As 2017, the year for Hong Kong to have “dual universal suffrage” (direct elections of the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council members), draws near, the different forces in Hong Kong are becoming agitated. “One country, two systems” has become a hot topic once again. The current controversy concerns the nomination of candidates. Some political parties and Hongkongers insist upon a “real election,” where candidates for the post of Chief Executive aren’t nominated in advance by a “small circle” of pro-Beijing elites. These groups hope that the Basic Law can keep up with the times like the Constitution, with amendments being made in accordance with the actual situation and public opinion. Other Hongkongers, including pro-Beijing officials, insist that Hong Kong cannot copy the West’s nomination methods. They say a consideration of the candidates’ qualifications is necessary to ensure that the elected Chief Executive is a supporter of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who loves both Hong Kong and the country.
Each side has its arguments, and both have some merits. Hong Kong practices “one country, two systems” — one country comes first. Hong Kong is part of the People’s Republic of China, and the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China clearly stipulates that China is led by the CCP. What if Hong Kong does not respect this premise and elects a Chief Executive who loves Hong Kong but not China, or even opposes the regime in Beijing? This would harm the idea of “one country” in “one country, two systems”.
On the other hand, Beijing wants to use “preventive measures” to avoid the election of a minority party member who opposes Beijing. This means using disguised methods to select candidates to ensure that no one Beijing dislikes can become a candidate. In that case, is there any difference between the “universal suffrage” promised to Hong Kong long ago by Deng Xiaoping and the “elections” held in mainland China for all levels of the People’s Congress and other government officials? What happened to the idea of “two systems”?
Hostility between the two sides is increasing. Some Hongkongers who support direct elections have said they will participate in and support the “Occupy Central” movement for a long-term struggle if they cannot get the answer they desire. Meanwhile, those Hongkongers who believe the Basic Law is on their side, as well as most Hong Kong-related mainland officials, are equally resolute in their opposition and have no intention of backing down.
I’m familiar with both Hong Kong and the mainland. Since 1992, I’ve lived in Hong Kong off and on for eight years, and I also have some knowledge of the political environment in Beijing. Below, I’ll try to express my personal views from the standpoint of an independent scholar. I hope it might be helpful to both sides, especially the policymakers in Beijing.
Hongkongers must realize that, under “one country, two systems,” Beijing will never allow Hong Kong to elect a Chief Executive who opposes the central government and the ruling party. In addition, the central government has the legal power to interfere in the election of a Chief Executive. A prominent member of a Beijing think tank told me that it would be damaging to wait for the election of an “illegal” Chief Executive in Hong Kong and then have Beijing interfere. This would cause confusion in Hong Kong and seriously damage the Beijing’s image. Instead, he said, it would be better to prepare in advance and limit the list of eligible candidates, so that unqualified and “illegal” politicians in Hong Kong cannot become candidates.
His argument sounds reasonable. But is it appropriate to change the rules of democratic elections in advance out of worry that the election might bring undesirable results? There’s no guarantee that the election results will actually be unfavorable, but damaging the democratic process and regulations will definitely result in adverse consequences, harming both sides. Below, I imagine two scenarios for “universal suffrage” in Hong Kong, based on my own observations.
The first prospect: Through the Basic Law, the “Election Committee” and similar mechanisms, Beijing successfully restricts the pool of candidates for Chief Executive. Although all Hong Kong citizens can participate in the election, the candidates are investigated and determined in advance by a group of several hundred or several thousand people. This might seem to solve a lingering problem, but I believe this would only be the beginning of another problem.
The last few Chief Executives of Hong Kong have worked hard; speaking truthfully, they’ve done a pretty good job. So why did people take to the streets to protest at every turn? Why is public approval so low? Obviously, most people in Hong Kong believe that the Chief Executive is always “held captive” — acting on orders from on high — and thus has no legitimacy. Now there are high expectations in Hong Kong for “universal suffrage” in 2017. If Beijing uses its own method to select the candidates, isn’t that just lighting a fuse for the future anger of Hongkongers?
As the mainland continues its process of reform and opening, Hong Kong will continue to decline in political, economic and social status. Under these circumstances, Hongkongers will already be more and more unhappy. If you then light the fuse for even more anger, how is that a wise choice? If this sort of election takes place, and Hongkongers believe the process was manipulated, people will take to the streets no matter what unpleasantness they encounter. They won’t discuss the matter based on facts, but will aim their attacks directly at the Chief Executive, and even at the Liaison Office and Beijing itself. What can Beijing do? Other than depriving Hongkongers of the rule of law and freedoms they have long enjoyed, there seems to be no other way.
Now, let’s look at another scenario: Beijing releases its grip and lets the citizens of Hong Kong truly implement “universal suffrage.” This could lead to one of two possibilities: the election of a Chief Executive in line with the law and accepted by Beijing, or the election of a Chief Executive who is disliked by Beijing or even goes against Beijing.
Hong Kong citizens have long been steeped in the rule of law and freedom. They have long cultivated a highly democratic quality, but they also are clear-sighted and practical about their status and their relationship with the mainland. If they are truly given a free election, according to my understanding of Hongkongers, there’s only a small chance that they would elect a Chief Executive who is confrontational toward Beijing. Of course, we can’t completely eliminate this possibility.
But no matter what kind of Chief Executive is elected, as long as the election is not restricted and the election process is legitimate, then, starting from the day the new Chief Executive takes office, the central government in Beijing will be free of the burden of catering to the public in Hong Kong. At the same time, Beijing will actually have more power to make decisions on Hong Kong affairs. Whatever happens, good or bad, it will be the result of Hong Kong’s own choice, and protestors won’t be able to blame Beijing. There should be far fewer demonstrations in front of the Liaison Office’s door.
On the other hand, if Hongkongers believe that the Chief Executive was produced by a “small circle” rather than a full election, then whatever problems occur in Hong Kong will pit Beijing against the entire city. Which way is easier? It seems obvious to me.
For the Beijing government, if the freely elected Chief Executive of Hong Kong really opposes the central government, Beijing has the power to refuse to recognize him or her, and can even remove the new Chief Executive from office. More seriously, according to the Constitution and the Basic Law, Beijing could justifiably bring a premature end to “one country, two systems” and assume control of Hong Kong.
It’s up to Beijing to decide whether to loosen or tighten its grip, but the results of its decision may be the opposite of what it intended. If Beijing uses preemptive restrictions to prevent the unlikely event of “serious consequences,” it will damage the elections and hinder democracy. This will destroy Beijing’s image and sow the seeds for long-term instability in Hong Kong. However, if Beijing loosens its grip and lets Hongkongers be the first to implement genuine democratic elections in China, Beijing will not only be able to take the initiative but will also win the respect of the world and the Chinese people. So why not?
This piece was modified and translated from a Chinese language piece on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.
Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at www.yanghengjun.com.