Hong Kong marches for 'one person, one vote'

About the author
Agnes Chong graduated from the University of Leeds and the LSE, and has worked for development orgnisations in China and Thailand and an international law firm in Hong Kong, and is currently based in Beijing working for a multilateral agency.

On Sunday 4 December 2005, tens of thousands of protestors marched through the streets of Hong Kong demanding universal suffrage. While observers were quick to notice that the numbers were significantly fewer than the 1 July 2003 protest, the demonstration will prompt some soul-searching among political elites: from Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang’s office through to the national people’s congress (NPC) in Beijing.

Critics of this demonstration were unable to undermine the protest by ascribing it to discontent with a poorly performing economy or the unpopularity of the former chief executive Tung Chee-hua, as they had with the much larger demonstrations of 2003 and 2004. This time, the principled, pro-democracy character of the march was clear. As a result, the government have been obliged to take it very seriously and, unusually, China's prime minister Wen Jiabao made a public statement.

Agnes Chong Agnes Chong graduated from the University of Leeds and the LSE, and has worked for development organisations in China and Thailand and an international law firm in Hong Kong, and is currently based in Beijing working for a multilateral agency.

Also by Agnes Chong in openDemocracy:

“Chinese civil society comes of age” (September 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

At the heart of the demonstration was a package of proposed reforms on which Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) will vote on 21 December. Tsang needs support to pass the measures, though the democrats in LegCo – who command twenty-five of the council’s sixty seats, from a variety of parties – have said they will not support them without significant improvements, including a timetable for universal suffrage.

In April 2004, the NPC rejected proposals to elect both the chief executive and LegCo by universal suffrage in the next round of elections in 2007-8. In the aftermath of Sunday’s march, it was rumoured that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) central government had “hinted” that universal suffrage will be implemented by 2017, though this was swiftly denied by Beijing.

Some democrats are convinced that a timetable for “one person, one vote” did exist and blame former chief secretary Anson Chan – Tung Chee-hwa’s head of administration and a close colleague of Donald Tsang, who resigned from the government in 2001 – for ruining it. Chan, described in The Standard newspaper as “an icon of mainstream respectability in Hong Kong”, made the extraordinary decision to join the 4 December demonstration, perhaps influenced by a public forum in Shenzhen two days earlier where a senior NPC official, Qiao Xiaoyang, voiced scepticism about including universal suffrage in a reform package by 21 December.

The democrats charge Anson Chan – whom Beijing suspects of planning to stand for the chief executive post in 2007 – with not supporting democratic reform when she had the chance while in office, and now effectively undermining it by reducing the democrats’ bargaining power with Beijing.

After the handover

The roots of the latest political drama in Hong Kong lie in the constitutional system bequeathed to the territory after its 155-year-old British lease expired in July 1997, and – following years of negotiation between the two states, from which Hong Kong’s own people were wholly excluded – Hong Kong became a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China.

At that time, a 400-member election committee made up of Beijing appointees voted in Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. Tung was re-elected in an uncontested vote for a second term in 2002, but following a series of setbacks and scandals (including the Sars virus and the Article 23 controversy) he resigned in March 2005 (only to resurface in February 2005 as a vice-president of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party). He was succeeded by his deputy and favoured candidate, Donald Tsang, also in an unchallenged vote.

Since the handover, the election committee has been expanded to 800 members, and the reforms propose to double it again to 1,600. At present, any amendments to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, need the approval of the sitting chief executive, and a two-thirds vote in LegCo and the national people’s congress. The mechanism by which the chief executive will be voted on in the future is currently “under consultation with the PRC government”.

The term of the current, third legislative council is 2004-08. LegCo’s sixty seats are divided into two categories: thirty represent functional constituencies, elected indirectly by the business and economic sectors; and thirty represent geographical constituencies, voted by universal suffrage. Chris Patten, the last British governor, attempted to expand the electorate of functional constituencies to universal suffrage but was vetoed by the Beijing government. The reforms to be decided on 21 December propose to add ten seats to LegCo, forming a new council of seventy.

The reforms also prescribe a change in the selection of the 529 members of the district councils, which are largely responsible for local public works and basic community services; 400 of these will be directly elected, while the chief executive will appoint 102 (the remaining twenty-seven are representatives of rural family clans.)

