China Power

Hong Kong Debates Democracy

Recent Features

China Power

Hong Kong Debates Democracy

Hong Kong’s debates over universal suffrage reflect a larger identity crisis in the Special Administrative Region.

Hong Kong Debates Democracy
Credit: wikimedia commons

While UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to China has mostly gone as planned, one critical article appeared in the Global Times. The editorial called Cameron’s “sincerity” into question, specifically taking the UK to task for “making carping comments on Hong Kong implementing universal suffrage for the chief executive’s election in 2017.” Cameron’s visit, which has been focused almost exclusively on trade, suddenly became connected to a larger and much thornier issue — the question of Hong Kong’s universal suffrage.

Currently, Hong Kong’s chief executive is elected by a committee of 1,200, rather than by a direct vote. In 2007, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee decided that “that the election of the fifth Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the year 2017 may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage,” with universal elections for the Legislative Council to follow. While this decision gave hope for direct elections of the chief executive by 2017, it also doesn’t provide a guarantee. As 2017 gets closer, the debate over whether to implement universal suffrage and how to do so has grown more intense.

Rather than focusing on the election itself, much of the debate has centered on how the nominations process will work. Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law says 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.” The controversial section is the latter half: what will this “broadly representative nominating committee” look like? Pan-democracy activists in Hong Kong fear that the nominating committee will be full of Beijing loyalists, meaning that only pro-Beijing candidates will be allowed to run for chief executive.

In fact, this is exactly right, but those outside the pan-democratic camp don’t view it as a problem. Chairman of the National People’s Congress Law Committee Qiao Xiaoyang famously stated that any candidate for chief executive would have to “love the country and love Hong Kong.” At a seminar held by Tsinghua University’s School of Law in late November, Ren Geping, director of the Center for Hong Kong and Macau Studies at Peking University, explained the concept further: “Hong Kong’s universal suffrage for chief executive is an election within a constituent administrative region of China rather than an independent area. It cannot simply adopt or imitate models of national-level elections … The central government has the right to guide Hong Kong’s political evolution.”

At the same conference, Zhang Dinghuai, deputy director of the Center for Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions at Shenzhen University, described the heart of the debate as the question of “whether the pan-democratic camp is willing to accept the political relationship between the central government and the special administrative region.”

Zhang’s question reveals the anxiety underlining the democracy debates: Hongkongers, especially the pan-democrats, fear losing their unique identity and being subsumed into China as a whole. Some Hong Kong citizens are thus incredibly sensitive to any signs that Beijing is interfering in the city’s affairs. Meanwhile, the Chinese government worries that Hong Kong is increasingly pulling away from it, and as a result Beijing tends to see Western-backed, pro-democratic conspiracies around every corner.

On the Hong Kong side, there’s evidence that more and more people are defining themselves as a distinct group rather than part of the mainland. Biannual surveys by the Chinese University of Hong Kong show that the percentage of Hongkongers identifying as “Chinese” has decreased over the years. The latest poll reveals that nearly 40 percent of Hong Kong citizens identify as “Hongkongers” rather than “Chinese,” a 14 year high and up 10 percent from December 2012. The disconnect is as much cultural as political — some Hongkongers have grown resentful of so-called “locusts” from the mainland who crowd into Hong Kong and clog the subways, buy up precious real estate, and even give birth to what people in the U.S. would call “anchor babies.”

Sensing an increasing distance between Hong Kong and the mainland, Beijing rolled out a plan to incorporate “moral and national education” in Hong Kong schools. This attempt to instill a love of mainland China into Hongkongers backfired with a vengeance. Last year, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents protested  the new education requirements, which were finally scrapped as a result of public pressure.

As the protests show, Hong Kong residents can be extremely sensitive about any interference from Beijing — real or imagined. Chief Executive Chun-ying (CY) Leung himself has repeatedly come under fire for being “too close” to Beijing. Beijing’s expressions of support for Leung as he battles accusations of corruption have probably worked against the Chief Executive. University of Hong Kong polls from October found Leung’s popularity rating had fallen below 50 percent for seven consecutive months. Still, even Leung has expressed his support for Hong Kong’s unique values. In his inaugural policy address, Leung promised to “promote the development of a democratic political system in accordance with the provisions of the Basic Law” and swore to do his “utmost to safeguard human rights and make sure that press freedom and the independence of the media are respected.”

On the other side of the debate, mainland scholars and government officials feel, as Zhang Dinghuai puts it, that  Hongkongers  “haven’t given due attention to how to fulfill the region’s political responsibilities to the country.” Instead, they focus exclusively on China’s responsibilities to Hong Kong. Beijing sees the return of Hong Kong in 1997 as a shining moment in Chinese history, and resents that some Hongkongers seems less than enthused about being joined with the mainland. As with other cases of domestic dissent, Beijing often finds it easier to blame the problem on a Western conspiracy rather than acknowledging legitimate grievances. Thus the Global Times’ shot at British PM David Cameron.

Western politicians certainly aren’t doing themselves any favors. Just in the past three months, both a UK Minister of State and the new U.S. consul general to Hong Kong have expressed their support for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. In response, Chief Executive Leung issued a warning: “For any foreign official who wants to participate or intervene, the past experience is very clear – it will only do the opposite for Hong Kong’s political reform, including the people they wanted to support or influence.” The more Beijing sees Hong Kong’s democracy advocates as Western pawns, the less likely we are to actually see universal suffrage in the region.

In fact, there’s little outside advocacy can do. At heart, the democracy debates are only one facet of an overall identify crisis in Hong Kong. The city will have to find its own solution, balancing the identities of “Hongkonger” and “Chinese.”

At any rate, cultural questions aside, the South China Morning Post writes that there is a purely legal “catch-22” with regards to the 2017 elections. Beijing’s Basic Law Committee Chairman Li Fei warned that “Hong Kong faces a dilemma: it cannot elect a chief executive opposed to Beijing, nor can legally qualified candidates be barred from running when the city chooses its leader by one-person, one-vote in 2017.” Unfortunately, Li did not offer any solutions to the dilemma, leaving the debates to rage on.