The government issued its latest set of political reform proposals last November and launched a three-month public consultation period that ended February 19th.  Officially, the reforms are intended to further Hong Kong’s quest for the holy grail of directly-elected local government (Nov. 23/09 post).  In reality, they seem like an exercise in political involution, designed to produce more circles of convoluted electoral activity without any change in the undemocratic executive-led system.  Conservatives plus the main pro-Beijing political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), quickly endorsed the proposals.  Their Alliance for Constitutional Development sponsored a petition bearing 1.6 million signatures collected on street corners all over town.[i]    The pan-democratic camp uniformly opposes the government’s reform package but not uniformly to the same degree in terms of response.   This has divided into radical and moderate.   

          Radicals are represented by the most street-savvy of Hong Kong’s democratic parties, the League of Social Democrats (LSD), plus the lawyer-led Civic Party.  In late January, five Legislative Councilors from these two parties, or one legislator from each of Hong Kong’s five legislative election districts, resigned their seats in order to trigger territory-wide special elections that are being promoted as a de facto referendum on political reform.  The by-elections, as they are called here, are scheduled for May 16th.  These legislators say they will not endorse the government reform package without a roadmap, meaning some indication as to how the goal of genuine universal suffrage elections is to be achieved, which officials have so far refused to provide.  The resignation/referendum exercise is intended as a gesture of protest, to focus public attention on the difference between what the government is offering and what democrats have always wanted.

          Ironically, that leaves the older Democratic Party (DP) as chief power broker because it is the largest of the original 11 political groups making up the new Universal Suffrage Alliance.  This alignment is being called the moderate force within the democratic camp because none of its members wanted to take the risk of joining the resignation/referendum protest campaign.  Until this division over tactics occurred, however, the DP contained some of Hong Kong’s most radical pan-democrats since DP leaders have been the mainstay of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China.  That alliance sponsors Hong Kong’s annual candlelight vigil commemorating the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square and continues to demand an end to one-party rule in China.  Beijing regards this demand as a call for independence (from Chinese Communist Party rule) and therefore subject to the charge of treason.  As a result, these leaders have had their “home-return” travel permits canceled, meaning they cannot cross the border for travel inland.   

           DP leaders also say they will not endorse the reform proposals without a roadmap:  the Hong Kong government and Beijing authorities must give believable assurances that genuine one-person-one-vote direct elections are the aim by indicating specifically how that aim can be achieved.[ii]  Although some members of the Universal Suffrage Alliance seem more ready than others to compromise, in reality the main difference between radicals and moderates is disagreement over the resignation/referendum protest tactic.

          The split is nevertheless leading to some classic old-fashioned Chinese-style (also known as Machiavellian) stratagems.  These naturally make for more interesting reading than the tedious details that distinguish various reform counter-proposals tabled by members of the public during the consultation period.  But the strategizing has only just begun in earnest and should continue at least until May 16th.    Meanwhile, the consultation exercise and counter-proposals it generated indicate the extent of public participation and the likely limits of public patience beyond which Beijing’s sought-after “harmonious” consensus will be difficult to achieve.

THE CONSULTATION EXERCISE

           Hong Kongers have grown jaded over the years and are not enthusiastic participants in official consultations.  The colonial government developed them into a formalistic art that is now used routinely for all kinds of public policy initiatives and the two officially-hosted open public forums followed accordingly.  But Hong Kong’s long-running movement for universal suffrage elections is such a hot button issue that all politically active groups and several universities rose to the occasion by sponsoring their own public forums, petitions, opinion surveys, press conferences, and a multitude of other activities.  The United States-funded National Democratic Institute co-sponsored a few of the open forums.  Otherwise all were local civil society initiatives.

           Due to various restrictions on the political use of television, it is the least effective medium for influencing public opinion, leaving that task to radio talk shows, the internet, online video programs, and social networking.   Newspapers nevertheless remain the chief source of political news, information, opinion, and advertising.  The main pro-democracy Chinese-language papers are Apple Daily [Pingguo ribao], Ming Pao Daily News [Mingbao], and Hsin Pao [Xinbao] known in English as the Hong Kong Economic Journal.  Opposing all pan-democratic politicking on this issue are the main pro-Beijing papers:  Wen Wei Po [Wenhui bao], Ta Kung Pao [Dagong bao], and China Daily.

