Posted: Dec. 27, 2012
Soon after reunification on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong conducted its “first election under Chinese rule.” Much excitement surrounded the historic possibilities of that election since, for the first time, Hong Kong was being allowed to choose its own delegation to the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing. Fifteen years later, nothing better illustrates the dashed hopes of Hong Kong’s once-confident democracy movement than a comparison between that first election, in December 1997, and the fourth, which was held last week, on December 19. China’s communist party-dominated legislature meets for a few weeks annually in March, but new delegates are only chosen once every five years. Fifteen years ago, they were being elected for the 9th NPC. The first annual session of the 12th NPC is scheduled for March 2013.
Before 1997, Hong Kong had been represented at the annual NPC gatherings but delegates were all appointed from within what was called the patriotic [愛國] community. No one else paid any attention and they participated as members of the delegation from neighboring Guangdong province. Delegates were tapped as a reward for loyalty, after recommendation by the local New China News Agency (NCNA) branch. It served as Beijing’s representative here, and also as cover for the underground communist party committee, until the year 2000 when these functions were transferred to the central government’s Liaison Office.
By the end of 1997, the city was suffering what locals dubbed a “post-handover hangover.” After years of preparation for the historic day when capitalist colonia lHong Kong would cross the frontier into red Chinese territory, suddenly there was nothing to anticipate and nothing much to report. That first election of a local NPC delegation filled the void and revived political spirits by providing the first direct opportunity to introduce Hong Kong’s newly acquired democratic skills for use in a mainland setting.
TESTING THE WATERS IN 1997
Actually, after re-reading an account of that election … activists’ optimism was misplaced from the start, although it didn’t seem so at the time. The institutional links and underpinnings tying Hong Kong to the mainland people’s congress system were all in place even at that early date. Only the atmospherics then were different as local democrats, or liberals as they called themselves in those days, tried to adapt Hong Kong’s new political ways to mainland means. Reflecting that early optimism, I wrote not long afterward: “Hong Kong had hosted the most open and competitive election for China’s national legislature in that body’s history. Never had any provincial delegation been elected in so transparent a manner … but to say this was the freest and fairest such election is not to say it was either free or fair.” *
Why the need for an NPC delegation when Hong Kong already had its own legislature and district level assemblies? The answer contains clues to Beijing’s long-term plans for the Hong Kong reunification project. As a symbol of its return to China, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) had to have its own separate representation within China’s “highest organ of state power,” explained authoritative commentators. But separate rules had to be issued for delegate selection since the SAR had its own elected bodies that were not “yet” part of the mainland’s representative system.
This is also what gave pro-democracy activists the incentive to try their hand at proselytizing. The mainland representative system is an integral whole with local assemblies that were, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in the difficult process of becoming elected bodies … directly elected at grassroots levels, with delegates to the provincial and national congresses elected on an indirect basis by the congresses beneath them. Initially, this reform held out prospects for a new liberal future. Maybe it still does. But not for now. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been rebuilt from top to bottom after the traumatic changes of the 1976-89 years, and these elections are all under firm party control. Beijing was unwilling to allow Hong Kong’s own Legislative Council to choose the SAR’s national representatives, in the indirectly-elected mainland manner, because Hong Kong’s council was not yet a full-fledged member of that integrated party-led system and so could not be trusted to elect the “right” sort of people.
Hong Kong was allotted 36 seats among the 3,000 total. Responsibility for filling the 36 seats was granted to Hong Kong’s 400-member Selection Committee that had been appointed in 1996 to authenticate selection of Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive. This committee was re-named an Electoral Conference for the purpose of NPC delegate selection. It was made up of individuals from the old patriotic community and a sympathetic periphery of business and professional elites that had been organized around it to help Beijing lay the building blocks for all of Hong Kong’s post-1997 governing institutions.
To qualify as a candidate, hopefuls had to collect the signatures of at least 10 conference members. An excess of candidates was allowed along with a preliminary run-off if qualified candidates exceeded 50% above the 36 target number, which they did. But the real drama was provided earlier by the Democratic Party. In 1997, it still stood as the vanguard of Hong Kong’s democracy movement and had, since 1989, been excluded from all the institution-building preparations for July 1, 1997.
