Posted:  Nov. 23, 2009

 

Finally, after almost a year’s delay, the Hong Kong government has unveiled its latest package of political reform proposals and democrats have activated their long-planned protest strategy.   The entire pan-democratic camp has still not signed on but five legislators announced their preliminary decision to resign soon after the government’s proposals were published on November 18.  According to this plan, if the government’s proposals contained no meaningful signs of progress toward the promised end of genuine universal suffrage elections, one legislator from each of Hong Kong’s five election districts would resign simultaneously (Sept. 16 post).  By-elections must be held within a few months and the campaigns would be used to mobilize public support.  Democrats are calling this a popular referendum on reform, which the government has always refused to allow.

Officially, the reform announcement was postponed from early spring to late autumn because the government needed to focus on anticipated repercussions from the global financial crisis.  More likely, economics provided a convenient excuse.   Electoral reform is an issue calculated to bring people back onto the streets and precautions were taken nationwide for months in advance to contain all such expressions of popular dissent ahead of China’s sensitive 60th national anniversary celebrations on October First. The precautions for Hong Kong were probably not ill-advised.

Everyone has long since lost count of the consultations and marches and demonstrations that have been held here since the early 1980s when universal suffrage was first introduced for a new system of colony-wide district boards.  Probably local politicians and activists have even lost count of their meetings and debates during the past year in preparation for this latest step on Hong Kong’s journey toward the promised goal of wholly elected local government.  The promise is written into Articles 45 and 68 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution, which refers to the “ultimate aim” of universal suffrage elections for both the Chief Executive (CE) and Legislative Council (Legco), without indicating how or when it might be reached.  Over time, the goal has taken on mirage-like proportions receding by mandate from Beijing after each step forward in Hong Kong.

The most significant such “recession” occurred in December 2007 when Beijing finally announced a timetable of sorts.  The CE could (keyi) be elected by universal suffrage in 2017  (not shall or will be), and Legco could follow thereafter. [i]  The earliest possibility would be 2020.  In the meantime, incremental changes designed to prepare for the ultimate aim are permitted and the latest official reform package is designed accordingly for the 2012 elections, but only for the 2012 elections at Beijing’s insistence.  The CE’s term is five years and that of Legco four years; the next elections for both fall in 2012.

In fact, the proposed changes just announced are so incremental as to raise questions about the nature of the ultimate aim itself.[ii]  Perhaps the real question should be:  what exactly did Beijing mean 20 years ago when it allowed “universal suffrage” to be written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law or, more specifically, what does Beijing mean by the term now?  Macau’s Basic Law, promulgated in 1993, contains no such promise suggesting that Beijing may have had second thoughts early on.  For Hong Kong democrats, however, the aim remains clear and unchanged, namely, local government directly elected by all residents without distinction on a one-person-one-vote basis as stated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 25).  If the latest reform proposals are any indication, the authorities have no intention of ever allowing such a system to evolve.

CHIEF EXECUTIVE SELECTION

Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law actually states that the “ultimate aim” is “selection” of the CE by universal suffrage “upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”    For this election, then, the key reform issue is not so much universal suffrage as who nominates the candidates and how.   The Basic Law specified a devilishly complex Election Committee designed to produce what British colonial administrators used to call “safe” results.  It has been used to select the CE since 1997, including two different men who were each returned for a second term.

The 2009 package proposes to leave the existing Election Committee intact but expand its size from 800 members to 1,200, without suggesting how or even if it might be reformed in the future.  In 2012, this committee is to be created, as before, in a convoluted process that entails preliminary selection of an equal number of electors from each of four separate sectors:  (1) industry, commerce, finance; (2) professionals; (3) grassroots or labor, social services, religion, sports, culture; and (4) political office holders including Legco members, district councilors, and Hong Kong’s 36-member delegation to the National People’s Congress, plus members of the honorary Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. These four main constituency sectors have been divided into multiple sub-sectors to facilitate the election process.   It is proposed to increase the size of this committee by selecting 100 additional electors from each of the four main constituencies.

A prospective candidate could only qualify for nomination if one-eighth of the committee members endorsed him/her, a ratio that will remain unchanged.  The number of required member signatures would therefore rise from 100 to 150.    During the last CE selection exercise, in 2007, one democratic candidate managed to obtain the necessary signatures from likeminded committee members primarily in the second and third sectors.  Teachers, lawyers, health care providers, and social workers number among the most reliable democratic supporters.  So are Christians but the religious sub-sector has been divided up so as to give Catholics and Protestants a minority of members (14), in a constituency dominated by Taoists, Confucians, Buddhists, and Muslims (26).   The committee overall has been designed in the same meticulous fashion, stacked in the conservatives’ favor.  The result is a preponderance of pro-government, pro-Beijing, and pro-business members who make victory by a democratic candidate virtually impossible.  Without significant changes in the composition of this Election Committee, which the 2009 proposals do not anticipate, the public even if allowed would only be able to vote for candidates pre-selected by the committee’s conservative majority.

