Hong Kong Democracy: A Pessimistic Review

“Newlonkong” is a neologism referring to the three international economic centres namely New York, London and Hong Kong. However, among the three places, Hong Kong might be regarded as the most democratically backward.

BY ANTONY OU | MAY 10, 2010

hong kong

The Problems

There is now no universal suffrage for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Instead, an 800-member Election Committee enjoys the special privilege of electing the Chief Executive, according to the Basic Law, the mini-constitution for the Region. The 800 members are drawn from the voters of the Functional Constituencies (FCs), the religious sector, and district and central government organisations. The Chief Executive then appoints the Executive Council, which primarily functions as the “cabinet” of the Chief Executive. Some could easily argue that the Chief Executive and his/her cabinet can by no means represent the citizens of Hong Kong, simply because he/she is not competitively voted by the general public. By any modern democratic standard, such kind of indirect election is definitely a product of authoritarianism.

In addition, the Legislative Council (LegCo) is a quasi-bicameral system, which is constituted by 30 seats of Geographical Constituencies (GC) and 30 seats of Functional Constituencies (FC). For the former, general voters (around 3.37 millions) directly select their candidates based on their geographical districts; for the latter, membership of voters are highly restricted—only around 226,000 electors—composed by individuals, organisations and corporations. They have the right to cast a vote for their candidates. For the composition of the FC, it includes mainly businesses and a number of professional sectors (See Appendix). For examples, the FCs of Agriculture and Fisheries, Insurance and Transport are elected via process of corporate voting, of which the latter comprises legal entities but not “natural person”. In this sense, the only eligible voters of these FCs are the ones who own companies of respective constituencies. The problem follows that for these 226,000 electors, around 57,000 of them control over 80% of 30 FC seats (i.e. 25 seats). And within these 25 seats, 12 seats are coming from 10 constituencies selected by 5,600 voters who are all corporate voters. That is to say about 5,600 corporate voters control 40% of FC seats. To paraphrase the famous quote from the Animal Farm, we can then say, in Hong Kong, some voters are more equal than the others. It gives corporate minorities too much power and influence over Hong Kong. Most ironically, the functional constituency of Hong Kong might lead someone to associate it with the equivalent functional or occupational legislative representation of the German Nazi regime, which attempted to pave the way to make Germany into a corporate totalitarian state.

Worse still, the issue of separate voting is one of the most frustrating built-in procedures for the pan-democrats of Hong Kong.  For any citizen and legislator, he/she can propose a bill to be passed by the LegCo. However, this can only be possible by winning separate voting of both GCs and FCs. As for any bill proposed by the government, only a simple majority is required to pass the bill. And for any amendment of the Basic Law, it requires the absolute consent of two-thirds of the LegCo members to support the bill, before entering to the Chief Executive (veto power is given under Article 159) and Hong Kong’s deputies to the National People’s Congress. That is to say, on one hand, by separate voting, any bill proposed by pan-democrats, or any bill concerning public interests, could be easily rejected by the FC legislators, who incline to represent the interests of large corporations and the government. On the other hand, any government bill can be passed relatively easily because the government-friendly camps (from both GCs and FCs) ensure the simple majority. The recent controversial bill on the High-Speed Railway System (costing HK$66.9 billion) is a perfect example of such legislative mechanism: despite of a mass rally outside the LegCo building, the government only needed to ensure one thing—the collaboration of the government-friendly legislators—in order to pass the bill. No wonder Human Rights Monitor criticized the FC as a highly corrupted entity.

In the Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law, it clearly states that the Chief Executive and all the LegCo members of Hong Kong will be ultimately elected by universal suffrage. Yet, the problems remain since we do not know when and how they will be elected. In Annex 1, Section 7 of the Basic Law, it states that laws about the election could be amended as soon as in 2007. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), which has the ultimate power to interpret the Basic Law, promulgates that any amendment to the electoral law must be supported by the NPCSC. On 26 April 2004, the NPCSC abruptly denied the possibility of universal suffrage in 2007 for the Chief Executive and 2008 for LegCo.

