Posted:  July 23, 2010


Book Review:  Electing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, by Simon N.M. Young and Richard Cullen, Hong Kong University Press, 2010, 254 pp.

Nothing better illustrates the abstract nature of Hong Kong’s political reform debate than the question of universal suffrage elections for the local head-of-government.    The Basic Law, Articles 45 and 68, stipulates that “universal suffrage” is the “ultimate aim” both for selecting the Chief Executive (CE) and for electing all members of the Legislative Council (Legco).   During the 1980s, Hong Kong’s democracy movement was born in the agitation for these two promises, which were consequently written into the Basic Law, and their realization has remained a fundamental aspiration ever since. The law was promulgated in 1990 to serve as Hong Kong’s constitution during the 1997-2047 transition to full integration within the mainland political system.

That those promises are now routinely invoked by everyone regardless of political affiliation is nevertheless a clue to the ever-widening gap between original expectations in the 1980s and present-day realities.   During the past yearlong debate over the government’s proposals for the next stage of political reform, to design the 2012 elections, the promises were a standard feature of every presentation along with Beijing’s recently-announced timetable:  Hong Kong can use universal suffrage to elect the CE in 2017 and Legco in 2020.

His promotion campaign for the government’s 2012 package of political reforms featured a “weigh anchor” theme and Chief Executive Donald Tsang enthusiastically exhorted everyone to “set sail for universal suffrage in 2017.”   Yet ironically for an executive-led system that grants Legco little real power, public attention focused overwhelmingly on the Legislative Council half of his reform package.  Nothing was said about the CE electoral arrangements for 2012 except that they are to remain essentially the same as they have been since 1997.  An Election Committee does the honors and will remain unchanged except for an increase in size from 800 to 1,200 members.  The conservative design of this committee ensures selection of the officially-endorsed candidate.

This focus allowed everyone to overlook almost completely the universal suffrage election in 2017 that by official reckoning is supposed to pave the way for 2020.   Throughout the yearlong debate, no questions were asked, no standards or definitions proposed, and no challenges raised.  Nor was there any preliminary discussion of what a universal suffrage election for the CE might look like, even though the next CE election after 2012 will be 2017.

The only encouraging sign in this void is the new book by Hong Kong University Professors Simon Young and Richard Cullen, which was unfortunately published just as the debate over Donald Tsang’s reform package was ending in mid-June.  But better late than never, since Hong Kong now has a much-needed guidebook that can help everyone stay on course during the long voyage to 2017.

Summarizing the book’s conclusions at a Foreign Correspondents Club luncheon talk on June 21 (audio:, Prof. Young described the Election Committee arrangements in words the general public had not yet heard.  If the practice of universal suffrage was attached to those unreformed arrangements, its promise might never be realized because the public would in effect only be able to rubber-stamp officially approved candidates.  In Prof. Young’s words, such a vote would be unequal and exclusive, without choice or political parties.  The authors’ purpose is to suggest how that prospect might be averted.


           According to the Basic Law, Article 45, Hong Kong’s CE “shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.”  But the “ultimate” future aim is the “selection of the CE by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

Until then, the specific method of selection is prescribed in the Basic Law’s Annex I, which calls for an 800-member Election Committee, equally divided into four sectors with 200 members each.  It is this committee that is to be enlarged to 1,200 members, while the sectors remain unchanged.  They are:

1.)  Industry, commerce, finance;

2.)  The professions;

3.)   Labor, social services, religion;

4.)  Political representatives to include all 60 Legco members, district-level councilors, Hong Kong’s 36-member delegation to the National People’s Congress (NPC), and members of its companion honorary body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).


          Central to the contradictions between present practice and the promise of universal suffrage is this Election Committee.  Young and Cullen trace its origins and the various functions it has played since 1997.   The government’s current reform proposal, which deals only with the next 2012 election, nevertheless mentions that a future Nominating Committee for use under universal suffrage “may” be formed with reference to the existing Election Committee.*  Working on this assumption, because there is as yet nothing else to guide them, the authors suggest reforms that would allow universal suffrage to become something more than a formality.  In the process they also reveal just how biased the current Election Committee is.

The committee’s basic design was the work of the Basic Law’s Beijing drafters.  But the specifics were left to Hong Kong and drafters there turned to the Legislative Council’s Functional Constituencies (FCs) for inspiration in fleshing out the committee’s four sectors.  Hence except for the fourth sector political representatives, who are specified in the Basic Law, the Election Committee replicates the FCs that were chief targets of pan-democrats’ wrath during the recent political reform debate (April 16 post).

The constituencies are rearranged for Election Committee purposes into 32 subsectors with a specified number of committee members for each:

First sector: 17 subsectors, each with 11-12 members;

Second sector: 10 subsectors, each with 20 members;

Third sector: 5 subsectors, each with 40 members.

Elections are held to fill the seats in each sector.  Altogether, there are currently a total of 16,586 corporate electors and 214,554 individuals registered as Election Committee voters. **  The current committee was  elected in late 2006 to select Donald Tsang, in March 2007.


The authors’ address the need for reform as a series of related contradictions between current practice and the promise of Western-style or “genuine” universal suffrage elections, to use the terminology of local pan-democrats.  The contradictions concern especially matters of choice, equality, fairness, and representation.  Theoretically, choice should not be a problem.  Aspiring candidates need only obtain the signatures of one-eighth of all committee members to secure nomination.  In the three selections since 1997, however, that threshold has been difficult to reach for anyone but Beijing’s pre-announced preferred candidate.