Finally, the Basic Law also stipulated that the CE is appointed by Beijing.  Official statements have since made it clear that this right is substantive, as it also is in the case of everyone appointed to the CE’s cabinet of top advisors.  Beijing has nevertheless learned, through trial and sometimes painful error, that Hong Kong public opinion cannot be totally ignored.   Hence given current constraints, any universal suffrage election would not give voters an openly free and fair choice of candidates.  But experience during the past decade indicates that the most disliked or distrusted individuals would also not be given the nod by Beijing, regardless of their loyalist credentials.

PROPOSALS FOR THE LEGISLTIVE COUNCIL

The 2009 reform proposals for Legco are a slightly revised re-play of the 2005 proposals that democratic legislators voted down in December of that year.  They did so because the 2005 version gave no indication as to when or how further progress toward genuine electoral democracy might be achieved and democrats decided they were being given the runaround.  In response, Beijing issued the 2017 timetable and said incremental changes could be made in 2012 toward the desired aim, but now the government’s package for 2012 still looks to democrats like the same dead-end.

One reason is that Beijing’s timetable decision also contained explicit constraints.  Accordingly, the 2012 reforms cannot change the current balance whereby the 60-seat council is half directly elected by all the voters, and half elected by small special interest groups called functional constituencies (FCs).  These replicate the Election Committee sectors with the same built-in bias.   Of the 28 separate constituencies responsible for filling the 30 FC seats, a majority are reserved for conservatives representing business, industry, banking, insurance, finance, etc.

Also, within Legco, a “two-chamber” effect is mandated for all measures and motions initiated from the floor by legislators themselves.  Passage requires a majority of those voting, separately, in each of the two directly elected and FC divisions, giving the latter veto power over the directly-elected democratic majority.  The chamber votes as a whole on government bills and motions.  Beijing’s 2007 decision forbade any changes in this voting mechanism and none are anticipated now.

The Hong Kong government latest reform package therefore proposes to add 10 seats to Legco, equally divided between directly-elected and FC representatives.  But the five added in the latter category have the same inherent “sleeper” significance as they did when proposed in 2005 because they are not occupation-based.  Instead, they would be indirectly elected by the directly-elected councilors in Hong Kong’s 18 territory-wide District Councils. The one concession to democrats is that only the directly-elected district councilors would be allowed to participate in this election; about 20% of the total is appointed and all are conservative.  Directly elected councilors currently number 405. The earlier 2005 version would have granted voting rights to both kinds of councilors.

For a variety of reasons including small neighborhood-based constituencies and a dense network of social activities, these local councils are now dominated by pro-Beijing loyalists and their well-funded conservative allies.  Hence these seats in Legco would not only establish a precedent in Hong Kong for China’s indirectly-elected communist party-dominated people’s congress system.  This is based on similar small grassroots constituencies in which everyone over the age of 18 has the right to vote.  The District Council representatives would also guarantee five more conservative seats in Legco.

Meanwhile, all the FCs are to remain unchanged with no indication that they will ever be eliminated or even reconfigured in a more balanced fashion.  Nor does the government propose to reform the mix of voting methods whereby some FCs allow corporate or company instead of individual votes.  A single corporate executive is even allowed to control several subsidiary company votes.  There are currently 213,700 individuals registered to vote in these constituencies plus 16,084 corporate bodies who together elect 30 legislators.

Democrats have maintained their 60% advantage in the 30 directly-elected geographic constituency seats, with over three million registered voters.  But the official insistence on proportional representation for these seats means the democratic advantage is contained here as well.   Hence of the five new seats in this category, democrats might win four or they might not.   At present, pan-democrats occupy a total of 23 seats in Legco, the pro-Beijing camp 21, and conservative others 16.  Of the 23 seats, 19 are directly elected and four are FCs.  Democrats have veto power only over major constitutional reform issues, which require a two-thirds majority vote.  Otherwise, their measures and motions are routinely voted down.

INITIAL RESPONSE

Conservatives are naturally happy to endorse the new proposals because they aim to keep directly elected government indefinitely at bay.  Democrats realize they have little to lose except their Legco seats and for this reason cannot even agree on the resignation/referendum plan.  Civic Party lawyers and the radical League of Social Democrats could carry it off on their own and will probably try since five legislators have already announced their willingness to resign.  But the older less confident Democratic Party fears losing any more seats and with them the democratic camp’s all-important veto power on the constitutional reform proposals.  A vote would be held soon after the by-elections if they materialize.   The Democratic Party will make its decision early next month.

Meanwhile, inevitably, moderates have begun looking for points to negotiate and “small doors” to open.  The combination of populist pressure from radicals, and moderates looking for margins of maneuver, is likely to prove more effective than either one stance alone or the other.  But so far, government officials are promising only to collate and convey to Beijing whatever opinions on universal suffrage are expressed during the coming three-month public consultation exercise.   (next:  recapping the route to reform, 1984-2009)


[i]  National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision on Hong Kong’s 2012 CE and Legco elections and on universal suffrage issues, text, Wen Wei Po, Dec. 30, 2007; English, China Daily, Dec. 31.

[ii] Methods for Selecting the Chief Executive and for Forming the Legislative Council in 2012, Consultation Document, Hong Kong government, November 2009, 51 pp.

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