How many people demonstrated in Hong Kong on 4 December? The organisers, and some early press reports, instantly assessed the figure at 250,000; police sources estimated 63,000. Since then, independent University of Hong Kong researchers arrived at a figure of 81,000-98,000 people (the march organisers expected half this number).

Donald Tsang’s predicament

Donald Tsang claims that the reform package represents a step closer to democracy in Hong Kong. The chief executive, caught between the pressures from Beijing to implement the reforms and the demands of the democrats in LegCo, needs both to appease the forces surrounding him and to determine how best to move forward on the issue of universal suffrage. After Sunday’s protest, he said that he shared the same ideals as the protestors.

So far, Tsang’s pragmatic policies on good governance and economic growth set him apart from his predecessor. But the challenge for Tsang is to sustain this pragmatism while ensuring Hong Kong’s healthy political development and progress towards universal suffrage. Tung’s inaction on the latter contributed to his downfall; Tsang may realise, regardless of his personal conviction, that being the passive medium between Beijing and the people of Hong Kong will not secure his leadership for future terms of office.

The view from Beijing

Aware of the pressures Tsang is facing, Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao reacted quickly to Sunday’s demonstration with an unprecedented public statement expressing his concern. Wen reiterated that the proposed reform package is conducive to the “eventual attainment of universal suffrage”. He argued that these reform measures are a move towards democratisation in Hong Kong. The fact that Wen made the statement at all is perhaps of greater significance than his words; if actions speak as loud as words, this response from the Chinese leadership can be interpreted as optimistic for democrats in Hong Kong.

In Beijing, the Hong Kong demonstration received the usual “media blackout” treatment. This is as much a reflection of the Chinese government’s kneejerk paranoia, as the march ostensibly has no bearing on the ordinary Chinese person’s life today. It would seem a long stretch to regard the Hong Kong demonstration as a precursor to any kind of social unrest in the mainland.

In this light, the best indication of the main current of thinking in China about Hong Kong’s political future is found in the views of leading academics. In an interview with the Ming Pao newspaper, Xu Chongde, former member of the drafting committee of the Basic Law, neither agreed nor disagreed with the 4 December protest, but implied that it could help destabilise the economy and to that extent was regrettable.

Xu, a professor of constitutional affairs at Renmin University, Beijing, cited the Basic Law as clearly stating that democracy should be introduced gradually and (a phrase oft-parroted by such academics) “in accordance with the situation of Hong Kong”. Yet he also argues that since the Basic Law does not provide for a timetable for universal suffrage, there should not be one.

Also in openDemocracy on Hong Kong protest, Taiwan democracy, and China dialogue:

Christine Loh, “Is the Chinese world discovering democracy?” (July 2004)

Christine Loh, “Hong Kong’s democratic road: an interview” (September 2004)

Andreas Lorenz, “China’s environmental suicide: a government minister speaks” (April 2005)

Andrew Mueller, “Taiwan in a Chinese overture” (May 2005)

Isabel Hilton, “China’s freedom test” (September 2005)

Another Renmin University scholar, Zhang Tongxin – director of the Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau Research Centre – said that the demonstration expressed the desires of the people of Hong Kong, but did not resolve any questions of political reform, since these need to be considered “rationally”, through consultation. Zhang reiterated that the central government had already interpreted the Basic Law and decided that there will not be universal suffrage in 2007-08; like Xu Chongde, he said that he does not agree with establishing a timetable because – here it comes again – “it does not incorporate the situation of Hong Kong”.

Beyond the party line

These comments reflect the reality that the Chinese government will ensure that it retains control over Hong Kong just as it controls the rest of China right now. This authority will not be compromised in any event. Should there be future political reforms in Hong Kong, it will be on the Chinese government’s terms. The party line argues for stability, first and foremost; any political reforms will take place gradually, if at all.

Yet maintaining the status quo will prove to be difficult in coming years. The 4th December protest was a clear message to the central government that Hong Kong’s people want “one person, one vote”. Until they achieve their goal, Hong Kong people will be as active as they can in securing what is rightfully theirs, as provided in the Basic Law.

Whether the PRC government anticipated the protest or not, it now faces a new challenge, which will mean adapting its strategy to enable it to respond to the needs of Hong Kong and its people for political progress.

In doing so, the central government in Beijing may just have to act “in accordance with the situation of Hong Kong.”