Posted:  Feb. 28, 2011


Two questions from listeners revealed the current state of drift that has overtaken Hong Kong’s movement for political reform.  The questions came from local members of the audience at a recent Hong Kong University seminar organized to take stock at the start of a new political year that will be even more filled with the distractions of day-to-day politicking than was 2010.  The guest speakers were invited to share their perspectives as knowledgeable outsiders observing Hong Kong from vantage points in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Beijing.*

          One questioner asked what the outside world was likely to say or think or do if direct one-person, one-vote universal suffrage elections did not materialize by 2017 for the Chief Executive and 2020 for the legislature, according to the timetable Beijing announced in December 2007.  Legislator and “dissident” Civic Party member Ronny Tong (Nov. 15, 2010 post) asked a similar question but from the perspective of an active participant:  after all is said and done, what are the prospects for Hong Kong’s long-standing demand to elect its local government by genuine universal suffrage?


The answer to the first question was sobering, especially for those who recall the heady days before Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty when “the whole world was watching.”  In those days, Hong Kong activists had visions of serving as a bridge to promote the cause of Chinese democracy nationwide.  Throughout the 1990s and beyond, local politicians made regular well-publicized trips to Europe and North America to make sure the world really was paying attention.  This practice continued for a few years after 1997 — until everyone realized the world was not particularly interested in the tedious details of never-ending debate that Hong Kong’s quest for democratic protection had become.

Professor Langer from the University of Zurich affirmed what Hong Kongers have learned to expect, namely, that the outside world would probably not do or say much of anything at all.  He referred to the tepid public comments made after Hong Kong’s compromise political reform package was approved last June.   Had he been here at that time he would also have been able to add that the entire Hong Kong-based diplomatic corps favored the compromise solution. If anyone among them was concerned about the uncertainties motivating the local listener’s question, such concerns remained a well-kept secret.  Yet the ill-defined compromise approved by Beijing provided no guarantees as to what kind of universal suffrage elections Hong Kong could expect.


           Ronny Tong’s question was addressed primarily to Beijing law professor Wang Zhenmin who is one of the younger successors to what were dubbed the “Basic Law guardians.”  They were the older generation of mainland legal scholars who, between 1985 and 1990, helped draft the Basic Law that was to serve as Hong Kong’s post-1997 constitution.  The old guardians became the focus of much attention in early 2004 when they arrived from Beijing to help Hong Kong gain a proper understanding of the Basic Law.  Their high-pitched political study campaign was part of Beijing’s answer to Hong Kong’s massive July 1, 2003 protest that forced the government to shelve its proposed national security legislation.  Such legislation is mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Professor Wang’s presentation contained none of the hard-edged accusations leveled at local democrats by the old guardians in 2004.  Beijing’s message is now more nuanced following official acceptance of Hong Kong’s demand for universal suffrage elections.  Before that time, official policy was still based on the original 1980s assumption that Hong Kong was an economic not a political city, and protesters were only reflecting economic not political grievances that would be satisfied with more trade, travel, and investment opportunities.  Acceptance of Hong Kong’s popular demands for political reform was formalized by Beijing in its 2007 decision laying down the 2017-2020 time frame for universal suffrage elections.

Ronny Tong’s question nevertheless cut through the platitudes.  He is regarded as a dissenting moderate within the Civic Party because he disagreed with its insistence on forcing the de facto referendum last year to mobilize community support against the government’s lackluster reform proposals.  These ultimately formed the basis of the June compromise.  On his own initiative, Tong had for five years been trying to engage Beijing contacts in an effort to reach a satisfactory accommodation via discussion rather than confrontation.

Yet for all his good intentions, he too now recognizes the dilemma that has confounded the efforts of many others before him.   The fundamental obstacle, Tong said, is distrust —  deep-seated elements of distrust on both sides.  Hong Kong’s democracy movement has a cynical view of Beijing’s promises.  Beijing, for its part, fears that if Hong Kong elects its government by genuine direct one-person one-vote universal suffrage elections, the result will be two genuinely separate political systems.  How, he asked, can this barrier of distrust be surmounted?

