Transition Project - The Introduction


Hong Kong Transition Project - The introduction


Project Background

The project began in early 1989 with four members, Donald H. McMillen, Michael E. DeGolyer, K. K. Leung, and B. Karin Chai. They intended at that time to conduct a smaller study of two key groups, students and union members. As with so much else in Hong Kong, the events of May and June 1984 transformed the project parameters. Politics, which seemed in late 1988 to be in a rather incipient state focused on an elite, rapidly turned into a mass phenomenon, reverberating deeply into the society. Acknowledging the changing circumstances, and adding Jane C.Y. Lee to the group later in 1989, the team in this early phase focused on activists, demonstrations, and preparations for the 1991 elections, the first to have any directly elected Legislative Council members.

Today, the project has advanced considerably in membership, methods, and comprehension of the context and dynamics of Hong Kong politics. Its results have been cited worldwide in a variety of academic, government, and media contexts. Members have contributed both to scholars' understanding of, and by responsible, informed media briefings, to the Hong Kong people's own understanding of their political development.

Project Summary

This longitudinal, multimethod project analyses the nature and direction of political development over the transition period of 1984- 1997. The researchers are currently conducting longitudinal tracking of political development during the 1994-95 period of intensive electioneering and party activity. The project also involves research into two fundamental aspects of the transition from British Colony to Chinese SAR: party development and function, particularly at the grassroots level, and socio-political volatility. These aspects of political development are examined through the identification and interview of politically active elites, social groups, and interest groups; in-depth social sector and random surveys; and photo-validated visual observation of election campaigning.

Project Significance

The significance of this project lies in its longitudinal and in-depth documentation and analysis of the nature and direction of politics in a highly developed, highly educated and traditionally internationally- oriented capitalist Hong Kong now undergoing decolonization, which is simultaneously within a unique situation of integration into a far less developed, less educationally endowed, and traditionally xenophobic socialist China, itself undergoing rapid and uneven modernization. Such a unique context of clashing political cultures in itself justifies close study by scholars, as the quotations to the left advocate, but of greater significance to the people of China and Hong Kong themselves is the disproportionate impact that the economic and political behavior the six million people of Hong Kong are having on the modernization processes and international standing of their sovereign to be, the PRC. A detailed, documented, and longitudinal interdisciplinary study of political development in Hong Kong provides an invaluable database for understanding not only local political development but also the model which inspires, or challenges, that of key groups in the PRC.

What do Experts have to say about research methods

Since the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the forms and processes of political legitimacy, political leadership and participation, and the institutional frameworks of Hong Kong have undergone rapid, continuous change. The pattern and dynamics of these changes from the Joint Declaration through 1991, when Hong Kong held its first direct elections to Legco, were the focus of Phase I of this project. Phase I research and funding ended in 1993. Phase II of this long-term project, for which initial funds have been allocated by the Research Grants Council through 1994 and from which additional funds have been requested for 1995-96, continues and intensifies research on these foci, and examines in more depth and detail the continuing development of Hong Kong political culture during the crucial period 1994-95. During the period, the process will again culminate with elections, those of 1995, the final set under British supervision. For the first time in its history, the Legislative Council will have all but three ex-officio members "elected" by one means or another. The development of political parties will have reached what may be their high point, and the Hong Kong people will have selected, in an open, public process, their preferred leadership.

Methods, and Why They're Important

Project research has compelled us to join many other researchers in questioning orthodox models of political development, at least in the circumstances of Hong Kong, and to therefore develop alternative, more applicable models and theories which better explain our empirical data. It appears that, for Hong Kong, paradigmatically employing the more orthodox understanding of political development a la the "standard model" of Almond and Verba and the modified but recognizable practices of prior British decolonization may hinder comprehensive understanding of the political development process in Hong Kong.

From our research, political development in Hong Kong is taking place within a matrix of tensions, trends, and transformations which wholly affects the nominal, formal, and informal frameworks and processes of political development. The standard assumptions of political development theory and comparative politics must be reformulated, both for adequate explanatory purposes in the case of Hong Kong and for predictive efficacy.

