Capitalism and the Yearning for Freedom in Hong Kong

The New York Sun proposes awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Hong Kong, where demonstrators have been defying Beijing in order to demand their promised democratic rights. Great idea — but it is Hong Kong that would dignify the prize, not the other way around. Hong Kong’s people have acted with courage and grace in the face of one of the world’s most powerful dictatorships.


Their grievances are quite real. These demonstrations cap 30 years of betrayal, first by Britain and then by China. As I recount in an article for the Weekly Standard, in a post-colonial era that saw other British colonies gain independence, Hong Kong was turned over in 1997 to China. The people of Hong Kong never had a say. This was supposed to be mitigated by the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which China — under Deng Xiaoping’s promise of “One Country, Two Systems” — agreed that Hong Kong would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” and democratic self-rule in all matters except foreign policy and defense. But genuine democracy did not materialize. Instead, after years of evasion and delay, China this summer produced the plan: in 2017, Hong Kong’s people would be allowed to vote for their chief executive — with the cynical proviso that Beijing would, de facto, choose the candidates.

Hong Kong’s people rejected this in the only way left to them. They took to the streets. They did this in the long shadow of China’s bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. They refused to kowtow to the dictates of China’s Communist Party (which keeps China’s own Nobel Peace laureate, Liu Xiabo, imprisoned). They protested peacefully. They did their best to keep order, even when pro-Beijing goons descended on some of them last Friday. They did not riot. They did not loot. They did not threaten violence. They cleaned up after themselves, and asked again and again for their rights.


What accounts for this movement? Isn’t Hong Kong supposed to be a center of crass commercialism, its people dedicated to making money, as the apolitical wards of first Britain and now China?

Obviously, there’s more to it.

The world has had little interest in recent times in the argument that capitalism helps foster democracy. Free market ideas are broadly out of fashion. But I would suggest that free markets have a great deal to do with the admirable culture on display in Hong Kong.

Under the British, as a Crown Colony, Hong Kong was expected to pay for itself. This was accomplished with a system that combined British rule of law with a free market. It was a powerful mix. Despite the erosion of this system since the 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong retains enough economic freedom to rank as the world’s freest economy in the Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Index of Economic Freedom.

What does that mean in practice? Hong Kong is a small, densely populated place with virtually no natural resources apart from its harbor. Back in 1957, an article in the Atlantic described Hong Kong island as a rock with “no more natural resources than Rockefeller Center.” There is no oil. There is very little land. Certainly there have been no enormous aid programs from the United Nations or the development agencies of assorted industrialized nations. Everything you see in those spectacular pictures of the Hong Kong skyline was created by the sweat and ingenuity of the people who live there — many of whom are descended from refugees who arrived destitute, having fled Communist China. There was no dedicated UN agency waiting to subsidize them, a la UNRWA. Instead, there were free markets, low taxes and rule of law, with the resulting chance to find work, and to thrive.


That is still the culture of Hong Kong, imbued with a sense of individual responsibility. That’s why you’ve been reading about demonstrators trying to juggle their schedules to fit in both work and protests. It should be no surprise that when Beijing tried to play Hong Kong’s people like sheep, they finally stood up — regardless of the risks — to reject the sham and to demand the promised right to choose their own leaders in a political free market, a process also known as free and fair elections.


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