Academic journal article China Perspectives

Alive and Well but Frustrated: Hong Kong's Civil Society

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Alive and Well but Frustrated: Hong Kong's Civil Society

Article excerpt

Hong Kong's civil society is alive and well. As social awareness rises and citizen wealth grows, a greater number of residents give time to civil society activi- ties and more private resources are put into community-build- ing endeavours-the philanthropy sector is therefore growing. Yet, there is much frustration among civil society actors. The problem lies with the city's politics. The unique nature of the political system where elections do not return a government produces a very special kind of disarticulation and disconnec- tion between power-holders and other political actors and non-governmental groups (NGOs). Moreover, the Chinese Community Party's "united front" activities to support pre- ferred candidates at elections, as well as certain official posi- tions, have the effect of distorting "public opinion" especially in matters relating to constitutional development, where Bei- jing plays a highly interventionist role. Yet, there seems to be something irrepressible about the people of Hong Kong as a whole, who have been willing to come out in very great num- bers when they feel their way of life is threatened. The politi- cisation of Hong Kong people and their NGOs continue as the realisation grows that good governance requires active cit- izenship and institutions within a political system that allows for societal conflicts to be settled by means that have genuine public support. There is a tussle with Beijing over process, which ultimately determines whether the HKSAR's power- holders have the legitimacy to govern.

This article will first provide an overview of Hong Kong's NGOs before looking at how they function to fulfil their missions, and how they fit into the city's politics and Bei- jing's role, before coming to concluding observations.

H ong Kong's Third Sec tor

It is accepted in academic circles for NGOs to be cate- gorised as part of a distinct organisational sector that has a unique identity and characteristic features. This sector is often referred to as the "Third Sector" to set it apart from the government and commercial sectors. Its vitality comes from shared values among the actors rather than a drive for direct political power or commercial gains, as is the case for the other two sectors respectively. In many societies people come together to further collective values, perhaps through dedicating time and money to benevolent causes, civic and humanitarian need, religious and spiritual beliefs, or through new ideas for secular progress. Hong Kong is no different. The most authoritative study of Hong Kong's civil society was commissioned by the HKSAR Government's Central Policy Unit in 2002 and published in 2004. The Study of the Third Sector Landscape in Hong Kong (Study) looked at the history and organisation of non-profit, voluntary and self-governing NGOs in their aims, structures and opera- tions. The Study covered NGOs in many fields, including arts and culture, economy, environment, education, health, human rights, law, philanthropy, politics, sports and recre- ation, religion and welfare, and identified over 16,660 NGOs in Hong Kong as of 2002((1).

In its review of history of the Third Sector, the Study noted that over 85% of NGOs were formed after 1946?many be- tween 1986 and 1997((2). Indeed, there was a new phase of NGO evolution in the 1980s, as Hong Kong prepared for the transfer of sovereignty from British to Chinese rule, and as elections had to be introduced to fulfil the promise in the Sino-British Joint Declaration that the legislature would be elected. District Boards with a measure of election were in- troduced in 1982 as a laboratory for democratisation, and a number of legislators were elected by functional constituency (special interest groups, including corporate voting) in 1985 and 1988. The 1989 Tiananmen crackdown marked a turn- ing point in popular attitude towards political participation and a belief that democracy would be the best guarantee for the city's liberal way of life. …

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