          The government’s Department of Constitutional and Mainland Affairs is now assessing the information gathered and will in due course publish collated statistics as well as a summary of the written submissions mailed in by the public, reportedly numbering 40,000. [iii]  Due to past experience, however, this is the most vulnerable stage of the process in terms of generating public cynicism.  It is also one reason why an up-or-down vote in a popular referendum freely and fairly conducted has long been a favored option among democrats –  if only five of their legislators did not have to resign in order to precipitate it.  

THE PROPOSALS

        To recap the government’s proposals:  they were drafted in accordance with Beijing’s latest decision issued on Dec. 29, 2007.  Universal suffrage elections cannot be introduced for the Chief Executive (CE) until 2017 and the Legislative Council (Legco) until 2020, at the earliest.  But incremental adjustments toward that end can be made in elections along the way.  The government’s current proposals concern only the next CE and Legco terms; elections for both will occur in 2012. 

          Currently, the CE is elected by an 800-member committee that is itself created by electors from four sectors, drawn to favor conservative business and pro-Beijing interests.  The government proposes to increase the size of this committee from 800 to 1,200 members while retaining its existing design.   For Legco, the government proposes an increase from 60 to 70 seats, with the addition of five seats to be filled by direct universal suffrage elections in the five geographic constituencies.  The other five new seats would be filled by indirect election with members of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils serving as electors.  This would preserve the 50/50 balance in Legco between directly and indirectly elected members as mandated by Beijing’s December 2007 decision.  No changes are proposed for the existing occupation-based Functional Constituencies (FCs), which replicate the CE Election Committee and are also designed to favor conservative interests.  They elect 29 legislators; one is already indirectly chosen by District Councilors from among their own ranks. [iv]      

          Key to pan-democratic opposition is the lack of a roadmap beyond 2012 and the government has failed to explain this lapse.  Officials say only that they lack authority to do so but without explanation except to cite Beijing’s December 2007 decision.  Since that decision does permit incremental changes in anticipation of the 2017/2020 timetable, democrats remain skeptical about the sincerity of the universal suffrage promise itself.  Contributing to this skepticism is the demand of some high-profile conservatives to retain the FCs permanently. 

         Because they relate to constitutional reform, the government’s proposals cannot be implemented until approved by two-thirds of Legco’s 60 members, of whom 23 are democrats.  But since democrats represent 60% of the popular vote (for the 30 directly-elected seats), the battle for public opinion is as important as the legislative vote count in order to ensure smooth passage from law into practice.

 OPINION POLLS        

             Despite the hectic rounds of activity among pan-democrats, however, impressions drawn from the exercise so far do not bode particularly well for their cause.  The Hong Kong government’s most constant resource dating back to colonial times has been the assumption of public apathy and ignorance about politics, electoral systems, and government institutions.  That tradition is still being exploited for whatever advantage it can bring, as suggested by the results of preliminary polling. 

          Hong Kong University pollsters conducted three surveys asking how much people knew about the government’s reform proposals.  In late November when the consultation began, 68% said they knew little; by early February shortly before it ended, the number was 70%.  Given that response, the support/opposition questions probably signify little.  But support for the Chief Executive electoral reform proposals fell slightly (from 43% to 41%); opposition remained steady (31%).  Support for the Legco proposals fell slightly more (from 43% to 39%; opposition rose (from 28% to 32%).[v]  

          A similar Chinese University poll conducted in late December found support for the government’s proposals at 50.8%; opposition, 30.6%; undecided, 18.6%. [vi]  According to the pro-Beijing One-Country, Two-System Research Institute poll in late February, 56.3% supported the government’s proposals with 30.9% opposed and 12.7% undecided.[vii]

PETITIONS AND COUNTER-PROPOSALS

        Hong Kong professionals and university academics had traditionally been conservative but a new generation is establishing itself.  These younger university professors along with lawyers, school teachers, social workers, and journalists are now providing intellectual backup for the pan-democratic camp — except on the resignation/referendum tactic.  This has met with strong disapproval among academics especially.  Foreign diplomats are also said to be uniformly against the idea, which should interest Beijing since officials there routinely blame foreign consulates here for aiding and abetting Hong Kong democrats. 

