is noteworthy that the mostly pro-Beijing, whether by design or due to
the absence of other realistic options,
post-1997 Hong Kong government has failed
to devise, unilaterally and bilaterally, more effective institutional mechanisms for
arresting ecological degradation.
The institutional space is one where further loss of policy momentum, with
broader ramifications, may be observed. Specifically, there is sufficient evidence,
albeit not quantitative in nature, to support the assertion that decolonisation has led
to an erosion of Hong Kong’s institutional capital.
The contention put forward in this regard, again in qualitative terms but not without empirical foundation,
is that the territory has undergone in the past two decades or so a process of
This has been the result of a deliberate effort by
China, reinforced by the acquiescence of key segments of Hong Kong’s policy
establishment, to bring about a convergence, or at least a greater convergence,
between the institutional façade on both sides of the border.
The strategy, while risking grassroots backlash, is believed to have been quite
successful. Its impact is refl ected in a wide array of symptoms of political decay. Thus,
the post-1997 “HKSAR is characterised by a more personal style of governance;
a chaotic implementation of public policies; an increasingly politicized judiciary
whose decisions have been ... challenged by Beijing and its supporters in Hong
Kong; endangered civil liberties including academic freedom; an amalgamation
of political labelling and mobilisation; a failure of political institutions to absorb
public pressure and demands; and a governmental insensitivity to public opinion”.
This explains the importance of the book under review. The rule of law is
arguably the major ingredient of Hong Kong’s institutional capital, a feature of
the governance regime that may ensure “prosperity” and “stability”, even in the
absence of full-fledged democracy, provided the political centre is adequately
constrained from within and/or without.
Moreover, an autonomous and rule-bound
judiciary, with the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) as its fulcrum, is the mainstay of
the territory’s rule of law system. For this reason, as well as the fact the judiciary
in general and the CFA in particular have not been subject to extensive academic
scrutiny, this broad-in-scope, informative, multifaceted and stimulating survey
merits close intellectual and policy attention.