Posted:  Sept. 16, 2009


 “We’ve been talking about democracy since the Qing Dynasty,” said one exasperated participant in the Hong Kong equivalent of a town hall meeting.  Debate and discussion has continued throughout the summer but this early September workshop in effect marked the start of a new chapter in Hong Kong’s long-running political reform saga.  The speaker was right.  Proposals for elected representation in local government date from the earliest years of Hong Kong’s colonial existence in the 1840s.  For reasons of their own strategic self-interest, the British did not allow such representation until the 1980s when their interests changed.   Thereafter the sovereign-in-waiting also found cause to object.

Beijing’s basic reasons were and remain twofold.  Theoretically, elected   government signifies that sovereignty resides in the people.  For Beijing, sovereignty belongs to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which represents the people.  Practically, Beijing maintains that Western-style representative democracy and mainland-style democratic centralism are two different things; that the former is not appropriate for China; and that Western-style democrats are working to overthrow CCP rule by using Hong Kong as a subversive base toward that end. These considerations have blocked implementation of Beijing’s formal Basic Law promise to allow “gradual and orderly progress” toward universal suffrage elections.[i]  But Hong Kong democrats refuse to give up and Beijing refuses to give in.  The latest delaying tactics came in the December 2007 decree that postponed the possibility of such elections for the Chief Executive (CE) and Legislative Council (Legco) until 2017 and 2020, respectively.  A small window of opportunity nevertheless remained open for incremental preparatory adjustments in the electoral system between now and then.  Hence this latest chapter in the struggle for popularly elected local government is about incremental adjustments for the next CE and Legco elections, both of which happen to fall in 2012. The early September meeting was held to encourage public discussion of possible options.

Readers interested in the tedious details will doubtless find more than enough in blogs to come.  A few recommendations have already been put forward by interested groups and individuals.  After much procrastination, the government’s own proposals are scheduled for release by year’s end.  Already apparent, however, are two new trends not seen in Hong Kong’s political reform movement since the return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.  One is a growing appetite for direct confrontation with the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.  The other is a revival of the pre-1997 demand to call the local CCP branch out from “underground.”  Such developments may seem unremarkable but in Hong Kong’s constrained political space both are significant steps forward.

It would be an exaggeration to say that public discourse here has finally evolved into a straightforward statement of ideas usually shared only among like-minded friends and colleagues.  In public, no one is yet willing to declare that the official “one-country, two-systems” slogan is a euphemism for transition to mainland-style one-party rule by 2047.  Nor is anyone yet willing to demand in so many words that local CCP members declare themselves.  But politicians and commentators are inching ever closer on both counts in Hong Kong’s own peculiar version of political shadow-boxing.


After complying with all the legal conditions and time frames for political reform, everyone realized they were getting the run-around when Beijing issued its December 2007 ultimatum delaying things until 2017/2020.  That impression has been reinforced by conservative and pro-Beijing opinion leaders who immediately began lobbying for retention of the least representative indirectly-elected features of the present Legco electoral system even after universal suffrage has been achieved.  The unspoken reality here is that such an arrangement would dovetail with the mainland system, which is based on universal suffrage albeit at the basic grassroots level only. The council is currently composed of 60 members:  30 directly elected with pan-democratic parties prevailing; and 30 based on indirectly-elected functional consistencies (FCs) weighted in favor of conservative business and financial interests.   There are currently some 3.4 million voters registered to participate in direction elections and only about 230,000 in the FCs, which supporters want to retain indefinitely.

The pan-democratic parties therefore calculate they have little to lose and are exploring some confrontational pressure tactics that until now have been avoided for fear of their disruptive consequences.  Most striking was last week’s announcement that the Civic Party, led by well-behaved lawyers, had decided to endorse the action plan proposed by the Legaue of Social Democrats, currently Hong Kong’s most radical and rambunctious political group.  Accordingly, one democratic legislator would resign in each of Hong Kong’s five electoral districts thereby triggering simultaneous territory-wide by-elections as a gesture of protest.  This action would follow if the government’s official proposals later this year contain no meaningful signs of progress toward the ultimate end of “genuine universal suffrage” elections.

The lawyers have even gone further and are advocating that all 23 democratic legislators resign in 2011 if by then there is still no official demonstration of serious intent to move forward.  Pan-democrats are generally agreed that the FCs must go and nominations for CE candidates must not be officially controlled.  The action plan is not without risk and all pan-democrats may not endorse the entire package.  But it has already served notice to the government before its proposals are announced that there will be real political consequences, beyond just another routine protest march, if the impasse is allowed to continue.


The new pressure on local CCP members to declare themselves is more subtle but equally significant.  Democrats were intimidated into silence on the issue before 1997 when maintaining calm during the sensitive handover period was a major concern. So they focused instead on safeguarding Hong Kong’s existing rights, freedoms, and “way of life,” in accordance with the Basic Law’s 50-year guarantees.  Current concerns can be traced to the alarm registered among pan-democrats last spring when they discovered the article by mainland researcher Cao Erbao who matter-of-factly acknowledged Beijing’s participation in Hong Kong governance.[ii]   His contribution was followed by that of another mainland researcher, Professor Cheng Jie, who also wrote that Beijing is now taking an active role in Hong Kong affairs.[iii]   Then the CCP’s United Front Work Department director, Du Qinglin, arrived to much fanfare and more intimations of a direct party presence.[iv]    With Hong Kong’s 50 years of guaranteed autonomy evidently under threat, the old question has revived.  Maybe it is now time, say democrats still mostly among themselves, for local CCP members to step up and be counted along with everyone else.