       Incidentally, the consultation exercise has been a boon for the Chinese-language press or at least its advertising revenues.  Business supporters of the FCs can easily afford full-page spreads for their statements and petitions and the two referendum parties also evidently have substantial advertising budgets.   Among the more modest layouts were two self-financed pro-democracy petitions representing more and less moderate stands.  

         “A Word from Intellectuals on Hong Kong’s Future” contained 126 names and was sponsored by a dozen university academics including Chinese University political scientist MA Ngok who is lead researcher for the moderate Universal Suffrage Alliance.  They say they “are tired of the endless political wrangling” and find the government’s reform package incapable of providing a solution.  Toward that end their demands are: 

(1) the central authorities in Beijing should explain that by 2017 the threshold for nominations within the CE Election Committee will be no higher than it is now (one-eighth of 800 members);  (2) Beijing should explain that in 2020 universal suffrage will mean equal voting rights for everyone and no FCs;   (3) under the proposal for indirect elections by District Councilors, the current practice whereby 20% of the 500 total are government appointees should be phased out and DC elections should be made more democratic to allow all parties balanced representation at that level.[viii]

         The Professional Commons group, closely associated with the radicalized Civic Party, issued a stronger statement.  Its 150 signatories called on Chief Executive Donald Tsang to withdraw the proposals and re-issue a new package designed to achieve “genuine universal suffrage with total abolition of the FCs.” [ix]   A group of pominent pro-democracy lawyers sponsored a full page proclaiming the FCs to be incompatible with universal suffrage.[x] 

          Academics have also tried their hand at designing alternative proposals and some of these ideas may contribute to final solutions should the authorities agree to negotiate.  All these ideas suggest ways of redrawing and ultimately dismantling the FCs, which are seen as the main stumbling block to universal suffrage.  In fact, it is Beijing that stands as the primary obstacle; the FCs are secondary.  But some adjustments might be introduced in deference to the widespread perception that the current electoral arrangement gives unfair advantage to conservative business interests.

       Based on his findings in that respect, Michael DeGolyer, who heads the survey research Transition Project at Baptist University, suggests broadening the composition of various FCs to include occupations not now represented.  Eventually all occupations would be included thereby negating the need for FCs.[xi]  Researchers led by Simon Young at Hong Kong University’s Center for Comparative and Public Law (CCPL) recommend the gradual merger and rearrangement of existing FCs in a way that will ultimately reduce the influence of those most resistant to giving up their electoral advantage.  This would, by 2020, leave the remaining diehards with insufficient Legco votes to block their own abolition.[xii]

        These plans pay little attention to the government’s new proposal to allow the indirect election of five legislators by District Councilors.  University of Science and Technology professor, SING Ming, notes the inability of democratic candidates to compete equally and fairly in District Council elections due to their small constituencies and the generous conservative budgets that are being used to fund grassroots social services.  He therefore recommends using the five territory-wide Legco election districts for the purpose of filling the five new seats and allowing universal suffrage for candidates who would presumably be nominated by District Councilors.  This is part of his larger design that would, between now and 2020, combine the existing FCs into four sectors with suffrage gradually expanding in each sector until all were elected on a one-person-one-vote basis. [xiii]

WHAT NEXT?

          Academics and other sympathetic onlookers are denouncing the two-party referendum as a distraction from the serious business of negotiating an end to Hong Kong’s political reform deadlock.  Some are even raising fears about a “tragedy” in the making with melodramatic visions of gangland politics and populism run riot.  The resignation/referendum parties have contributed their share to rising tensions with an initial advertizing blitz that called on Hong Kongers to “rise up” and struggle against small-circle elections, a phrase immediately interpreted by Beijing as incitement to rebellion. 

         Atmospherics aside, however, there is much work yet to be done as indicated by the HKU poll that found 70% of its respondents claiming not to understand the issues discussed during the consultation period.   Those respondents were actually saying something important and the referendum electioneering campaign will provide another opportunity to answer their questions.  Hopefully that opportunity will not be wasted because there is still little understanding here about the political implications of different kinds of electoral systems or the institutions of government that go with them.

