Don't Overdo the Pessimism on Hong Kong Reforms


Outside commentary on Hong Kong, and its unique political structure, has grown since the National People’s Congress released their decision on the city’s upcoming election process. Reaction was immediately negative: the major sticking point was that a “Nominating Committee” would approve candidates for the next Chief Executive campaign in 2017. Several observers have lost faith in the entire project, remarking that “One Country, Two Systems” – the political structure that preserves Hong Kong’s autonomy – is effectively dead.

However, the current electoral developments should be a source of interest and excitement. If these reforms pass, there will now be a Chinese city that will directly choose its own leader. The election will come with campaigns and politics, monitored by Hong Kong’s politically engaged population and covered by its vibrant (and aggressive) press.

From a more analytical perspective, Hong Kong’s electoral reforms are not just a movement of democratization happening in real time, they are also being developed in an instance of shared sovereignty. Hong Kong’s powers almost make it a de facto city-state; with Mindanao, Scotland, Kurdistan and Donetsk all potentially receiving their own significant autonomy, Hong Kong and its reforms are a predictor of what may happen in similar political structures.

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The conventional Western wisdom has argued that, despite the promise of elections based on “one man, one vote,” the Nominating Committee would allow Beijing to “rig” the entire election by ensuring that only its preferred candidates could run. However, it is not clear on what basis this argument is made. The NPC’s decision doesn’t actually say that much: it calls for a “broadly representative” committee, says that a prospective candidate needs endorsement by 50 percent of the committee to run, and claims that candidates should “love the country, and love Hong Kong” – an unfortunate piece of bluster, perhaps, but not necessarily worse than the several unwritten rules of Western electoral conduct.

Contrary to what has been claimed, Beijing is not directly picking candidates. Instead, if predictions are correct that the current Election Committee is the model for the Nomination Committee, we’d see a committee of Hong Kong citizens, representing various sectors chosen through various methods. Beijing would have significant influence, perhaps even enough to give it an effective veto. However, this would still be a veto; Beijing cannot decide which prospective candidates come forward, or who ultimately succeeds.

Nor does prior evidence support the notion that such a committee will be entirely immune to outside politics and public opinion: the last “election” in 2012 saw Beijing’s favorite, Henry Tang, become publicly unpopular due to a zoning scandal; instead, the committee chose his opponent, C.Y. Leung.

Finally, one should remember that the end result is still an election. Beijing could try to control the election’s outcome, but it will quickly lose control of the narrative. Politicians – even those approved by China – will still have to appeal to voters. After all, they want to win, and Hong Kong’s population will be closely watching. China will have influence, but it will remain indirect, and focused on open institutions that Beijing does not actually control.

We shouldn’t pre-judge an election process that, frankly, doesn’t exist yet. By virtue of even having an election, these reforms are already a significant step forward for democracy. Similar differences in nomination in other mature democracies haven’t doomed further progress; in the United Kingdom, parties, not citizens, choose candidates, and the United States’ Electoral College is, in theory, free to ignore public opinion and vote for whomever it wants.

While the reform process will result in compromises between Hong Kong’s democrats and pro-Beijing groups, these compromises are a necessary outcome of politics. And, to outside analysts, they are worthy of academic interest. These reforms represent an attempt to determine how an increasingly divergent political process will work within a greater national unit. The outcomes will be globally significant: Scotland’s promised “devolution max,” with its fiscal and legislative autonomy, sounds a lot like “One Country, Two Systems.”

The recent question of nomination is actually interesting from an analytical standpoint. For example, how would such a structure handle the extreme situation of a candidate committed to secession, or the overthrow of the national government? Such a situation can only be resolved extra-legally, which would destroy that political structure. Put this question in the Hong Kong context, and Beijing’s attitude towards nomination starts to seem more understandable; Hong Kong’s small size makes an election of an extremist candidate, and the resulting constitutional crisis, at least a remote possibility.

This fear isn’t baseless. Catalonia’s government is going ahead with an independence referendum despite Madrid’s constitutional objections; the province seems determined to cause a constitutional crisis. If structures similar to Hong Kong’s are proposed as a long-term solution to conflict (as they have been in Mindanao, Donetsk and Scotland), similar crises would have to be avoided. Past answers haven’t been particular helpful: remember that the United States fought a civil war over secession.

A related question concerns what Hong Kong’s politics would look like, especially in the executive branch. The chief executive is more than a mere mayor, or even a provincial governor. In fact, with the territory’s almost complete control over domestic policy and its limited foreign policy, the chief executive’s powers approach those of an actual state leader. It would be interesting to see what a chief executive may do when backed by a popular mandate, especially in “foreign policy.” Mainstream models of international relations usually pass over sub-state actors; if these reforms go through, we might see a more active Hong Kong government, challenging this model.

The outside pessimism on Hong Kong is not justified – at least, not yet. Unless Beijing actually does what outside critics fear, it doesn’t help to act like Hong Kong’s process of reform is over. To assume this would mean losing an immense analytical opportunity: to see the construction of democracy in real time, with all of its debates and compromises, and in an instance of shared sovereignty that will only become more common in today’s world.

Nicholas Gordon is taking an MPhil in International Relations at Oxford University. He was born and raised in Hong Kong, and attended college in the United States; he has written on “One Country, Two Systems” for several Hong Kong publications.

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