Project members have thus realized as research progressed that Hong Kong presents a unique challenge to any of the models and experiences described before. The events of late 1989 and 1990 in Europe and elsewhere sparked major revisions in the thinking and methods of many social scientists, especially when it came to politics and political development. As a consequence, the team decided to take a considered grounded theory and longitudinal approach as well as their original comparative approach. Research into new methodologies, and conviction that the empirical data and environment themselves compelled closer and closer analysis via a variety of means and from several disciplinary and national perspectives, led the team to seek to develop an integrated database and teamwork process. The challenges of the sensitive environment of research in Hong Kong required us to attempt not only a variety of approaches to data gathering and analysis, but also the far more difficult task of data triangulation and hence a teamworked multimethod approach.

Back to Basics

The Basic Law model of democratic development and decolonization runs head on into Hong Kong's unique history and culture. The existence of this cultural conflict, however, is acknowledged even while it is denied. The preamble to the Basic Law states: "Hong Kong has been part of the territory of China since ancient times . . . "and continues to assert that its recovery has been "the long-cherished common aspiration of the Chinese people . . . ." But it also notes that "taking account of its history and realities" the "socialist system and policies will not be practised in Hong Kong." It is part of China but apart from it, now, and if Article 5 of the Basic Law is observed, for at least fifty years into the future. Behaviors on the mainland considered subversive, such as criticism of the government, printing of statistical reports in the media and criticism of the PLA or even the selling of pornography, so often attacked as subversive of communist "socialist morality," are common in 1990s Hong Kong. How the troublesome terms of treason, subversion and theft might be interpreted, and what might happen if the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region falls out with the National Peoples Congress over interpretation and enforcement of these laws, remain unclear. China's definition and enforcement of its own laws in this area have varied so much over the decades since 1949 that no one knows how or whether another change in this regard might be imposed on Hong Kong despite the promises of no change for fifty years in its way of life and capitalist system.

Thus the cultural assumptions of China, even there under attack, and the cultural assumptions of the Basic Law guaranteed (but not defined) "way of life" of Hong Kong, form the locus of conflict. No current theory adequately describes, explains, or projects the effects of these deep cultural conflicts between and among mainland China and Chinese and Hong Kong and its inhabitants, yet it is these cultural conflicts, not the Basic Law, or the PRC Constitution and the Chinese Communist Party, which will determine the course of events. Focus on documents or elites, or any one aspect, by any one method, thus fails to draw a full picture of processes in Hong Kong. Research then, must be comprehensive, multi-level, integrated, empirical, and longitudinal as well as comparative. This requires a team approach, with specialists agreeing to share data and analyses in their raw state.

How and Why We Gather Data

The general weakness of most writings on Hong Kong politics arises from the use of non-longitudinal, monomethod and/or non-synthetic approaches by either exclusively locals or non-locals, with no international team efforts devoted to theory-building and to testing a Hong Kong derived and appropriate interpretive paradigm via multimethod analysis. To redress these imbalances, the multi- disciplinary, gender mixed, multinational research team employs the methods listed at left, some of them tried and well understood, others innovative and experimental at this stage. These are methods of gathering data in the four fundamental research aspects identified by the team during Phase I:

  1. The processes of political activation and disaffection;
  2. The structural transition of political relations from civil service colonialism to party dominated interactive politics and the role of elections in that process;
  3. The components and interactions of socio-political volatility; cognitive and affective processes in the political behavior related to the above.

Testing of the hypotheses generated by research in these aspects necessitates longitudinal interviewing of members of sensitive groups, monitoring of relevant social statistics, observation and collection of documentation of trends, and surveys of both sensitive social sector groups and the general population. The project has adapted approaches and sought cooperative team members with strengths and interests in the respective areas of grass roots and elite interviewing, surveying, documentary analysis, and campaign analysis. (Our Data Collection Methods) The schedule of research involves continuation of in-depth interviews with political activists who will be or are playing significant roles in the politics of Hong Kong over the transition period. A series of telephone surveys have been conducted and are planned during the crucial 1994-95 election year to provide the essential element of data from the electorate/general populace. Other surveys are planned for specific social sector groups. We also intend to conduct one campaign period survey and post-election survey respectively prior to and following each scheduled election.

