‘One Person, One Vote’

Hong Kong in Transition

Li Li

Hong Kong's democracy is about to make another leap forward after the National Peo- ple's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee decided to grant universal suffrage in the selection of Hong Kong's chief executive on the basis of nomination by a "broadly representative" committee.

The decision on how the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) will be selected was passed unanimously at the bi-monthly session of the standing committee of China's top legislature on August 31.

The decision allows two or three candidates to run for the HKSAR's top job after obtaining support from at least half of a nominating committee that "shall be chosen in accordance with the number of members, composition and formation method of the election committee for the fourth chief executive."

According to the NPC decision, all eligible voters in the region will be able to have their say in who the chief executive for the HKSAR will be, while the existing system and voting procedures for the Legislative Council will remain unchanged Under Hong Kong's Basic Law, it is stipulated that "all permanent residents of the HKSAR shall have the right to vote and the right to stand for election in accordance with law."

Li Fei, Vice Secretary General of the NPC Standing Committee, said during a press conference on August 31 afternoon that the size of the nominating committee was set at 1,200.

The chief executive-elect after being selected through voting by the populace, will still need to be appointed by the Central Government, according to the decision, which stressed that the chief executive has to be a person who "loves the country and loves Hong Kong".

Li said this is a basic requirement for the "one country, two systems" policy. The method for selecting the chief executive by universal suffrage must provide corresponding institutional safeguards for this purpose.

Top Chinese legislator Zhang Dejiang also said on August 31 that the new decision was of great importance to implementing the principles of "one country, two systems" and ensuring that the region maintains a high degree of autonomy while following the Hong Kong Basic Law.

"The decision is vital for steadily developing democracy in Hong Kong and implementing the selection of the HKSAR chief executive by universal suffrage according to law," he said.

Britain made no mention of democracy for Hong Kong until the dying days of nearly 150 years of colonial rule. Before Hong Kong was returned to China on July 1,1997, the Governors of Hong Kong were all appointed by the British Crown, without recourse to any pretense of democracy.

A milestone
The first chief executive of the HKSAR was elected by a 400-member selection committee in early 1997, while the second, third and fourth chief executives were elected by an election committee, the membership of which had grown from 800 to 1,200 in the meantime.

In December 2007, the NPC Standing Committee resolved that the election of Hong Kong's fifth chief executive in 2017 may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage.

The latest decision said that "implementing universal suffrage represents historic progress in Hong Kong's democratic development and a significant change in the political structure of the HKSAR."

Speaking during the press conference on August 31, Li said the NPC Standing Committee's decision marked a "key moment" in Hong Kong's democratic development and is crucial to its current and future stability, as well as the fundamental interests of Hong Kong residents and foreign investors.

"Hong Kong has accomplished democratic progress it never enjoyed under the British rule of over 150 years," said Chen Zuo'er, head of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies. "I should congratulate the Hong Kong people today for being so close to universal suffrage."

Speaking at an event on September 1 to discuss the NPC's decision, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chunying said, "The majority of Hong Kong citizens-namely, the 5 million qualified voters of the selection of chief executive in 2017-will be able to cast their votes to select the chief executive."

"This is the first opportunity, a very good opportunity, for Hong Kong to have one man, one vote, universal suffrage. This is something we should all feel proud of," he added.

The HKSAR Government will now draft a detailed election proposal and consult the public in the coming months. A resolution detailing the reform will be given to the Legislative Council in the first quarter of next year.
Hong Kong's former chief secretary, Tang Ying-yen, said he supports the decision and hopes that the new round of public consultation will be launched at an early date.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce Chairman Pang Yiu-kai said that Hong Kong people wish to implement universal suffrage as soon as possible, and "it will be a historic milestone for Hong Kong if we can elect our ideal leader in 2017 through 'one person, one vote."'

The Chinese General Chamber of Commerce appealed to all sectors of Hong Kong to put away prejudices and seek for consensus to implement universal suffrage and promote the democratic development of Hong Kong.

The Chinese Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong said the decision created a clear framework for Hong Kong's constitutional reform, and it will be helpful to the Hong Kong government and different sectors in accelerating the process of democracy.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the biggest political party in Hong Kong, said the decision marked an important step in Hong Kong's constitutional reform, and it calls on the region's society to concentrate on discussion and build consensus.

"The nominating committee shall nominate two to three candidates for the office of chief executive in accordance with democratic procedure," the decision read. "Each candidate must have the endorsement of more than half of all the members of the nominating committee."