After the failure of proposing a seemingly “progressive” political reform in 2005, in 2007, the Chief Executive Donald Tsang asked the central government whether there would be a democratic future for Hong Kong people. Tsang reported that we have to wait till 2017 for the possibility of getting two-thirds of the LegCo members to support the reform. The NPCSC allowed the possibility for the 2017 Chief Executive and 2020 LegCo elections via the means of universal suffrage. In 2009, there was a consultation on political reform, which was very similar to the proposal set in 2005. The key points of the proposed package are summarised as below:

  • The number of members of the Election Committee for the Chief Executive is increased from 800 to 1200;
  • There will be 100 new members of the Election Committee who are District Council and LegCo members. They are chosen by the other District Council and LegCo members ;
  • The size of the LegCo will be increased from 60 to 70 seats with five additional Geographical and Functional Constituencies respectively;
  • The new Functional Constituency seats are all District Council members. They are chosen by the other District Council members via proportional representation (amended in April 2010).

The 2009 political reform proposal, amended in April 2010, by nature, is just like the 2005 one. They are nothing close to universal suffrage. With complicated procedures and newly created traps, the government shows no signs of improvement for the present undemocratic political structure. For instance, the Chief Executive election is still a non-democratic election participated by 1,200 privileged citizens instead of the 3.7 million adults in Hong Kong. Besides, in the name of “gradual and orderly progress”, the “democratic element” added to the LegCo is minimal. According to the government and its “ideologues”, the proposal is one huge step for Hong Kong democratic progress by having more popularly voted District Council members. However, despite the fact that FC is one of the key sources of a non-democratic Hong Kong, the proposal never mentions the abolishment of the FC. Instead, by having five more seats to the FC, the FC is arguably more difficult to be brought to an end in the future. Since the Basic Law ensures the same numbers of GC and FC seats, it is extremely difficult to have two-thirds of LegCo members to abolish the FC by amending the Basic Law. To put it in the simplest sense, who would vote against their own FC seats and step down accordingly?

These odd proposals, together with the long stagnated democratic progress, trigger the new movement, that some people would find it non-harmonious— the de facto referendum.

The “Non-Harmonious” Hong Kong

The concept of a “harmonious society” has become an over-arching theme campaigning over the years in China. The Chinese central government advocates that it is necessary to construct a “harmonious society” while enjoying the economic prosperity. The term has been repeatedly criticized as a strategy that underplays the democratic reform of China. Hong Kong, as part of China after 1st July 1997, is of course included in this grand theory of harmonious society. Interestingly, however, according to a recent survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, there are a quarter of Hong Kong population (around 1.53 million citizens) who think that Hong Kong is not a harmonious society and Hong Kong people should apply more radical measures when fighting for democracy and other demands. The result is alarming for the SAR government as well as the central government, both of which emphasise so much on the importance of a stable government.

Some commentators and scholars interpret that the only reason for a government to promote harmony is because the society of which it governs lacks harmony. More importantly, politicians often do not acknowledge the fact that in nature, politics is never harmonious. An open society needs channels for non-harmonious, pluralistic political interactions. Hong Kong enjoys the rights to demonstrate, assemble and express, yet, when it comes to the right to universal suffrage, the SAR government disappoints Hong Kong citizens. The “radical” but non-violent measures that the survey mentioned make people think of the recent controversy on de facto referendum. The League of Social Democrats (LSD) and the Civic Party were the initiators of this so-called “New Democratic Movement”.

The 2010 Hong Kong by-election, which will be held on 16 May, was triggered by the resignation of five pan-democrat LegCo members in January of the same year. The resigned LegCo members named it “Five Constituencies Referendum”, that requires one pan-democratic lawmaker from each of the five GCs to resign and then consequently triggers a by-election, which is a standard legislative procedure. The Basic Law never offers a de jure referendum, nonetheless, the “Five Constituencies Referendum” serves as a de facto one. Its purpose, according to the resigned LegCo members, is to let every Hong Kong citizens to participate in a form of direct democracy—to decide whether there should be a genuine political reform, which guarantees universal suffrage, and the abolishment of the FC system.

*Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 1 | No. 2
© Copyright 2012 by CESRAN
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