Michael Carley in Social Measurements and Social Indicators pinpointed the major weakness in most research concerned with social indicators: " . . . social indicators, virtually by definition, specify causal linkages or connections between observable aspects of social phenomena, which indicate, and other unobservable aspects or concepts, which are indicated. This can only be accomplished by postulating implicitly or explicitly, some causal model or theory of social behavior which serves to relate formally the variables under consideration. All social indicator research represents, therefore, some social theory or model, however simplistic. Much research to date laying claim to the term 'social indicator' research consists either of descriptive social statistics, which some people have argued are not social indicators at all, or of implicit postulations of causal linkages. It is argued here that the failure to make explicit an underlying theory or model impedes the development of social indicators." (Our Data Analysis Methods)

Making explict the underlying theory, both of data collection and data analysis, is a major goal of our research. The research team realizes that while mutiple methods and theories have advantages, there are many problems and difficulties posed by by such complex approaches. The technique of methodological triangulation (analagous to land survey geometric triangulation) offers a critical means of improving analyses. Data triangulation, according to Nigel and Jane Fielding in Linking Data includes

  1. data triangulation by time (longitudinal and cross-sectional) or space (comparative) or level (individual, group, collective);
  2. investigator triangulation, "where more than one person examines the same situation;"
  3. theory triangulation, where competing theories are used to examine a situation; and
  4. methodological traingulation (same method, different times, and different methods, same time). As the Fieldings put it: "Triangulation puts the researcher in a frame of mind to regard his or her own material critically, to test it, to identify its weaknesses, to identify where to test further doing something different. The role of triangulation is to increase the researcher's confidence so that findings may be better imparted to the audience and to lessen recourse to the assertion of privileged insight." More detail about our methods of data collection and analysis is the subject of the book manuscript now in preparation and a later book under contract. A working paper is available now on this area by request.

Competing and Complementary Models and Theories

Research into the four research aspects spelled out earlier has resulted in a series of models depicting both the profile of empirical data and its theoretical interpretation. We conceive of these models, and others not depicted in this briefing, as working frameworks within which to fit and to question our data.

This model takes a "decision theory" or "choice theory" approach. Research during Phase I and during Phase II has shown four outcomes of political events on people's choices in the process of political development in Hong Kong. The first is "withdrawal" from the process; yet the research team rejects the standard characterization of the vast majority of Hong Kongese as "apathetic" since most non-voting and non- registered informants as well as survey respondents have been shown not to fit this definition. Withdrawal does not mean not caring or even not following political events. Wary watchfulness might better describe this state of withdrawal. The second outcome is anomic or anti-social behaviors as seen, for example, in triad membership or personal destruction (addiction, crime, suicide, and domestic violence). A third outcome is role redefinition, either as an actual or intended immigrant or as a "patriotic Chinese" who rejects the colonial political system altogether. A least 15% of those surveyed fall into the latter category, and around 10% in the former. The final outcome is participation in the developing system, though this participation appears not to be contributing to system stability as most political development theory postulates but to instability due to Hong Kong's unique circumstances. The research team has discovered that events or issues in the rapid socio-political transformation of Hong Kong (such as the June 4 1989 events or the Daya Bay controversy of 1986) pose challenges or spark crises to residents. During such crises, the cultural background or other predisposing factors play key roles in tilting behaviors toward withdrawal or action, while the character factor of toleration for confrontation or dissonance determines ultimately whether that action continues. Among activists, belief in the efficacy of their actions proves crucial in augmenting or alleviating alienation_one of the key elements leading to the heightening of volatility.

