Posted:   Dec. 10, 2009


Pro-democracy supporters have scarcely begun consulting with the government over its latest consultation document on political reform (Nov. 23 post).  They knew at a glance they didn’t like it because the package of proposals is almost identical to those rejected by democrats in 2005.    Similarly, the 2009 proposals contain no hint as to how the political system might evolve toward the directly elected government that supporters assumed Hong Kong was promised by its Basic Law constitution.  For now action remains confined to the pan-democratic camp as debate rages over how best to register the dismay all share.

The radical resignation/referendum plan (Sept. 16 and Nov. 23 posts) is losing ground to moderates fearful of the risks, but the public consultation period will continue until February, so the drama and discussion have a long way to go.  That gives everyone else time to review how Hong Kong has reached such an impasse.  Newcomers to the subject will want to know why democrats are so agitated; others may have forgotten the dates and details of a saga that has continued for over two decades with no end in sight. The main difference between now and then is that until now everyone thought they were working toward one-person-one-vote directly-elected local government.  In contrast, the latest reform package and statements from its promoters suggest that Beijing has no intention of allowing such a government to evolve in Hong Kong and democrats have finally begun to confront that possibility.


           Hong Kong’s present day democracy movement dates its birth from the early 1980s.  At that time, the colony was just coming to grips with the idea that British rule would end as of July 1, 1997.  In 1982, Beijing had finally confirmed its intention, widely rumored since 1979, to resume sovereignty.  During those three years, the British government had begun to relax its customary “administrative absorption of politics,” whereby local leaders were co-opted, discredited, or marginalized.  In June 1980, the concept of universal suffrage was officially introduced for the first time ever in the government’s unexpected proposal for a colony-wide network of district boards to advise on community affairs.  A minority of members on each of the 18 new boards would be directly elected by the public at large.

The plan was set in motion with surprising speed given the century and more spent dithering over the dangers of voting rights for Hong Kong Chinese.  Elections were held without incident in a two-part sequence, in March and September 1982.  Hong Kong’s 1997 fate was confirmed by Beijing and London during the intervening months.  No link between that fate and Britain’s sudden interest in political reform has ever been acknowledged but Hong Kong’s contemporary democracy movement identified itself from the start with the challenge of 1997.  Suddenly liberated from the customary bans against politicking, local activists began a debate that has continued with varying degrees of intensity ever since.

Beijing had already broached the idea of one-country, two-systems in an unsuccessful effort to woo Taiwan and the formula was then applied to Hong Kong.  In September 1984, Beijing and London signed their formal Joint Declaration.  In it, Beijing pledged to leave all of Hong Kong’s existing rights, freedoms, economic system, and way of life unchanged for 50 years from 1997.   But the statement also declared that Hong Kong’s local legislature “shall be constituted by elections,” which up to that time it had never been.  All these promises were to be written by Beijing into a Basic Law constitution, which was in fact done.  The law was drafted between 1985 and 1990 and promulgated that year.

The Hong Kong government had meanwhile continued with its new elections project and did not consult Beijing.  In mid-1984, the government announced its plans for indirect legislative elections aimed at creating “a system of government the authority for which is firmly rooted in Hong Kong.”  A local political spectrum began to form as people took sides.  Most everyone found something to dislike in the proposal.  Some activists resented the assertion that Hong Kong was not ready for direct elections. The captains of commerce and industry were dead set against elections of any kind.  And Beijing’s resentment over the idea of a locally-rooted authority accountable to local people was and remains at the heart of its opposition to democratic elections.  Beijing’s antagonism grew along with the democracy movement itself since those who called for a strong democratic system as the best protection against the dangers of Communist Party rule generated the greatest public interest.

Democrats nostalgically date their rise from several rallies held in a nondescript neighborhood park.  The first Ko Shan Theater rally, on September 16, 1984, drew a record 1,000 activists demanding speedy progress from indirect to direct Legislative Council (Legco) elections.   The first ever Legco election occurred a year later in September 1985, featuring a minority of legislators indirectly elected by new functional or special interest constituencies plus an “electoral college” composed mainly of the new district board members.  The two most prominent winners were those who had spoken out most forcefully for democratic safeguards, namely, Martin Lee and Szeto Wah from the legal and education constituencies, respectively.


            In 1987, the government issued more proposals suggesting the possibility of direct elections for a few Legco seats in the next, 1988, election.  Many opinion polls showed majority support for direct elections, but Beijing protested, the local pro-Beijing and business communities were learning how to lobby, and the government backed down.  There would be no direct elections until 1991 and these must conform to the soon-to-be-completed Basic Law.  Lobbying intensified pro and con to influence Basic Law drafters and reached fever pitch after China’s own 1980s democracy movement ended in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.  One million Hong Kongers made history by marching in protest and their demands for democracy increased dramatically, but constitutional progress never kept pace with popular aspirations.