Not every one in Hong Kong has been pleased by the Central Government's decision. The protest movement Occupy Central has vocally demanded for elections in which any candidate can run for chief executive. For weeks, protestors have taken to the streets. The organizers of the movement had threatened to lock down Hong Kong's central business district on an unspecified date if the election reform plan did not satisfy them.

But in response, the Alliance for Peace & Democracy, an anti-Occupy Central movement, managed to gather close to 1.5 million signatures during a one-month campaign that ended in mid-August.

When asked about the demands advocated by groups like Occupy Central, Li said they clearly run against the Hong Kong Basic Law, adding that such "unpractical" calls had led to "a tremendous waste of time" in Hong Kong society. He said the changes demanded by the group are "tailored only for their own interests and needs."

He said having two or three election candidates will make for an efficient election system and complies with the opinions of the majority expressed during a five-month consultation conducted by the HKSAR Government from December 4,2013, to May 3,2014.

Peking University professor of law Qiang Shigong said that the stipulation of two to three candidates will allow the ballot to be more efficient and avoid having to hold multiple rounds in case several candidates each only get 10 or 20 percent of the vote.

Defending the requirement that the candidates have to be endorsed by half of the nomination committee, Professor Qiang said in the past the chief executive was elected only by the 1,200 members of the election committee while in the future universal suffrage will apply to over 6 million Hong Kong residents. "The elected candidate must have the endorsement of over half the committee, which takes into consideration all the different political, religious and social groups' standpoints," Qiang said.

"The proposed Occupy Central protest would harm the region's prosperity and growth. I believe the SAR has prepared plans in accordance with the Basic Law, if the illegal protest continues. The Central Government will not just sit back and watch if the protest escalates," Chen from the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies said.

No stagnation
Experts believe the NPC Standing Committee's decision has offered a clear direction and provided guidelines for achieving the goal of universal suffrage in 2017. But there remains room to negotiate, such as how to make sure the selection of the nomination committee is more democratic.

'We cannot afford a standstill in our constitutional development or else the prosperity or stability of Hong Kong will be at stake. All Hong Kong people, irrespective of their political affiliations, should come together with one heart, one vision, to take forward the democratic development of Hong Kong, and to implement universal suffrage," said Leung.

He added that different opinions must be expressed peacefully, rationally and legally.

'The decision has clearly shown the Central Government's bottom line over the debates over the election procedures of the chief executive," Lau Siu-kai, emeritus professor of sociology of Hong Kong-based Chinese University and Vice President of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, told Beijing Review. He said that the Central Government has indicated that it would not back off on fundamental issues.

"It is really time for radicals to decide between these two paths: resisting the amendments to pursue their personal short-term gains or truly putting the long-term democratic development of Hong Kong first," said Professor Lau. He said that the leaders of those opposing the reform should lower their expectations of becoming chief executive and instead focus on maximizing their influence during the first round of universal suffrage.

Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and a co-founder of Occupy Central, admitted at an interview with the South China Morning Post on September 2 that his movement's strategy to win concessions from the Central Government on election reform had failed and that support for the sit-in was waning.

The adoption of the NPC decision represents the second step in Hong Kong's five-step electoral reform. The first step was that Leung filed a report to the NPC Standing Committee on issues relating to the election methods for the chief executive and Legislative Council on July 15 based on the five-month consultation.

During the following stages, the specific method of universal suffrage shall be prescribed in accordance with legal procedures through amending Annex I to the Hong Kong Basic Law. Such amendments must be endorsed by at least two-thirds of all the members of the Legislative Council and with the consent of the chief executive before being submitted to the NPC Standing Committee for approval.

If the specific method of universal suffrage for selecting the chief executive is not adopted in accordance with legal procedures, the method used for selecting Hong Kong's leader for the preceding term shall continue to apply, the decision said.

Li said whether Hong Kong could achieve universal suffrage depends on the subsequent steps, and called on "certain groups in Hong Kong to set aside prejudices and personal interests, showcase their political courage and wisdom to push forward universal suffrage in the 2017 election."

"Some might say that if we don't have universal suffrage in 2017, we could still redo everything in 2022. But I think if we miss the opportunity in 2017, Hong Kong may never have the chance to regain the momentum lost," he said.

Ng Leung-sing, the finance committee chair of the Legislative Council of HKSAR, said the mainstream public opinions in Hong Kong will play a significant role in the final results of Hong Kong's election reform during an interview with on September 2. "If all voters decide that watching the 1,200 election committee members cast the ballots is not as good as casting their own ballots, the 'pro-democracy' legislators will have to take their opinions into consideration and turn to support the electoral changes in the decision," said Ng.
[source : Beijing Review, September 11, 2014]

Vol. 47, No. 22, Dec 7 - 13, 2014