Individuals consider politics and legitimacy in a personal matrix of values and orientations and also within a systemic context which focuses, channels, or frustrates individual tendencies. All decisions are event-triggered or event-contingent upon these predisposing personal tendencies and system possibilities. This diagram attempts to portray the matrix of individual values as experienced in Hong Kong. These are expressed as tensions between alternative cultural values and interests.

The lines of color indicate grouped, coherent relations of interests and values which might be characterized as worldviews. The Hong Kong worldview, then, consists of three overlapping, perhaps conflicting but at least composite if not coherent groups of values and interests. While a given person may hold a consistent and coherent worldview according to one or the other of the colored patterns indicated below, conflicting worldviews, and composite worldviews may promote either coherent or incoherent behaviors and values depending on the specific mix or conflict. Cognitive dissonance may be sourced to personal values undergoing stress as Hong Kong's socio-political system changes in the transition.

The Diagram uses a color scheme to denote various value orientations, with green indicating predominately "westernized" economic interests and values, gold so-called stereotypical "Chinese" traditional interests and values, and red indicating "socialist" interests and values. It presents in visual terms actual alignments observed in the course of Hong Kong political development. "Conservative" elements with OBE's and long service to the Crown have been seen to align themselves with the most "conservative" of mainland hard-liners in advocating authoritarian values and structures of government. Reformers on the mainland have sought and cemented an increasing number of ties with business interests in Hong Kong and with international investors. The reformers have become advocates of increased legal sophistication and international rule keeping within China as well as advocates of foreign trade. Reformers in Hong Kong, who advocate increased social spending and welfare reform, find themselves curiously at odds with conservative mainland cadres who are nominally socialist but who have joined with the most reactionary of Hong Kong business interests to stifle social spending increases and improved welfare in Hong Kong.

What is Socio-political Volatility, and Does it Matter?

Socio-political volatility is defined as conflict among systems in societies where the question of which socio-political system and values will prevail is central. For example in a stock market, volatility occurs when investors are uncertain whether it is a bull market or bear market. When the direction of market is clear, then volatility (rapid and violent fluctuation) is much reduced. In societies torn between systems, such as Russia or Hong Kong at this time, the values, connections, beliefs, and commitments of a person may or may not be advantageous or "profitable." This creates rapid fluctuations in opinion and beliefs, and lays a groundwork for violent confrontation between those struggling for one system or another, or who are in fear of having their present system or value/ideologies destroyed. In the 1970s and before Hong Kong experienced great systemic stability, with lines of communication and responsibility well understood by the small group of participants concerned, as depicted below. Following the series of three elections of 1991, especially that to the Legislative Council in September, and the replacement of Sir David Wilson by Chris Patten in July 1992, Hong Kong underwent rapid formal and informal structural redevelopment. These changes visibly increased the sources of instability and confusion.

The increased system volatility is made graphic in this chart. The civil service, increasingly moved from the center of the government structure, has shown unhappiness at its non-central position, and increasingly the area of political action has been dominated by political parties which recently set up help lines to deal with complaints about government or calls for legal advice and aid with problems. Public opinion has become a major focus of concern for a number of entities, and public opinion has become a factor of influence in reality for the first time. The intentional isolation of social groups has been ended, thus allowing the aggregation of interests process to operate effectively for the first time in Hong Kong, and Legco members increasingly participate in a larger and larger number of committees and community groups in an attempt to maintain contact and control in the proliferating outlets generated by what is in effect becoming a new system of government. Outside powers no longer mediate all their actions through authorized, government channels, but both act on and are acted on by various groups and use the media directly as an influence and commentary on events.

Systemic conflict may also be seen in the development of the formal structures of government. The central part of this diagram relating to the governor and Legco presents the formal structures and levels of Hong Kong government as they appeared in 1982-1989. The levels of government, usually described as three in number, in reality number six, counting the government organized and sponsored Area Committees and Mutual Aid Committees and other bodies as the lowest, District Boards as the second tier, Urban and Regional Councils as third, Legco as fourth, Exco as fifth, and the Governor as the sixth level. If the UK government is considered, as it should be, and as it has been operatively, as a higher level of government above the governor, then a seventh level should be denoted. The lowest level of government, the real "grass-roots" level of Area Committees and Mutual Aid Committees begun in 1973, has been a hitherto neglected aspect both of government legitimacy and of the development of democratic participation and of Hong Kong identity. The project members have targeted this lowest level of government, the level where people act "politically" in an everyday or ordinary manner, in Phase II.