The Basic Law allowed only 18 directly elected legislators in 1991, with a gradual increase to 30 or half the 60-seat chamber by the 2004-08 term.   Progress thereafter was left open.  Democrats nevertheless took heart from Articles 45 and 68 that promised eventual “universal suffrage” elections, for both the Chief Executive (CE) and Legco.  Democrats also swept 17 of the 18 seats in 199l, and the 1989-1991 collapse of communism in Europe provided more grounds for hope.   During his 1992-1997 tenure, Hong Kong’s last British governor, Christopher Patten, tried some imaginative variations on the Basic Law’s complex electoral formulas.  These actually owed much to the old British tradition of designing colonial legislatures in ways that always produced “safe” majorities so it was fitting that the last British governor should try to find a way out of the maze.

All Patten’s democratizing innovations were abandoned after 1997.  The new Hong Kong government also took another leaf from the colonial playbook by trying to co-opt, discredit, and marginalize what came to be called Hong Kong’s “opposition,” even though democratic candidates continued to win a 60% majority of votes for the directly-elected Legco seats.   Officially, the movement was left for dead and often behaved accordingly, unable to find its footing at a time when Hong Kong needed both Beijing and the business community to overcome the effects of the Asian economic crisis.  In deference to their new sovereign and the public’s fear of political instability, democrats also abandoned their most effective pre-1997 rallying cry about providing safeguards against the dangers of Communist Party rule.


Beijing writer CHENG Jie recently provided an unusually candid commentary on what happened next.  Beijing had been surprised to discover that Hong Kong was not a “politically-subdued territory” after all, when 500,000 angry residents took to the streets on July 1, 2003 (, july 09).   The public was in effect rebelling against proposed national security legislation mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law.   As a result, for better and for worse, the democracy movement’s five-year drift in the political wilderness ended at that time and Beijing’s more active direction of Hong Kong governance began.

Beijing’s alarm was caused not just by the massive protest march but also by its immediate political consequences. Democrats hastened to exploit the upsurge of popular anger and renewed their demands for universal suffrage elections as of 2007/08, when progress could resume according to the Basic Law’s timetable. The District Boards had been renamed councils soon after 1997, and campaigning for the next District Councils election was transformed by democrats’ call to elect candidates dedicated to their cause. These won far more seats on Nov. 23, 2003 than anyone anticipated in the usually conservative small district constituencies.

In early 2004, Beijing directed a high volume political studies campaign at Hong Kong and sent angry Basic Law experts to lecture the community as to its civic responsibilities and patriotic duties.   On April 6, 2004, Beijing issued an interpretation of the Basic Law overturning pre-1997 verbal and written assurances that Legco reforms would be for Hong Kong alone to decide.  Henceforth, no electoral reforms could be introduced without Beijing’s prior consent.  This was followed by a formal decision on April 26, 2004 rejecting popular demands for universal suffrage in the 2007 CE and 2008 Legco elections.  The existing balance of half directly-elected and half indirectly-elected functional constituency seats must also remain unchanged.

In late 2005, the Hong Kong government proposed a set of incremental reforms that were limited by Beijing’s April 26, 2004 decision.   Legco democrats united in voting down the package on December 21, 2005 because it contained no indication of how or when progress to genuine universal suffrage elections might resume.  In July 2007, the Hong Kong government tried again with a new Green Paper on Constitutional Development laying out all the options.  These were presented in such a mesmerizing mix of mainland and Hong Kong bureaucratic language that they registered virtually no impact on the general public.  But the possibilities for Legco are worth noting because they contained important hints about the way forward.  The options were:  (1) returning all seats on a one-person-one-vote basis as democrats were demanding; (2) retaining functional constituencies as their most powerful proponents were demanding; (3) replacing the functional seats with those elected by District Councilors as “some” unidentified people were said to be demanding.

Then, on December 29, 2007, Beijing issued another decision and finally provided a timetable of sorts:  no universal suffrage elections for the CE until 2017; those for Legco could follow.  As for 2012, when both CE and Legco elections occur in the same year, incremental adjustments might be made as per the April 26, 2004 decision disallowing any change in Legco’s half-half balance of seats, which brings us up to date!

The latest package of proposals issued on November 18, contains adjustments for the coming 2012 elections only, with no indication as to how they might evolve thereafter because Beijing refused permission to provide it.  Hence some democratic leaders, having concluded they will never see genuine democratic elections in their lifetime, are opting for the territory-wide resignation strategy as a gesture of protest.  Final decisions on the pan-democratic camp’s participation will be announced later this month.

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