Can Hong Kong Exceptionalism Last? Dilemmas of Governance and Public Administration over Five Decades, 1970s–2020

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Hong Kong under British rule was a prime example of exceptionalism in many aspects — economic, political, and even social. It was governed under a colonial structure and yet had enjoyed a large degree of social and economic freedom, as well as fiscal self-sufficiency and autonomy from London. After returning to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong has continued to thrive as a relatively resilient city-state still known for efficiency and effectiveness despite tensions and scepticism about its political future.

This book carries decades of academic observations and the author’s personal political experience. It reviews and reflects on the past trajectory of governance and administration, identifying strengths and capabilities as well as constraints and vulnerabilities of Hong Kong as a polity and society, while charting its course of ‘exceptionalism’ within a new context and under changing conditions. As this book concludes, the exceptionalism of Hong Kong not only hinges on institutional arrangements and historical inheritance but also on the statecraft of the administration of the day.

“… This is a text for deep reading, reflection, and deliberation.”

– Professor LUI Tai-lok
Chair Professor of Hong Kong Studies, Director of the Academy of Hong Kong Studies,
Director of the Centre for Greater China Studies, and Former Vice President (Research & Development) at The Education University of Hong Kong

“… a gem … whatever your political stand is, you have to admire Professor Cheung’s thorough observations and profound ideas on what made this city tick…”

– Mr LAM Woon-kwong
Former Secretary for the Civil Service and Secretary for Home Affairs,
and Former Convenor of Non-Official Members of the Executive Council (2012–2017)

“… a compelling addition to the literature on Hong Kong.”

– Professor Darryl S.L. JARVIS
Professor and former Head of the Department of Asian and Policy Studies
at The Education University of Hong Kong

The purpose of this book is to help explain Hong Kong’s path of governance and public administration over the last five decades — a path which has seen many twists and turns, ups and downs, and pride and anxieties, as the city transformed from a British colony into a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China in 1997 and grew under the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’. At a time when confidence in Hong Kong’s future seems to be ebbing away again, especially among the younger generation who bemoan the loss of autonomy under a strong yet non-democratic China, it is particularly critical that we do not lose sight of the evolving historical context by just lamenting the present problems and tensions. Nowadays, political jitters and pessimism abound, which could easily drive populist sentiments about the fall of the Hong Kong system. However, is this a fair assessment of Hong Kong’s accumulated institutional strength or its social and economic achievements both before and after 1997? What is meant by the ‘Hong Kong’ system and values over the decades, where exceptionalism and hybridity seemed to have symbolised the city’s potential as well as vulnerabilities?

I completed the first draft of this manuscript in mid-2019 when the anti-extradition protests against the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 were beginning to explode. Since then, Hong Kong has entered a tumultuous period of political unrest and violent confrontations causing the central government in Beijing to respond harshly. The final manuscript was revised in July last year just as the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) passed the National Security Law in Hong Kong. Then, in March 2021, Beijing announced major changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system to revamp the local political order and rid it of ‘unpatriotic’ elements. Such a highly volatile situation makes it challenging for any writer to comment on Hong Kong’s politics and governance because new developments continue to unfold. It is not yet the time to form any definitive observations on how Hong Kong will evolve into the future. However, the trajectory of the past five decades will inevitably be relevant to the next phase of transformation, for better or worse. The statistics and references cited here are those available up to mid-2020, but new statistics will have come out since then. A Postscript has been added just before publication to give readers a provisional assessment of Hong Kong’s latest overall governance situation.

The year 2019 marked not only the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), to which Hong Kong reverted on 1 July 1997, but was also the centenary of the May Fourth Movement which had inspired generations of Chinese students and revolutionaries seeking to build a strong and modern China free from feudal baggage and foreign subjugation in pursuit of ‘democracy’ and ‘science’ (respectively symbolising participatory governance and social progress sustained by scientific development). China today is keen to embark on another era of Chinese renaissance — the ‘Chinese Dream’.1 However, despite achieving rapid economic growth, there exists wide concern whether its politics and society have been sufficiently liberalised in accordance with the ideals championed by the May Fourth pioneers, some of whom took part in the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that later won the civil war in 1949 and has governed the nation ever since. China’s future forms the larger set in which Hong Kong evolves and transforms.

Introduction  Exceptionalism and Hybridity

Part I   The Legacy

            1   The Making of an Administrative State

            2   Administrative Modernisation

            3   Public Sector Reform

Part II   Transition and Change

            4   Regime Transition and Institutional Changes

            5   A New Ministerial System

            6   The Civil Service System and Reform

            7   Government Capacity and Policy System

            8   From Positive Non-Interventionism to Proactive Government

            9   Government Performance and Trust

Part III   Tensions and Challenges

            10   The Quest for Democracy

            11   A Government Without Parties or Votes

            12   Two Systems, Two Existentialisms

            13   The Rise of Identity Politics

            14   The Wider Governance Debates

Epilogue   Hong Kong Exceptionalism at a Crossroads


Professor Anthony B.L. Cheung is the former President of the Education University of Hong Kong. He joined the civil service under the British administration in the 1970s and worked for various departments over the course of his service before starting his academic career in 1986 at City University of Hong Kong. He has taken part in local politics and was one of the founders of the Democratic Party (in 1994) as well as a member of the Legislative Council and Executive Council. He was also active in think-tanks like Hong Kong Policy Research Institute and The SynergyNet. From 2012–2017, he served in the government as Secretary for Transport and Housing. As an academic, his research focus has been on governance and public administration in Hong Kong as well as comparative public administration in Asia, writing extensively on public sector reform and civil service reform, privatisation, corporatisation, and Asian administrative reforms. He has published numerous journal articles and books on these topics. He helped set up the Governance in Asia Research Center (2002) at The City University of Hong Kong and the Center for Governance and Citizenship (2009) at The Education University of Hong Kong, and was the co-founder of the Asian Forum on Public Management (2001), now the Asian Association for Public Administration (2010).