During a brief honeymoon period afterward, intermediaries let it be known that bygones could be bygones and DP candidates would be welcome. Wary of being tagged turn-coat capitulators, they held to their pre-1997 ideals of working for a democratic China and decided they would contest the election but on their own terms. Most important in this respect was the Democratic Party’s election manifesto. It called, among other things, for the promotion of constitutional democracy in China; a separation of party and government; elevation of the NPC to true governing status; the formation of all congresses including national, provincial, and local by direction election; an independent judiciary; human rights protection; and an independent Hong Kong-style anti-corruption body.
In return for such daring, Hong Kong was given a crash course in the basics of mainland rule with special emphasis on its congress system. The NPC was not a law-making body in the Western sense but a concentrated manifestation of state power, explained authoritative commentators. Provincial interests were not so much represented there as reflected in the formal presence of their delegations. But first and foremost, was the dominant ruling status of the CCP, which reflected not the people’s will but the law of historical development. The DP’s manifesto presumed to challenge the very foundations of CCP rule by calling both for the separation of party and government, and for direct election of the congressional hierarchy through which the party governs. When the nomination period closed in late November, the three aspiring DP candidates had secured a total of only five signatures from Electoral Conference members.
Once these most unsafe candidates had been dispatched, the next most difficult task for the election managers was to ensure that the right people won in the end since altogether 72 candidates qualified for the first round, and 54 for the second. Journalists covering the event were key to explaining this step since they were able to produce candidate lists or ballot paper crib sheets, in order of sequence, for both rounds. Each elector was allowed to vote for up to 54 candidates in the first round and 36 in the final. Obviously, remembering so many names for those who took the assignment seriously would have been difficult. But the lists just happened to appear in rank order of those determined most worthy of the honor including the NCNA director, NPC incumbents from the earlier appointed pool, and Electoral Conference members themselves. The lists and final results were an almost perfect match (Wen Wei Po, Nov. 29, 1997; Hong Kong Standard, Dec. 6, 1997).
Those who had been excluded nevertheless remained free to kibbutz and protest throughout. They denounced the exercise in no uncertain terms as a “farce” and perversion of the electoral exercise. Even some sympathetic participants disparaged the “mess” as NPC officials, sent from Beijing, improvised step-by-step in their effort to adapt mainland conventions to Hong Kong’s new political culture. But all agreed it was early days … only the first such exercise … with many more opportunities to come.
REFINING THE RULES
Today, 15 years later, far from inspiring Western-style political reforms within the mainland people’s congress system as local democrats had hoped to do in 1997, pressures for political change have since moved mostly in the opposite direction. Between then and now, Hong Kong’s NPC delegate selection has been slowly but surely “mainland-ized,” as the local saying now goes. Pro-democracy activists have all but given up on that particular front and so have local journalists whose determination to ferret out every behind-the-scenes detail is a mere shadow of what it once was.
In December 2002, delegate selection for the 10th NPC initially seemed like progress from a liberal reformer’s point of view. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Election Committee had been regularized and expanded into a slightly smaller version of what exists now. Henceforth, until further notice, it seems destined to serve as the basis of NPC delegate selection. But except for the addition of all Legislative Councilors, who included pan-democrats, committee members were still drawn mainly from conservative business and professional circles.
Five democrats threw their hats into the ring and this time secured enough signatures to qualify as candidates. Two of these — Anthony Cheung Bing-leung and Frederick Fung Kin-kee — took care to distance themselves from the others. These were again DP hopefuls with a platform that again called for an end to one-party rule. But all five were treated alike and none made it through the first round.
Unlike 1997, the presidium managers refused to organize pre-election forums so candidates could introduce themselves to electors. Spokesmen also again warned that candidates who were not patriotic and who called for an end to communist party rule should not be elected. The NCNA had been replaced by the Liaison Office and there were many reports about its lobbying efforts on behalf of certain individuals. The 36 seats were filled primarily by pro-Beijing candidates and only nine were not incumbents. ** A deliberate effort also seemed to have been made to apply the old organization tactic of interlocking memberships since eight NPC delegates were concurrently Legislative Councilors. Still, this could be seen as a modest improvement, compared to the old habit of rewarding only old-style loyalists with appointments.
To secure similarly safe results, however, delegate selection for the 11th NPC needed further refinements. Pan-democrats had worked hard to win enough representation on the Chief Executive Election Committee in order to field a candidate of their own for the March 2007 election. This they did and the Civic Party’s Alan Leong Kah-kit secured 132 nominating signatures from the 795-member committee.
