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Hong Kong’s Democratic Dilemma

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China Power

Hong Kong’s Democratic Dilemma

Supporters of the Beijing-backed package claim to have public backing on their side. The truth is more complicated.

Hong Kong’s Democratic Dilemma

The “Lennon Wall” during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last fall.

Credit: Image via Daniel Fung /

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) is heading toward a crucial vote on legislature that would reform how the Special Administrative Region elects its chief executive. The Hong Kong government plans to submit its reform package to LegCo for a vote on June 17, which means legislators could be casting their votes by the 19th. Pan-democrat legislators have promised to veto the reform package, while the Hong Kong government is trying hard to sway a few of their number to get the bill through.

The government’s package, which closely adheres to a controversial blueprint from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing, would require each candidate for chief executive to be approved by a majority of the 1,200 member nominating committee. Critics of the proposal argue that the nominating committee, which is Beijing-friendly, would thus prevent any pan-democrat candidate from even running for Hong Kong’s highest office. Yet despite large-scale protests last September, both Beijing and the Hong Kong government have stood firm, saying this reform package is the best deal Hong Kong will get.

A recent commentary in China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, made a similar argument. The piece urges Hong Kong’s legislators to pass the proposal, bringing universal suffrage to Hong Kong’s chief executive elections for the first time. “The opportunity is fleeting, and Hong Kong residents are so close to their dream of electing their chief executive in a ‘one person, one vote’ election,” Xinhua said.

Central to Xinhua’s argument is the claim that most Hong Kong residents want the package to pass, and that the legislators (even pan-democrats, whose constituents likely disagree) have a responsibility to honor the will of the people. The current package “has won broad support from residents,” Xinhua argued. “[A]s representatives of public voice, the legislators should respect mainstream public opinion and use their vote to respect the common aspiration.”

But is it actually true that most Hongkongers support the current reform plan?

On May 27, the Center for Communication and Public Opinion Survey of the Chinese University of Hong Kong released the latest results of its “Public Opinion and Political Development Studies” project. The project regularly surveys Hong Kong residents about their opinions on political situation in Hong Kong – most prominently, the election reform package. According to the most recent data, 45 percent of respondents want LegCo to approve the reform package, while 43 percent say it should be rejected.

Another survey, conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program from May 26-30, found that 44 percent of respondents support the proposal while 36 percent oppose it (with 19 percent undecided). Those numbers have been fairly consistent since the survey began in late April — the number of respondents in favor of the reform has fluctuated between 42 and 49 percent, while between 34 and 41 percent of respondents are opposed.

In other words, those in favor of passing the electoral reform package in its current form represent a slight to moderate plurality, but neither survey indicates majority support either for or against the reform package.

However, those numbers shift dramatically if the Hong Kong is willing to commit to continuing electoral reform after 2017. According to the CUHK survey, 60 percent of respondents would favor approving the current reform package “if the government makes a public commitment to continue to review the process of electing the Chief Executive after the 2017 election.”

Carrie Lam held out this olive branch during the height of the protest last fall, telling student leaders, “We can always improve the system for 2022.” But there’s a lot of pessimism over whether this would happen – just 28 percent of respondents believe that “the government would improve the electoral system next time if the Legislative Council passes the proposed reform package.”

The data also reveals just how divided Hong Kong is on this issue. Young respondents are twice as likely as seniors to want the reform package rejected – 66 percent of those aged 15-24 want LegCo to veto the proposal, compared to 32 percent of those aged 60 or above. In the 25-39 age group, a slightly majority (53 percent) also favors rejecting the proposal.

More highly educated Hong Kong residents are also more likely to be against the proposal. Among respondents with at least a tertiary (university-level) education, 58 percent wanted the reform package scrapped. Only 37 percent of those who finished their education in senior secondary school (Form 4 – Form 7) were in favor of rejecting the proposal; 31 percent of those who stopped after junior secondary education (Form 3 or below) felt the same way.

Predictably, the sharpest divide comes between those who self-identify as “pro-democrats” and those who describe themselves as “pro-establishment.” Of the former, 84 percent favor rejected the proposal, while pro-establishment respondents are 90 percent in favor of approving it. Two sides, with strongly-held and opposing visions for the city — that is the dilemma Hong Kong finds itself in today.