Civic Party member and South China Morning Post contributor Stephen Vines reflected this rising sentiment when he commented on the “dangerous lack of transparency” surrounding Hong Kong’s CCP branch.   Vines is one of the few non-Chinese members of a local political party.  “The suspicion lingers,” he wrote, “that there is some deliberate design attached to the installation of leading members in prominent roles in Hong Kong” without acknowledging their party affiliation.   Either that or they are afraid of the CCP’s still prevailing negative reputation among the general public (SCMP, Sept. 4).

The existence of a local CCP branch has never been openly acknowledged except by one of its leaders after he fled to the United States. [v]  Xu Jiatun headed the New China News Agency (NCNA) in the 1980s, fell afoul of his Beijing superiors during the 1989 Tiananmen protest movement, and defected soon afterward.  The NCNA was China’s official representative in colonial Hong Kong and doubled as leader of the local pro-Beijing community while also serving as cover for the local CCP branch.  Xu revealed in his memoirs that the branch had some 6,000 members in Hong Kong and Macau when he took up his post in 1983. [vi]

Leaders of the patriotic community, as it liked to call itself in colonial days, founded a pro-Beijing political party in the early 1990s.  The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) operates openly like all other political groups, but it is assumed that its leaders are also concurrently members of the local CCP branch.  Exactly who is and who is not a member nevertheless remains Hong Kong’s best-kept secret. Whenever the prime suspects are asked they neither confirm nor deny, which is interpreted as a confirmation.  So it is with a sense of no little bravado that heretofore discreet commentators recently began fingering Leung Chun-ying as a party member.  His prompt denial was taken as an indication that he probably is not.  But the damage has been done by calling attention to a political stance so unfailingly loyal that he might as well be.  Leung is a member of the CE’s Executive Council or cabinet and is thoroughly disliked by pan-democrats not because of his wealth or connections, but because he has always disparaged democratic government. He has also reputedly been a long-standing entrant on Beijing’s shortlist of favorites for the CE post and has recently undertaken a high-profile image-rehabilitation effort, presumably anticipating the next CE selection in 2012.  Only this time around his adversaries made a daring preemptive strike by leveling the most damaging of charges against him.  The Chinese-language Ming Pao Daily News even commissioned its own opinion poll to reveal Leung the least popular of the three current main contenders (Sept. 7).

The case against Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-sing is equally daring but more carefully crafted.  Unlike Leung, Tsang’s career profile makes him one of the prime party suspects and he made headlines two years ago when he became the first career loyalist appointed to a leading position in the Hong Kong government.  Among other things, Home Affairs oversees the 18 District Councils where the DAB has registered its greatest strength.  But activists are not challenging any of this.  Instead they are accusing him of acting in the style of mainland officials for pressuring the YWCA into removing one of its social workers from a rural district where he had allegedly disrupted local “harmony.”  Tsang has been summoned to attend a Legco meeting for overstepping the bounds of his authority, and the heretofore moderate Ming Pao Daily News again rose to the occasion with a rousing denunciation of mainland “river crabs” invading Hong Kong (Sept. 4).  River crab in Chinese is a pun on the word for harmony, recently popularized in mainland dissident circles to protest Beijing’s official insistence on social harmony in lieu of free political expression.

Suddenly Hong Kong’s perception of its political relationship with the mainland seems to have changed, probably because Beijing’s pretentions about Hong Kong’s autonomy are also changing.  The widely discussed interventions by Cao Erbao, Cheng Jie, and Du Qinglin all indicated that Beijing is now interpreting the Basic Law’s promises very differently than was initially understood.  In response, Hong Kongers are beginning to realize that they will either have to push back as best they can to preserve what they value most about their existing way of life, or submit to the rising pressures for integration with the mainland political system.   If recent events are any indication, the first alternative is far more likely than the second.

[i]  Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Articles 45 and 68.

[ii]  Letter from Hong Kong, June 1, 2009.

[iii], July 2009.

[iv]  Letter from Hong Kong, Aug. 12, 2009.

[v] According to the old organization rules, branches in “white” territories where the party is still struggling for power should remain “underground.”  Hong Kong’s status is ambiguous in this respect and the territory is in any case regarded by Beijing as not yet “politically subdued” (See Cheng Jie quote in Letter from Hong Kong, Aug. 12, 2009).

[vi]   Xu Jiatun, Xianggang huiyilu [Hong Kong Memoirs], (Taibei:  Lianho bao, 1993), vol. 1, pp. 66-79.  The NCNA’s local political leadership functions have been inherited by the central government’s HongKong liaison office (Zhonglianban).

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