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Monday 12 October 2015

Comment: 1997 and all that

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 9th October 2014

LGBT/Tongzhi inhabitants of Hong Kong do seem to be involved in pro-democracy protests in the Chinese "Special Administrative Region". But what are the origins of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and how exactly do LGBT/tongzhi activists fit in?

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control after the United Kingdom relinquished its "Crown Colony" status nearly seventeen years ago in 1997, Beijing faced a dilemma. If it simply imposed its orthodox authoritarian control over its newly reacquired domain, then it risked capital and educated professional flight and loss of a lucrative East Asian international business hub. Therefore, Beijing has been walking a tightrope between one-party state centralised control at arm's length and making limited concessions to Hong Kong's educated and professional populace through restricted democratic participation in civic governance. It is a delicate balancing act.

Hong Kong's legislature reflects this compromise. On the one hand are the working-class, middle class professional and independent media voices for greater Hong Kong autonomy, opposition to perceived Beijing government and official corruption, and a fully democratic legislature. On the other are conservative Hong Kong parties that stress their loyalty toward Beijing, which consist of both non-elected Beijing appointees to the legislature and elected representatives from affluent districts that represent Hong Kong's conservative executive class and corporate CEOs who see no need to antagonise Beijing and are quite satisfied with the current status quo. Reformists want greater democratic participation, Hong Kong autonomy and self-determination and improved and supported human rights and civil libertarian reforms.

At present, there is some strong dissent about the latter. Obviously, LGBT/tongzhi Hong Kong residents are annoyed at the absence of comprehensive antidiscrimination protection in workplaces, although that isn't completely true when it comes to EEO policies adopted by western multinational corporations currently operative in Hong Kong's open economy. Worker's protection rights and independent trade union organisation, perceived excessive government surveillance of Hong Kong inhabitants, restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest, the right to judicial review of Beijing central government decisions, and a fully democratic legislature are other long-standing concerns of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.

To focus more specifically on LGBT/tongzhi Hong Kong inhabitants, the prior Crown Colony Hong Kong city-state government decriminalised male homosexuality as late as 1991. However, as with the United Kingdom's originally highly unequal Sexual Offences Act 1967, this stipulated a grossly discriminatory age of consent regime, with twenty one fixed as the gay age of consent compared to sixteen for heterosexuals. Happily, the courts found that Hong Kong's age of consent inequality violated the equality rights section of its Bill of Rights Ordinance, so since 2005, there has been age of consent equality at sixteen for all Hong Kong residents. There is partial antidiscrimination legislation- the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance 1991 only includes public sector employment, accomodation and service discrimination, although as cited above, western transnational corporation branches are havens of inclusion within the private sector. Hong Kong LGBT groups have been lobbying the island's Legislative Council for reforms, although Hong Kong has its own Christian Right movement as well. As for the Hong Kong transgender community, cross-dressing is not illegal, but post-reassignment official document realignment is only partial, including passports and other official documents except birth certificate gender adjustment. As with New Zealand before the Marriage Amendment Act removed obstacles to pre-operative transpeople undertaking civil marriage, Hong Kong post-operative transsexuals can marry someone of the 'other' sex to their reassigned one.

As for debates over Legislative Council composition, these have been ongoing for the last decade since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control. For the most part, pro-democracy reformists have been stymied in their plans for consultative citizens referenda, constitutional reform and greater democratic participation by the Standing Committee of the National Peoples Congress in Beijing. During the course of this year, there has been particular opposition to the unelected and appointed role of Hong Kong's chief minister from Beijing.

It's an age-old story. Rising educational levels and aspirations collide with a restricted franchise and opportunities for greater democratic participation. However, thus far, Beijing has been restrained by fear of losing Hong Kong's capital inflow and professional expertise if it merely acts as it does on the mainland. But how long will this hesitation continue for? And if Beijing does provide concessions to Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, then what happens to similar movements in mainland China?

Shiu Hing Lo: Competing Chinese Political Visions: Hong Kong v Beijing on Democracy: Santa Barbara: Praeger Security International: 2010.
Hiuhung Chong: Pushing the Pro-Democracy Agenda after the 1997 Handover: Protest Politics, Political Advocacy and the Media in Semi-Democratic Hong Kong: Leicester: University of Leicester Press: 2006.
Jeff Broadbent and Vicky Brockman (ed) East Asian social movements: Power, protest and change in a dynamic region: New York: Springer: 2010.
Ching Yau: As Normal as Possible: Negotiating Gender and Sexuality in Mainland China and Hong Kong: Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press: 2011.
Petula Sik Ying Ho and Adolf Ka Tat Tsang: Sex and Desire in Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press: 2012.
Travis Kong: Chinese male homosexualities: Memba, tongzhi and golden boy: New York: Routledge: 2011.
Huashan Zhou: Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies: New York: Howarth: 2000.

Craig Young - 9th October 2014

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