Hong Kong’s long march to democracy

Emily Lau
14 March 2007

2007 marks the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). After being a British colony for over 150 years, Hong Kong was handed over to Chinese rule on 1 July 1997.

Ten years ago, Hong Kong was not a democracy. Today - as the election for the third post-1997 term of the territory's chief executive on 25 March 2007 approaches - it still is not. Attempts by the last governor Chris Patten to democratise the political institutions were dismantled by his successor Chee-hwa Tung, who was handpicked by Beijing to be the first chief executive of the HKSAR.

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, Beijing dissolved the partially directly elected lawmaking body, the Legislative Council (Legco) and replaced it with a provisional council which was chosen by 400 people.

Emily Lau is a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Legco), representing The Frontier political group. Her website is here.

At that time, only twenty-four of the sixty Legco members were directly elected by geographical constituencies. Thirty were elected by so-called functional constituencies consisting of business and professional people. Six were chosen by 800 people. In 2007, only half of the members of Legco are democratically elected and the chief executive is also chosen by 800 people.

In 2003, Tung tried to bulldoze the unpopular national-security bill through Legco. This was an attempt to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law, the HKSAR's mini-constitution, which requires the HKSAR to enact legislation to prohibit treason, secession, sedition, subversion and theft of state secrets.

Many Hong Kong people were concerned the law would criminalise free speech and put other freedoms in peril. Opposition to the bill reached a climax on 1 July 2003, when over half a million protestors took to the streets.

The huge demonstration forced the Tung administration to shelve the bill but Beijing became alarmed. The central government lost confidence in Tung and decided that constitutional development should be halted.

In March 2005, Tung was forced to resign. Beijing gave the top job to the number two in government, Donald Tsang, trusting that he will do what he is told. In December 2005, Tsang introduced some minor political reforms, but they were blocked in Legco by the twenty-five pro-democracy members because the proposals did not go far enough. Thus constitutional development was at a stalemate.

On 25 March, the next chief executive of the HKSAR will be chosen by a committee of 800 people. This is in spite of the fact that there are 3.2 million registered voters. There is no suspense because it is a foregone conclusion that Tsang will be given another term.

Nevertheless there is a pro-democracy challenger, Alan Leong of the Civic Party, and he is backed by the Democratic Party. Leong has secured more than 100 nominations from the election committee of 800 and is validly nominated.

I do not support Leong's bid and will boycott the small-circle election. I fear that by participating in the farce, we would lend legitimacy to the unfair and undemocratic process. However some members of the pro-democracy movement believe that being successfully nominated is progress and will further the cause of democracy.

On the other hand, false competition may mislead the public into thinking there is progress. The situation is particularly disturbing because the news media's coverage of the election is only concentrated on the so-called contest and ignored views of people who boycott the farce. Hence the public is only given a one-sided picture of the race by the two candidates.

Beijing may be uncomfortable to see a challenger to Tsang, but the unease must be outweighed by the sense of satisfaction over the fact that the democrats are no longer boycotting the small-circle election.

A generation's project

Looking ahead, the fight for democracy under Chinese sovereignty will be long and arduous. The fact that Britain failed to introduce democratic government in Hong Kong during its colonial rule makes things all the more difficult.

Also in openDemocracy on Hong Kong, China and democracy:

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

" Agnes Chong, "Hong Kong marches for 'one person, one vote'"
(8 December 2005)

"Li Datong, "Hong Kong’s example"
(7 February 2007)

On 28 February, the British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett presented her government's twelfth six-monthly report on Hong Kong to parliament. She said the best way to safeguard Hong Kong's long-term stability and prosperity is for it to advance to a system of universal suffrage as soon as possible.

The foreign secretary referred to the HKSAR government's commission for strategic development, and said a broad agreement may be emerging within the commission over a possible model to elect the chief executive by universal suffrage. That is excessively optimistic.

Tsang said he would publish a consultative document later in 2006 setting out several options. He hopes a mainstream proposal will emerge and will submit it to Beijing for approval. However it is almost certain the tycoons and pro-Beijing politicians will not support direct elections in 2012.

In mid February, twenty-one pro-democracy Legco members published a proposal calling for universal suffrage for the chief-executive election in 2012, but the nomination committee stipulated in the Basic Law - Hong Kong's constitution - will be retained. This committee has the power to nominate candidates and Beijing is keen to use it to filter out unacceptable candidates.

Four pro-democracy Legco members, including myself, do not support this proposal. We think the Basic Law should be amended and the nomination committee abolished. Otherwise the election will not be based on universal and equal suffrage. As for election of Legco members, all pro-democracy Legco members think agree that functional constituencies should be abolished in 2012.

Despite the various proposals being put forward, it is unlikely that the tycoons and the pro-Beijing politicians will support a quicker pace of democracy. In the past decade, opinion surveys have consistently shown that the vast majority of the respondents want elections by universal suffrage. However, their demands have been repeatedly rebuffed.

As a sign of the central government's hostility towards some pro-democracy politicians, more than a dozen legislators and other activists have been banned from travelling to mainland China for over a decade.

Those in Hong Kong who have fought for democracy for so many decades should know that democracy will not fall like manna from heaven. It will be up to the Hong Kong people to show how hard they want to push and what sacrifices they are willing to make. Some people believe that the guarantee for a free and democratic Hong Kong is a free and democratic China. We don't know when a democratic China would emerge, but we should work hard for our own sake and for the sake of the next generation.

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