Belief in the Rule of Law and its Resilience in the Hong Kong Political Identity
Dr Wai-man Lam is an Associate Professor at the Open University of Hong Kong and below offers a summary of her book chapter, entitled ‘Belief in the Rule of Law and its Resilience in the Hong Kong Political Identity’, in Cora Chan and Fiona de Londras (eds.) China’s National Security: Endangering Hong Kong’s Rule of Law?
This article reconstructs the popular understanding of the rule of law in Hong Kong and investigates the resilience of the belief in the rule of law and related cultural concepts. It argues that the understanding of the rule of law has been disputed since colonial time, and has become even more controversial in recent years in Hong Kong. Methodologically, this article employs primary data of the Asian Barometer Surveys and past survey data published by other scholars for investigating into the popular belief in the rule of law in Hong Kong.
Using the ‘level concept’ of the rule of law proposed by Benny Tai – a law professor sentenced for launching the Occupy Central (2014), this article shows how the conceptions of democracy, freedom and rights, and justice intertwined have prevailed and constituted the belief in the rule of law in Hong Kong. The rule of law has four levels according to Tai. The first is the existence of law – monitoring major activities in society. The second is regulation by law - requiring effective mechanisms to ensure the rule of law. The third is limitation by the law - constraining governmental powers. And the fourth level is about using the law to achieve justice - protecting fundamental rights.
The question is to what extent had the principle of rule of law been part of the Hong Kong identity in colonial Hong Kong? Based on past survey data, the article reconstructs the purposes of law as perceived by the people during colonialism, their concepts of good governance and the perceived importance of fundamental rights and democracy. It is found that the different notions of the rule of law, conflicting in nature, signified the divided views on the roles of government and the purposes of law. For instance, the goal of law was diversely seen as for protecting people’s rights or for compelling citizens to abide by the social norms of right and wrong. Past surveys also showed that while people generally agreed on the freedom of speech, a substantial number of respondents entrusted the government to subdue people’s behaviour, including assemblies and advocacy, in times and for the purpose of common interests.
As the rhetoric of the rule of law prevails the Hong Kong polity, this article shows that the controversy on the notion of the rule of law persisted into the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the Mong Kok Riots in 2016. In the Umbrella Movement for example, protestors were instigated by the highest notion of the rule of law to achieve social justice (level four of Tai’s theory), while government officials and pro-establishment factions, contesting for the people’s support, promulgated the idea of ‘law-based governance’ - the core of Xi Jinping’s and hence Beijing’s governing philosophy on Hong Kong.
The question that follows is what are the possible factors that have influenced people’s support for the rule of law in Hong Kong? As argued above, the resilience of the popular belief in the rule of law markedly correlates to popular perceptions of the roles of the government, the concepts of good governance and other political values. In order to explore the possible reasons for the relatively high support for rule of law and examine its resilience in Hong Kong’s culture, the article analyses the primary data of the Asian Barometer Survey Wave IV (ABS4) conducted in Hong Kong in 2016 with a focus on the impact of five sets of independent variables on the rule of law. These variables include socio-economic variables, respondents’ views of freedom and rights, views of democracy, views of political equality and social justice, and identification with China and Hong Kong. A regression analysis found that a stronger conviction in these values entails the endorsement of a higher level of the rule of law principle and a more predictive resilience on the belief in the rule of law than simply demographic factors. Moreover, the article finds that a higher support for the rule of law in Hong Kong is adversely related to a lower degree of pride in the ethnic identity as a citizen of China. Young people in Hong Kong, as commonly assumed, are strong believers in the highest notion of the rule of law. Their insistence and commitment to the justice level of the rule of law, as the article shows, is consolidated on universal values of people’s rights and referencing the evaluation of the imminent global impact of China, while much less because of their age per se.
Lastly, the belief in the rule of Law is significantly correlated to the support for the Umbrella Movement, which implies that the respondents likely saw the incident as a manifestation of the principle of the rule of law. Importantly, the political incidents leading up to and including the Mong Kok Riots in 2016 (aftermath and further political incidents in 2019 pending future research), rather than eroding people’s faith in the rule of law, had increased and actually affirmed the general public’s endorsement of a higher-level notion of the rule of law - this is a very significant development for the Hong Kong polity worthy of further research.