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Political Economy and the Structures of Power in Post-War Hong Kong

This project offers a new perspective on contemporary developments in Hong Kong by investigating the background and structure of the political economy. Hong Kong is often held up as a model of free trade and laissez-faire growth that is now under threat from an increasingly authoritarian China. Through an examination of developments in the postwar period, however, this project argues that the selective use of state power has continuously been employed to shape a particular kind of market organization that China has now stepped into. Through a close reading of legislative records, government documents, and business archives this project shows that a struggle between financial and industrial interests emerged in the 1950s and 1960s over state intervention in the market, with each side presenting different economic visions: financiers called for the government opening of markets and industrialists for an industrial policy akin to other East Asian states. Financiers emerged victorious in this struggle and set the terms of economic policy in the 1980s and 1990s.

The resultant political economy not only structures all aspects of life in contemporary Hong Kong but also enables China to assume an interventionist role. Over the past forty years, Hong Kong has experienced a gross concentration of economic power as business taxes have been paired down, regulations annulled or minimized, and the public sector turned over to the private. In addition, government policy and administration have been put in the hands of business tycoons, who have expanded their reach and used state power to preserve a well-functioning legal apparatus to uphold property rights, enforce contracts, protect business investment, and generally facilitate markets on the behalf of certain sectors at the expense of others. Democracy has been constantly thwarted so as not to disrupt the arrangement. Through the use of these selective state powers, and with the capacity to influence business interests, China has been able to continue the economic and political interventions that were set in motion in the postwar period.

Macabe Keliher
Macabe Keliher

Macabe Keliher is a historian of early modern and modern China. He is Assistant Professor of History at Southern Methodist University. His book on politics and ritual in early modern Chinese state-formation, The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China (University of California Press, 2019), won the Association of Asian Studies Joseph Levenson Prize honorable mention. His research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Fulbright Foundation and published in The American Historical Review, Journal of Asian Studies, and Late Imperial China, among others; his commentary has appeared in Boston Review, The Atlantic, and The Hill. He is currently at work on a multipart project on the history of China’s political economy, exploring developments from 1400 to the present.

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