The old guardians actually did a better job of explaining Beijing’s fear when they declared in no uncertain terms that to ask for such direct universal suffrage elections was tantamount to demanding independence.  Hong Kong obviously did not understand the logic of a Leninist party and their task was to explain it.  In a Western-style democratic system, they said, sovereignty resides in the voters who elect their own government whereas for Beijing, sovereignty is the preserve of the ruling communist party.

Clarity was unfortunately sacrificed to discretion as Prof. Wang did his best to avoid the old harsh rhetorical lines.  His answer reflected Beijing’s new approach of acknowledging local aspirations for universal suffrage, without saying they are tantamount to declarations of independence while nevertheless continuing to harbor suspicions that they really are.   Hence the long delay between now and 2020 will be used to try and forge a consensus.  Consensus for what remains unstated, but all indications are that Beijing is aiming for something other than Western-style directly-elected government that can more easily bridge the gap between China’s communist party-led “people’s democratic dictatorship” and what local democrats want for Hong Kong.  His answer followed that same line of reasoning.

We all want the same thing, said Prof. Wang.  Both Beijing and Hong Kong want universal suffrage elections for Hong Kong.  But there are many different types of democracy and many different kinds of elections.  He raised the familiar talking points about the defects and distortions that characterize United States democracy.  The Electoral College is a Beijing favorite because it allows speech-makers to say that even in America the president is not directly elected.  As for the U.S. Senate, its design is deliberately based on inequality of representation between States with large and small populations.  This is a point made against local democrats’ use of the Western definition calling for “universal and equal” voting rights based on Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  Article 25 says that every citizen should have the right to vote and be elected at “genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.”  Democrats use this definition to argue against the special-interest Functional Constituencies that elect half of Hong Kong’s legislature.

Prof. Wang also mentioned differing Western and Asian visions of democracy.  And he mentioned a need to accommodate the Hong Kong business community’s concerns because, as he had said earlier, democracy anticipates the redistribution of wealth from elites to everyone.  This is another stock phrase in Beijing’s current arsenal of arguments against democracy.   Addressing Ronny Tong’s question directly, Wang said distrust could only be broken down by giving the business community more time to get used to the idea of elections.  He seems too young to remember that Hong Kong’s business community was first cautioned in that respect two decades ago, and he did not suggest just how much more time might be needed.

Central to Wang’s comments throughout, however, was Hong Kong’s Basic Law that lies at the heart of the political contradictions between Beijing and Hong Kong.  On this point, Wang offered no comfort or suggestion of compromise.  The Basic Law was written, and is being interpreted by Beijing, in accordance with the ways and means of China’s still unchallenged Leninist party, leaving Wang little choice but to reiterate:  the Basic Law must be respected along with the decisions issued in its name by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Nor did he acknowledge that Hong Kong’s distrust has been perpetuated since 1997 by those very same decisions.


          In fact, the distrust barriers might be reduced in several ways, but for that to happen the sources of distrust must first be identified and openly discussed.  Yet even Hong Kong democrats, to say nothing of everyone else, seem unwilling to speak openly about those sources — perhaps because they are tied to the fundamentals of China’s political system, a system that Hong Kong still keeps at arms length both legally and intellectually.

First is the problem of timing.  Like Prof. Wang, Ronny Tong and other moderate democrats speak of a long-term effort without defining the terms.   How much time do they think they have?  Article 5 of Hong Kong’s all-important Basic Law stipulates that the one-country two-systems arrangement is time-bound.  Hong Kong’s separate system and “way of life” is guaranteed for 50 years only.   Uncertainty breeds distrust.  It would doubtless be much reduced if some way could be found to safeguard in perpetuity the basic rights and freedoms that are the most valued feature of Hong Kong’s way of life.

Second is the matter of specific rights and freedoms.  Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that national security legislation must be passed.  That legislation threatens the freedoms associated with political expression and those freedoms are Hong Kong’s most important distinction by comparison with the mainland.  Meanwhile, all the guardians — young, old, official, and self-appointed — are forever reminding Hong Kong that the legislation cannot remain on the shelf forever.

Only last summer, the Hong Kong government dusted off the same draft that provoked Hong Kong’s mammoth 2003 protest.  And only the timing —  so close to coming elections —  rather than the negative public response kept decision-makers from going ahead with their plan to try again.   It follows that the most effective way to reduce distrust would be to remove political security from the actual national security implications of that legislation.  Or better yet, respect the Basic Law by allowing Article 23 to be honored in the breach, and by continuing to use Hong Kong’s relevant existing laws that have served the purpose without incident since 1997.