During the most recent 2006-07 selection process, the newly-formed Civic Party decided to insert itself uninvited into the exercise.  But the party had to begin by actively lobbying and campaigning for candidates during the Election Committee’s subsector elections.  In this way, Alan Leong was able to scrape together from among the winners the 100 signatures needed for nomination (132 signatures, to be precise).  But on selection day he won only 16% of the 800 members’ votes.  In contrast, the general electorate routinely rewards pan-democratic candidates with a solid majority of the direct popular vote in Legco elections.

The size of Leong’s defeat also illustrates the extent to which the Election Committee design contradicts the principles of equality and fairness.  There may be a neatly balanced 200 members in each of four sectors, but the subsector breakdown tells a different story.  Sector One is solidly pro-business conservative and its members are elected via all the well-advertised anomalies of the FCs, such as corporate voting, corporate overlap, lack of transparency, etc.

As for Sector Four, except for Legco’s democratic 23-member minority this sector is also pro-establishment conservative, and gives added weight to Sector One interests since half of Legco is elected by the same FCs that elect Sector One committee members.  Additionally, the NPC and CPPCC delegations contain the same inbuilt duplications.  Sector Four’s bias results partly from Basic Law design but partly also from deliberate padding.  This last can be seen in the seats allocated to district-level representatives:  42 seats are reserved for those from suburban and rural areas where conservative interests are more prevalent and with some of those interests allowed double representation.  In contrast, only 21 seats are reserved for district representatives in town.

Democrats are represented only in Sectors Two and Three:  among the professional, social service, and religious subsectors where Alan Leong concentrated his campaign efforts.  But even the religious subsector is “gerrymandered” in such a way as to allocate fewer Election Committee seats to pro-democracy Christians (14) than to conservative Buddhists, Confucians, etc. (26).

Obviously, much could be done to make the Election/Nominating Committee more democratic without suggesting anything as radical as one-person-one-vote primary elections to select CE candidates.  The authors confine their recommendations to more realistic objectives, which should be achievable if enough community interest can be generated to demand them.

For example, the nominating threshold could be lowered.  Beijing could keep its preferences to itself at least until a roster of candidates was formed.  Committee members could be encouraged to nominate more than one candidate.  And as in Alan Leong’s case, candidates could come forward before the Election Committee is itself elected allowing members to indicate their preferences beforehand.  Afterward a whittling down nomination process could be conducted by secret ballot thereby allowing Election Committee members to make their choices in private.

The anomalies identified in FC voting during the recent Legco reform debate could be addressed and subsector electorates also expanded.  The conservative overload could be remedied by fairer subsector divisions and membership allocations, to target especially the pervasive duplication of interests.  But another major community debate would probably be needed in order to get at the root of the conservative overload problem.

The tycoons and conservative business interests have all along argued that because they are the creators of Hong Kong’s wealth, so they deserve a predominant share of influence over how it is spent.  Initially, in the 1980s, they used this argument to lobby against electoral reform altogether.  Hence any future universal suffrage CE election must confront the challenge to fairer more equitable cross-sector representation contained in this long-standing demand by Hong Kong’s established economic interests for continued preeminence.


The other major challenge is Beijing.   Prof. Young noted in his talk a statement that was made too late to be mentioned in the book.   Responding to Hong Kong’s demands during the recent debate for a real-life definition of “universal suffrage,” Beijing official Qiao Xiaoyang’s statement added an unexplained note of uncertainty about future CE nominations.  Qiao said that the present arrangements for CE selection, and the future nomination of CE candidates for universal suffrage elections, “are two completely different methods and they are not comparable” (Wen Wei Po, June 8).  Perhaps the current Election Committee is not to be used as a future model after all.

Another formal statement, made at the very start of the political reform exercise back in 2007, reasserted some basic ground rules as Beijing sought to set the record straight after Alan Leong’s unsettling candidacy.  Hong Kong was reminded that “irrespective as to how the CE is selected, including by means of universal suffrage ultimately, there can be no deviation from the constitutional requirement that a candidate winning an election must be appointed, in a substantive manner, by the Central People’s Government before assuming office.” ***   This raises the question Qiao Xiaoyang was supposed to answer but instead sidestepped:  what exactly do Beijing authorities mean when they use the term “universal suffrage.”

As for the coming 2012 elections, retired businessman-politician Allen Lee Peng-fei offered some insights in his reflections on the recent political reform controversy.  Lee is one of Hong Kong’s most talkative and well-connected senior citizens.  During an evening discussion meeting at the Hong Kong Club on July 9, he said his Beijing friends are already head-hunting for the 2012 CE race.  But they are searching specifically, said Lee, for candidates who can be re-elected (for a second term) in 2017 when universal suffrage is due to begin.  In other words, universal suffrage is on course but the prospect of an election without choice is also very real.  Democratic reformers, as Prof. Young noted, have much work to do if that prospect is to be averted.

*  Consultation Document on the political reform package, Nov. 2009, paragraph 2.13  (

**  Consultation Document , Annexes II and III  (

*** Green Paper on Constitutional Government, July 2007, paragraph 2.08.

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