In response to the enhanced democratic presence on that core committee, Beijing topped up its NPC delegate selection panel with an extra 300 appointed conservative members. The first round of voting was also abolished and careful management paid off. All electors had to vote for 36 candidates … no more, no less … to produce a valid ballot. Candidates were kept to the manageable minimum of 50, including 20+ incumbents and four democrats. The latter were all defeated (Wen Wei Po, South China Morning Post, Jan. 26, 2008).
The “bridging” function was also strengthened. Six of the 36-member HKSAR delegation were concurrently Legislative Councilors, as were another 12 safe appointees. These latter joined Hong Kong’s contingent to the NPC’s united front companion body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
THE 12th NPC DELEGATION
After the 1997 selection, I also wrote that, “Beijing will probably never be able to hold a pure mainland-style election in Hong Kong.” … Never say never because this year’s exercise came close. … Only two token democrats bothered to apply. Frederick Fung said he had twice done his best to make himself acceptable and was twice rejected so he would not try again. Toward what end, asked one of the DP’s past candidates. We didn’t expect to win, but only to present our ideas for China’s future political development. Yet even that had proved impossible because electors were not interested and pre-election forums were now primarily in-house insiders’ affairs.
One of the two token democrats, who had collected enough signatures to qualify as candidates, complained that he was unable to lobby for support because he couldn’t even find out who all the electors were. Another marginal candidate, who was not a democrat, reported similar difficulty. If they had been reading the right newspapers last September, they would have seen the new NPC Delegate Election Committee list, topped up from 1,200 with another few hundred unheralded safe appointees. The new total is 1,620 (Wen Wei Po, Sept. 1, 2012).
Ultimately, the 52 qualified candidates included 23 incumbents and 29 newcomers. Among the latter was a past secretary for security, Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, who collected the most nominating signatures … over 700, when only 10 were needed. He is among the few ranking local figures who openly advocate the sooner the better for passage of Article 23 national security legislation, which may account for his popularity among electors (Hong Kong Economic Journal, Dec. 12, 15).
The usual rumors circulated of a master list prepared by the Liaison Office in advance (Ming Pao Daily, HK Economic Journal, Dec. 17). But unlike 1997, no one has yet provided proof. The rumors were all blandly denied and the exercise proceeded like clockwork. All 23 incumbents were re-elected. Ambrose Lee sailed home with the second highest number of votes: 1,387. Nine of the winners are concurrently either legislators or members of CY Leung’s Executive Council cabinet (Ming Pao Daily, Wen wei Po, Dec. 20). The full extent of the bridging function, between Hong Kong and the national legislative system, cannot be calculated until Hong Kong’s new CPPCC appointees are announced before the March 2013 meetings.***
As for pan-democrats, their NPC ambitions may have been modest in 1997, but hopes were high and all have failed to materialize. More surprising, under the circumstances, is their failure to try and make a political issue of the contradictions built into the Hong Kong NPC delegation’s role. With completely straight faces, official managers continue to insist that because of the one-country, two-systems formula governing Hong Kong’s autonomy, NPC delegates cannot play any direct role in Hong Kong’s government and politics as NPC delegates. Hence they are not allowed to have offices or websites in that capacity. But the beauty of being able to wear two hats is that the wearers can take off one and don another as their dual roles demand.
In past years, there have sometimes been too few Legislative Councilors present to muster a quorum during the March NPC/CPPCC meetings. Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai was not only a legislator and NPC delegate but served concurrently as President of the Legislative Council and as a member of the NPC Standing Committee. Yet no one has ever openly debated the contradiction or challenged NPC delegates for violating the two-systems ideal. The lapse is maybe related to a more basic contradiction between acceptance of the idea of eventual political integration with the mainland, and delay in confronting the reality of what a two-systems merger is actually going to mean.
* S. Pepper, “Hong Kong Joins the National People’s Congress: a first test for one country with two political systems,” Journal of Contemporary China (1999), 8(21), p. 321.
** Full account in: D.W. Choy and Fu Hualing, “Small Circle, Entrenched Interest,” Hong Kong Law Journal (2007), vol. 37, part 2, pp. 579-603.
*** CPPCC delegates, all appointees, were announced in early February 2013. The combined total overlaps between Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and Hong Kong’s national NPC/CPPCC delegations is now 12. Additionally, six members of CY Leung’s Executive Council cabinet are also members of one or the other of the two national bodies. A seventh Executive Councilor is also concurrently both a Legislative Councilor and a CPPCC delegate (and counted above, among the 12 Legco overlaps).