What Next for Hong Kong’s Democracy?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

What Next for Hong Kong’s Democracy?


The Occupy Central movement has not ended yet – although the massive crowds of last week have dwindled significantly – but the Hong Kong government and protest representatives have agreed to engage in serious dialogue to find a solution to the standoff. This accommodating approach best serves the interest of Hong Kong people, and paves the way for achieving genuine democracy in Hong Kong in the future.

Both sides deserve praise. The police, who initially reacted with tear gas and pepper spray, quickly realized that violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations could only harden the opposition and trigger more resistance. As a result, they scaled down their presence on the street and returned to routine law enforcement. The protestors, mostly young students, have demonstrated discipline and self-restraint since the beginning. Foreign journalists have noted the orderliness of the demonstrators and the cleanliness of the occupied streets.

The high level of civility by protestors and the police is good news for Hong Kong, and sets a good example for the rest of China, where mass protests are frequent occurrences, and often turn confrontational and violent.

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The Hong Kong protests have been portrayed by some media and commentators as wanting to elect their leaders directly, while the Chinese government will not permit it. Such simplistic and misguided reports and commentaries are not only misleading, but also detrimental to Hong Kong democracy.

As Singaporean Foreign Minister K Shanmugam pointed out, there has been quite a bit of anti-China bias in Western media reports, which often state that China is denying democracy and impacting the freedoms that helped Hong Kong become successful. Hong Kong did not have a democratic system for 155 years under British rule, when both British and the wider Western media apparently did not think democracy was necessary for Hong Kong. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 does not mention universal suffrage, and Beijing’s proposal for the 2017 chief executive election is “more than what Hong Kong ever had under the British” – a point which the Western media have missed, said Shanmugam.

The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution which was adopted by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) in April 1990, grants Hong Kong people the right to vote and stand for elections. Article 45 states that “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”  However, the Basic Law does not contain specific details regarding universal suffrage. In the past, Chinese officials such as Zhao Ziyang, premier during the Sino-U.K. negotiations in the 1980s, and Lu Ping, former director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, promised that Hong Kong would become a democracy in the future.

On August 30, 2014, the Standing Committee of the NPC issued its plan to have universal suffrage in Hong Kong’s next elections for its chief executive and the legislative council. According to the plan, the two or three final candidates for the chief executive election must be approved by the majority of a 1,200 member nominating committee before they stand for popular vote. Beijing’s reasoning is that such controlled elections would ensure that the new chief executive will “love Hong Kong and love China.”

The NPC proposal has disappointed some in Hong Kong, who demand a completely free election in 2017. Emily Lau, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, believes those previous promises must be honored, and universal suffrage should mean voters be given a choice of candidates from different political persuasions; otherwise, Hong Kong’s elections will be just like those in Iran or North Korea. However, not everyone agrees. Alan Hoo, a barrister and expert on the Basic Law, said that China has not broken any promises. “Universal suffrage, under the international covenant, means that there are express rights to elect or be elected. There is no express right to nominate,” Hoo told BBC News during an interview.

Strictly speaking, Beijing does not have to do anything to introduce democracy to Hong Kong before 2047, since it has promised to maintain Hong Kong’s current system intact for 50 years after the handover in 1997. In this context, the August 2014 NPC proposal is indeed a positive step.

As Alastair Newton, a former British diplomat and senior political analyst at Nomura International PLC has commented, Beijing’s proposed process for the 2017 elections is in keeping with the Basic Law agreed upon by both the Chinese and the British government. Some protestors’ insistence that there must be a completely free election in 2017 is both overly ambitious and ill-advised. The Basic Law does not have a deadline for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. A democratic transition is more likely to succeed if it takes place incrementally. Beijing’s proposal, when fully implemented, is more pragmatic than what protestors are demanding. Over the long-term, the freedoms Hong Kongers’ enjoy will not be curtailed, but expanded.

So what’s next? The universal suffrage proposed by the NPC for the 2017 Chief Executive Election is a big stride forward and should be welcomed by those who care about Hong Kong’s future, yet who are also realistic and understand the complexity of local and Chinese politics.

Chief Executive CY Leung has noted that the nomination process for the next election has not started yet. Those who are dissatisfied with the NPC proposal can put pressure on the Hong Kong government to ensure that the nominating committee is fully representative of all walks of life in Hong Kong, and that a wide range of candidates be considered in the nominating process. Recent developments suggest that the Hong Kong government is willing to compromise on this. Continuing to occupy the business district and block government buildings, or to ask Leung to resign, will not solve the problem and will only alienate the protestors from many of Hong Kong’s citizens.

Though the short-term crisis seems over, in the medium to long-term, democracy in Hong Kong including completely free elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive should be a major political objective. The Beijing government must listen to the voices of peaceful dissent in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Young people’s pursuit of democracy must be respected and recognized. It is vital for Hong Kong’s democratic development to be successful, since it has a demonstrable effect on the rest of China. The Chinese leadership should be confident that no matter how the future chief executive is elected, this individual will almost certainly be “pro-Beijing,” since he or she will have to build a good and close working relationship with the central government. Without the support and cooperation of the Mainland, how can Hong Kong function as a global center of business in an increasingly competitive world?

Zhiqun Zhu is Director of the China Institute and a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. 

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