This year marks a milestone in world history: the end of the British Empire. With the December naming of Tung Chee-hwa as the first Chinese chief executive of Hong Kong, the transfer of the last major colony to China has begun its final stage. The flag will be lowered in June, 50 years after the dissolution of the empire began with the independence of India and Pakistan.
Until the appointment of Chief Executive Tung, attention focused particularly on Governor Chris Patten's efforts to increase democratic participation in the territory, despite clear Chinese opposition. Democracy in China's Hong Kong, to the extent it exists at all, will be extremely circumscribed. But even in many former colonies that became independent, the roots of democracy have been shallow. Except for the older dominions, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, only in India has democratic rule been fully realized. Many other parts of the former empire have parliaments and claim democratic intentions, but they are, in reality, dominated by powerful personalities, military officers, or parties.
Other objectives prevailed in much of the empire's history. Five often conflicting interests characterized British rule: commercial, financial, strategic, political, humanitarian.
The first forays from London in the 18th century were by great trading companies, such as the East India Company, and were launched to import commodities for the home market and raw materials for the growing industry of the British Isles. Trade led to major roles for London's financial houses and the Bank of England. It also led to the development of strategic points such as Singapore and the Persian Gulf to outflank European competitors and protect the route to India. Traders soon found that they needed official protection, and British political rule soon followed, but that rule was authoritarian.
Democratic rule became an objective only when the decision was made to grant independence. In India the transfer benefited from several years of provincial self-government, but even that tradition did not move easily to neighboring Pakistan. Britain's rule in Africa came late and democracy was frustrated by patterns of rule by chiefs and tribal rivalries. In the Persian Gulf region, London ruled indirectly through treaties with local emirs; democracy was not on the agenda.
Nevertheless, many democratizing influences flowed into the empire. Britain's rule was occasionally marked by incidents of cruelty, racial discrimination, arrogance, and contempt for local cultures, but it encouraged educators, missionaries, and doctors to follow the flag. Men and women of the empire brought traditions of civil society, the rule of law, charity, education, and the English language. The British Broadcasting Corporation's world service and the cricket test matches may outlast all other imperial traditions.
To be put to the test in Hong Kong is the assumption of the Chinese, and of Hong Kong notables who will rule for them, that an active democracy is not essential to maintain economic dynamism. But, if the Chinese place onerous restrictions on the press, will they affect the confidence of investors? If the tradition of British justice is overridden by courts under Communist Party control, will they discourage businesses that want a stable climate for their future?
In this final act of empire, the British may not leave behind the sturdy oak of democracy, but they have planted important seeds. Even under the administrative autocracy of a colony, they preserved freedoms that made Hong Kong attractive to citizens and investors alike. The Chinese will make a serious mistake if they fail to see the relationship between those freedoms and the economic vitality of Britain's former colony.
David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.