Third is the need for candor in the Hong Kong government’s political reform proposals.  How can distrust be reduced when the government’s political reform packages of 2005 and 2010 were obviously designed to benefit “a certain party” without ever acknowledging as much?   The public clearly entertained doubts and suspicions.  Yet during the many open meetings held to discuss the reforms last year, it was only a euphemistic “certain party” about which questions were sometimes raised. Nor were those questions ever answered any more directly than they were asked. The pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) was rarely mentioned by name, and neither was the general assumption that the DAB is led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) branch that is not openly acknowledged here.

The CCP’s underground status is no reason to avoid discussing the implications of political reforms designed to favor the DAB.  On the contrary, that status is all the more reason why the implications should be clearly spelled out.  The DAB’s behind-the-scenes promotion of those reforms should also have been openly acknowledged —  along with its idea that if all went well, the DAB would by 2020 be able to parley its current domination of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils into control of half its Legislative Council as well.  This was to be accomplished by the mechanism of indirect elections, to be introduced via the 2010 political reform design.

Nor is the party’s underground status any excuse for not discussing the provenance of that particular design, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the mainland People’s Congress system.  This system has undergone interesting changes during the past 20 years that Hong Kong, despite its interest and proximity, has not followed.  Hence it is not generally known here that the mainland now also practices a system of “universal suffrage.”  This allows direct one-person one-vote elections, albeit CCP-controlled, in grassroots constituencies for local assemblies throughout the country.   Above the county level, all city, provincial, and national congresses are formed by indirect, CCP-controlled, election and selection procedures.   Hong Kong has every right to harbor suspicions because it is being asked to approve and participate in an electoral system the political ramifications of which have never been fully acknowledged or explained.

The only problem with these three prescriptions for tackling the trust deficit is that none are likely to be followed any time soon.  Instead, Hong Kong’s political reform discussions seem destined to drag on inconclusively for many more years to come — unless, to cite a favorite democratic escape clause, “something happens.”  Given today’s global headlines, the most immediate things that spring to mind are inspired by happenings in the Middle East.

Since Tiananmen in 1989 and the 1989-92 collapse of communism in Europe, Hong Kong’s democracy activists have lived with the hope that another spontaneous upsurge of mass dissent might change the nature of the Beijing government — and remove the main obstacle to their aspirations in one mighty stroke.  Now hopes are rising again along with the scent of jasmine flowers wafting in from the Middle East.  Democrats can be forgiven for dreaming big dreams, but it always pays to prepare for something else just in case.

In this case, the template for Hong Kong’s democracy movement looks more like the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  These have dragged on inconclusively for years, while Israeli settlements continue to be built on Palestinian land thereby preempting a solution on Palestinian terms.  Hong Kong’s long drawn out political reform discussions began in the early 1980s.  Since then, local demands for more democracy have been blocked by Beijing from one election cycle to the next beginning in 1988.   Like the Palestinians, Hong Kong democrats are engaged in a protracted retreat, forced back one step at a time from one deadline and negotiating position after another.

Meanwhile, the pro-Beijing DAB has gradually built up its strength until the party and its allies can now boast majorities on all but two of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils.  The Hong Kong government’s 2005 and 2010 indirect election proposals were both designed to exploit that advantage.   If everything carries on accordingly, by 2020 Hong Kong’s democracy debate will have been settled not by a negotiated agreement among the participants but by facts on the ground.  These are the building blocks of a new political order that local democrats fail to recognize, being constructed by the DAB and its allies with the votes of grassroots constituencies that democrats for want of foresight are failing to hold.

*  “New Voices on Hong Kong Political Reform,” Feb. 22, 2011, sponsored by the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law and the Hong Kong Journal (   Guest speakers:  Lorenz Langer, University of Zurich, Switzerland; Michael Martin, U.S. Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C.; Wang Zhenmin, Tsinghua University, Beijing; Sonny Shiu-hing Lo, in transition from the University of Waterloo, Canada, to the Hong Kong Institute of Education.   Dr. Martin’s comments were published in the current issue of HKJ (January 2011).

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