            The public knows and fears the mainland system of Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-led dictatorship but has little knowledge about the mechanisms and institutions whereby that dictatorship is exercised nationwide.  Even some leading members of the democrats’ Universal Suffrage Alliance do not know that the small grassroots constituencies at the base of China’s People’s Congress pyramid directly elect local congresses and village committees on a one-person-one-vote basis.  Higher level congresses are indirectly elected with CCP leaders at each level vetting candidates throughout.

       The similarity with Hong Kong’s small District Council constituencies where only a few thousand voters elect each councilor is obvious.  Yet not only is the practice of indirect election from the District Councils to Legco being promoted in the government’s reform proposals.  The pro-Beijing DAB, which replicates the CCP as a mass-based hierarchically organized party and now together with its allies has majorities on all but two of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils, is advocating use of the “District Council model” as the roadmap to universal suffrage. Except for a few inadvertent slip-ups, however, this idea remained hidden from public view throughout the consultation exercise.  Only after the exercise ended did one government official mention in passing that the government was indeed planning to propose expanding the District Council model for use in replacing the FCs.[xiv]

         Politicians and commentators who are aware of the mainland precedent that will be set by introducing the District Council model nevertheless hesitate to identify it as such for fear of heightening tensions further.  Hence the larger political implications (of integration with the mainland People’s Congress system) are being ignored.  Those few who discuss the model at all focus only on the unfair advantage it gives to “a certain party,” the public forum euphemism for the DAB and its many satellite groups.

          Meanwhile, government officials and conservative promoters speak earnestly about all the international jurisdictions that combine universal suffrage with indirect elections, often even citing the example of the U.S. presidential Electoral College.  Yet not a single commentator has mentioned the only precedent that matters, namely, China’s People’s Congress system.  Article 3 of the Chinese Constitution specifies that the:  “National People’s Congress and the local people’s congresses at various levels are constituted through democratic elections.”  Articles 59 and 97 spell out the arrangements for these elections.  National deputies and those to the people’s congresses of provinces and large cities are all elected indirectly by the congresses at the next lower level; deputies to congresses of counties, small cities, city districts, and townships “are elected directly by their constituencies.”

         The respondents in HKU’s poll should be congratulated since they were clearheaded enough to understand and honest enough to admit that they did not know what the political reform proposals entailed.


[i] Wen Wei Po [Wenhui bao], Feb. 9, 2010. 

[ii] DP chairman, Albert Ho Chun-yan, Letter to Hong Kong, Feb. 21, 2010, http://programme.rthk.org.hk/channel/radio/programme.php?name=/lettertohongkong ; and DP vice-chair, Emily Lau Wai-hing, Apple Daily, March 4, 2010; also, Ming Pao Daily News, Jan. 25, 2010, and editorial, Jan. 27, 2010.

[iii] Wen Wei Po, Feb. 20, 2010.

 [iv] The government’s consultation document proposals and Beijing’s Dec. 2007 decision are at:   www.cmab-cd2012.gov.hk .   For a summary, see my Nov. 23/09 post.        

 [v]  HKU POP site release on political reform, Feb. 8, 2010:   http://hkupop.hku.hk/ 

 [vi]  Ming Pao Daily News, Jan. 8, 2010.

 [vii]  Wen Wei Po, Feb. 23, 2010.

 [viii]  Hsin Pao (Hong Kong Economic Journal), Dec. 17, 2009.

 [ix]  Ming Pao Daily News, Jan. 21, 2010. 

 [x]  Hsin Pao (Hong Kong Economic Journal), Dec. 16, 2009.

 [xi]  “Scenarios and Options for Reform,” presented at the Constitutional Reform Participatory Workshop, Baptist University, Sept. 5, 2009 (http://www.hktp.org).

 [xii]  CCPL Press Release, “Breaking the Deadlock in Political Reform,” Jan. 26, 2010, originally presented ata HKU forum, Jan. 9, 2010; also, South China Morning Post, Jan. 9, 2010.

[xiii] Presented at a Hong Kong Polytechnic University forum, Nov. 28, 2009; also, Ming Pao Daily News,  Feb. 4 and 10, 2010. 

[xiv]   Executive Councilor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung in South China Morning Post, Feb. 19, 2010.  There were other less direct hints, for ex., Ming Pao Daily News, editorial, Nov. 20, 2009.