With the signing of the Sino-British declaration in late 1984 the PRC began to increasingly contest the formal structures of Hong Kong government. In effect, a "shadow government" has been built, with its own bodies, boards, and committees. Increasingly this shadow government (depicted to the "left" of the nominal government) vies for the effective control and allegiance of Hong Kongese. According to project surveys, the Preliminary Working Committee members and Legco members particularly have clearly been identified by Hong Kongese as rivals.

But the two sovereign governments have not been left to themselves in the competition to provide organized means of governance. While Beijing promised and London allowed a degree of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, the Hong Kong people themselves have been busily organizing their own political parties. These parties (on the right of the diagram) have even begun to provide free legal assistance and an ombudsmen and information service rivaling anything offered by both the formal and shadow governments. There are now over 10 parties or quasi parties in Hong Kong.

If anything, the diagram above understates the sources of legitimacy crisis, for there are three additional sources of contention over power and governance. The first is the structurally ensconced civil service. For long they functioned as the effective government of Hong Kong, virtually supplanting and ignoring both their nominal masters, the British, and their supposed objects of service in the representative formal governing bodies. A second source of contention over power is the triads. They originally were political organizations created to overthrow the Manchus. Over time they became more involved in illegal activities than politics, but they have always manifested interest in, and action on, governing bodies and civil service in Hong Kong. The third source arises from the numerous foreign governments which have offered passports and citizenship schemes which in effect offer still other routes of allegiance and still more claims of legitimacy. These numbers are considerable, ranging from well over 200,000 people with British passports to scores of thousands with US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and other passports.

These contending loyalties and identities contribute to behaviors which can now be seen, and to others which, on the basis of comparative research and theoretical construction, can now be projected, as at left. Certainly, stability and prosperity is the intended outcome of the Basic Law. Many Hong Kong people themselves have manifested other reactions to the transition uncertainties. (Predicted Reactions Through 1997) Flight has been chosen by at least 60,000 per year since 1989, and a consistent 7% have indicated plans to leave whenever surveyed. Over 40% will seek to leave if events happen which they find unacceptable. Statements have been made by the DP which clearly pose an alternative version of nationalism to that held by the CCP, and this is designated as Nationalistic Challenge. Many Hong Kongese demonstrate passive cultural patriotism, designating themselves as "Chinese" when asked their self-identity, and expressing a preference for reunification. But the directions of Cantonese Regionalism and Nationalistic Adaptation may only now be discerned from history and indicative behaviors. Internationalism has been cited by the PRC itself as a concern, though this "threat" may clearly be seen as aggressive cultural challenges along the line of western concepts of democracy and human rights, or the more welcome line of western investment and modern management and business techniques.

During Phase I of the Hong Kong Transition Project (1989-1993) the research team developed cooperative methods of investigation through methodological and/or topical areas of interest. One member leads each particular area of research with at least one other member serving as backup and/or collaborator. Full team meetings are held monthly, with more frequent meetings as task deadlines determine. Sub-teams meet on a more frequent basis, according to research or publication timetables. Contact by phone, fax or E-mail among researchers and with the research associate/assistants approaches a daily basis. Collaboration is on a full disclosure to fellow researchers basis, and all agree on release of data, shared credit for cooperatively derived data, individual credit or sub team credit for research papers, presentations, or media release developed by team member(s). (What we've done) Priorities and deadlines are determined in team meetings, as are employment and supervision of research assistance.

Socio-political volatility surveys are conducted twice yearly and the full reports are available for a small donation to the research project funds. Briefings and consultations may also be arranged. Please contact the Research Office by send us an e-mail: