Posted: March 31, 2010
Note: This post picks up where the last (March 15) left off, but was written for two Hong Kong pro-democracy websites: http://www.AFCnow.hk and http://www.reformhk.hk/archives1.htm. The local perspective highlights the tone of bureaucratic obfuscation surrounding the debate and suggests why the public has not responded more enthusiastically.
Are pan-democrats losing the battle for public opinion? If the polls conducted so far on the government’s 2012 political reform proposals are any indication, the answer is not necessarily “yes,” but it soon will be unless the public can be provided with a clearer picture of what the proposals mean for Hong Kong’s political future. Hong Kong University pollsters conducted three surveys asking how much people knew about the government’s reform proposals. At the start of the official three-month consultation period last November, 68% of those responding said they knew little about them. By early February shortly before the public consultation ended, respondents saying they understood little had risen to 70% (HKU POP release on political reform, Feb. 8, 2010: http: //hkupop.hku.hk/ ).
Those respondents should not be blamed for failing to pay attention. Instead, they 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. In fact, the respondents were saying something important about the lack of transparency in the government’s official presentation, and also about the failure of pan-democrats to fill in the blanks.
The most important blanks that need filling in are those surrounding what are now being called the “new Functional Constituencies” or the “District Councils plan.” According to the government’s political reform proposals, five new Functional Constituency (FC) seats will be added in the Legislative Council (Legco) to balance the five new seats directly elected by geographical constituency voters. Beijing has instructed that 2012 reforms must maintain the current half-half balance between directly and indirectly elected legislators. But government officials and promoters have never adequately explained the origins of this District Councils plan, first seen in the government’s hastily prepared reform package of 2005 (all local newspapers, Dec. 1, 2005). Pan-democratic legislators rejected the 2005 package but did not discuss the larger significance of the District Councils plan. Where did it come from? Whose idea was it in the first place? What are the precedents? Who is promoting it now? Who stands to benefit? And what does it mean for the ultimate goal of universal suffrage?
The immediate origin of the current proposal can be traced to the government’s Green Paper on Constitutional Development issued in July 2007. This paper formally began the present political reform exercise in accordance with the new five-step procedure mandated by Beijing’s Basic Law “Interpretation” of April 2004. The Green Paper presented three options whereby Legco could achieve the ultimate aim of universal suffrage elections as promised by the Basic Law. These were: (1) direct election of all Legco members by one-person-one-vote universal suffrage; (2) retaining the existing half-half balance with 30 directly elected and 30 FC legislators; or (3) allowing all 30 FC seats to be filled through indirect election by the members of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils. According to the Green Paper, “all Legco seats will then be district-based seats returned through direct or indirect elections” (paragraph 4.14). This third option received no publicity in 2007 and the Green Paper cited only one submission in its Appendix recommending this option.
The option actually resurrects an arrangement designed by the colonial government in 1985 when for the first time ever elections, albeit this indirect variety, were introduced for a minority of Legco members. Until then the legislature was wholly appointed. Direct elections, again for a minority of legislators, did not occur until 1991. Circumstances today, however, are very different.
The 2007 Green Paper seemed to have included the District Councils option only as an afterthought. But of course it was not. Throughout the just-concluded consultation period for the 2012 reforms, official promoters steadfastly maintained that the government “did not have the authority” to reveal the direction their proposals might take beyond 2012. While they may not have the authority, officials evidently do have a tentative roadmap in mind and it naturally entails the District Councils plan.
Only after the consultation exercise ended, did Executive Councilor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung mention in passing (South China Morning Post, Feb. 19, 2010) that the government was planning to propose expanding the District Councils option for use in replacing the FCs, just as the Green Paper had indicated. During the consultation period, pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) supporters also referred in passing to such a future course if the experiment for five new Legislative Councilors indirectly elected by District Councilors proves successful.
Nor does the lack of transparency end there. Equally important are the omissions when citing precedents to legitimize indirect elections. The Green Paper noted only that in international practice or “overseas jurisdictions,” universal suffrage one-person-one-vote systems “can take the form of direct or indirect election” (paragraph 2.24). At public consultation forums, supporters of the government’s 2012 proposals liked to cite various examples in Europe where Western democratic systems combine both direct and indirect elections. When speakers were reminded that Hong Kong is part of China not Europe, they had no answer.
Another favorite precedent was that old whipping boy, the United States’ presidential Electoral College, which was responsible for electing George W. Bush in 2000, even though Al Gore won more popular votes. When speakers were cautioned not to compare apples and oranges, again they did not respond. But for anyone familiar with the U.S. electoral system, the comparison seemed forced at best.
In that system, presidential candidates are first chosen in all 50 states through statewide primaries where everyone who wants to can either vote directly or make their preference known directly for the candidate of their choice. The nationwide direct popular vote follows. Only then does the Electoral College, made up of electors designated by voters specifically for the purpose, make a final decision. This can override the popular vote but rarely does. The Electoral College is also widely recognized as an anachronistic holdover from a less democratic past that reformers have tried repeatedly to abolish precisely because it undermines the legitimacy of the popular vote. By contrast, each Hong Kong District Councilor is elected to oversee neighborhood amenities by a few thousand voters from small fragmented constituencies, which do not even adequately represent the population within each of the 18 District Council catchment areas.
THE ONLY PRECEDENT THAT MATTERS
When asked specifically why they never cited Chinese precedents, democrats and government supporters alike could not see the relevance. Politicians and commentators who are aware of the mainland precedent that will be set by introducing the District Councils plan hesitate to say so openly for fear of heightening tensions further. In fact, for Hong Kong now, there is only one precedent that matters, namely, China’s People’s Congress system, which is the government structure through which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exercises its leadership.
Article 3 of the Chinese Constitution specifics that the: “National People’s Congress and the local people’s congresses at various levels are constituted through 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.”Article 34 grants all Chinese citizens over the age of 18 the right to vote and to contest these elections.
The Hong Kong public knows and fears the mainland system of CCP-led dictatorship but has little knowledge about these electoral mechanisms and governing institutions through which that dictatorship is exercised nationwide. Even some leading members of Hong Kong 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. That CCP branches and leaders vet candidates and dominate the system from top to bottom is known or at least assumed. That 2.3 million Chinese citizens have been directly elected to over 600,000 village committees since 1988 (China Daily, March 2, 2010) is not known. Nor is its significance appreciated as the precedent for Hong Kong’s new District Councils plan.
Clearly, the DAB with its 12,000+ membership and many district-level satellite groups would be the main beneficiary of the government’s District Councils plan. Recently, some democratic politicians have begun openly referring to the DAB as “the communist party” and they debate among themselves the wisdom of “outing” Hong Kong’s underground CCP branch. But its presence is an open secret as are its presumed leading members who overlap with those of the DAB. The latter is, in any case, modeled on the CCP as a mass-based hierarchical organization that is invariably loyal to Beijing’s policy decisions.
Unfortunately for pan-democrats, they cannot compete with the DAB at the District Council level where democratic strength has always been weakest. Even in the 1980s, when the District Councils were called District Boards, democratic activists found themselves at a disadvantage. Constituencies were not drawn district-wide but broken up into 400 small segments with each board member elected by only a few thousand voters form his/her immediate neighborhood. The boards were also concerned only with neighborhood amenities and a division-of-labor developed: conservatives dominated the District Councils while democrats set their sights higher at the Legislative Council level.
No one seems to have appreciated the political potential of this arrangement until the DAB realized how easily it could be exploited by simply building on the existing traditional street associations, charities, and neighborhood recreational facilities. Today these activities are supported by a dense array of well-funded conservative organizations and full-time paid DAB staffers in every district that under-funded and over-worked democrats cannot hope to match.
Precise figures are difficult to calculate given the large number of independents, who are rarely independent of partisan inclinations. But in the last (2007) District Councils election, the DAB alone won more seats (115) than all the main democratic parties combined (93) (South China Morning Post, Nov. 20, 2007). Especially important in that election was the DAB’s strategy of coordinating its candidate lists and campaign platforms with like-minded groups that did not acknowledge their political affiliation while campaigning. They all, that is, the DAB and their allies, concentrated exclusively on livelihood issues leaving constituents unaware that they might be voting for the building blocks of a mainland-style people’s congress system.
WHAT IS UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE?
It follows that the main question everyone should be asking is: what does Beijing mean by universal suffrage? As indicated by Beijing’s latest (December 2007) decision on the matter, 2020 is the earliest date that Hong Kong can have a universal suffrage election for Legco. Everyone agrees that one-country-two-systems is a temporary arrangement designed to ease Hong Kong’s transition to full integration within China’s political system by 2047. In 2020, therefore, Hong Kong will be just about half way “home.”
If the District Councils plan proceeds as the government hopes, half of Legco will then be indirectly elected by District Councilors and Hong Kong will be on course to merge with the mainland People’s Congress system. Hong Kong will also have a form of “universal suffrage,” based like the mainland system today on a foundation of one-person-one-vote at the grassroots level. But if China is still governed under the same one-party system, and if the DAB is still organized in its present form, then the imposition of one-party CCP rule in Hong Kong will also be well on its way to realization by 2020.
If Hong Kong is satisfied with that prospect, then so be it. But if Hong Kong does not want to take such a risk with its future, then answers to all these questions should be provided now, while there is still time to chart another course. The first step is to recognize the potential dangers of the District Councils option as currently proposed and explain them clearly to the public. Then, if their constituents agree, pan-democrats should refuse to accept the District Councils plan without substantial modification. But above all, the public should not be led blindly into a system the political implications of which have been explained to only a select few “insiders.” The District Councils plan is actually a “People’s Congress plan” and should be known for what it is.