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Hong Kong's Vain Hopes For Democracy

On August 31, 2014, the Tenth Session of the Standing Committee of the Twelfth National People's Congress (NPC) adopted a decision on "Issues Relating to the Selection of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region [HKSAR] by Universal Suffrage and on the Method for Forming the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the Year 2016". 

According to Paragraph 2 of Article 45 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, the NPC has the right to reform Hong Kong's electoral system "in the light of the actual situation" and "in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress." As specified in the Basic Law, the "ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee". 

The NPC has ruled that Hong Kong may elect its Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017, but it has set three conditions. 1) "the Chief Executive has to be a person who loves the country [i.e. China] and loves Hong Kong", 2) "A broadly representative nominating committee shall be formed ... in accordance with the number of members, composition and formation method of the Election Committee for the Fourth Chief Executive", 3) "The nominating committee shall nominate two to three candidates". 

Pan-democrats may very well rejoice at the introduction of universal suffrage, but they reject the the screening of the candidates. "Hong Kong people will have one person, one vote, but Beijing will select all the candidates – puppets. What is the difference between a rotten apple, a rotten orange and a rotten banana," said Martin Lee, a political activist, former legislator and founder of the Democratic Party. "We want genuine universal suffrage and not democracy with Chinese characteristics."

The NPC decision, in fact, de facto nullifies universal suffrage, as the candidates will be carefully screened by Beijing. A candidate, for instance, who does not "love the country and Hong Kong" won't be accepted by the central authorities. But how to decide who loves the country and who doesn't? The idea that "love" - an entirely subjective emotion - can become a criterion for the election of the Chief Executive shows the backwardness of Beijing's political principles. I can love my dog, my friends or my parents, but how is this love to be measured, defined and tested? Obviously, "love" is nothing but a rhetorical strategy, a tool that will allow Beijing to veto undesirable candidates. 

The Election Committee is a representative body currently consisting of 1,200 members from different social and economic sectors: 300 members from the industrial, commercial and financial sectors; 300 members from the professions (education, engineering, health services, Chinese medicine, etc.): 300 members from labour, social services, religious and other sectors; 300 members from the Legislative Council, the District Councils, the Heung Yee Kuk, the National People’s Congress (NPC), an the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (NCCPPCC). 

According to C. Raj Kumar, "[p]ast experience has demonstrated that the functional constituencies system favours not only the business sector, but also that sector of the establishment that prefers not to confront the Chinese authorities on legitimate issues or risk disturbing the perceived political stability and economic prosperity of Hong Kong" (C. Raj Kumar: Election and Voting Systems- Perspectives on Democratic Governance in Hong Kong. In: Building Democracy: Creating Good Government for Hong Kong (Civic Exchange Guides), ed. Christine Loh, 2003, p. 46). 

In fact, the whole electoral system is structured in such a way that pro-democratic and anti-Beijing groups won't achieve a majority. For instance, in the 2011 Election Committee Subsector Elections, 852 candidates from the pro-Beijing camp were elected, against only 173 from the pan-democratic camp. Moreover, the ex officio members from the NPC and the NCCPPCC, as well as members from the Heung Yee Kuk, big business, Chinese medicine, etc. all add to the pro-Beijing faction. Lastly, the fact that only two or three candidates can be nominated might make the Chief Executive election a competition between Beijing loyalists.

Some people seem surprised about Hong Kong's political development. "It's time to stop fooling ourselves," writes the South China Morning Post. "Hong Kong is living under one country, one system. The idea that, post 1997, there would be two systems and we would have a high degree of autonomy was to cushion the reality. Our freedoms would remain and things could only get better because there was also the promise of universal suffrage, many of us believed. There was a problem, though: no one bothered asking what 'a high degree of autonomy' and 'universal suffrage' actually meant."

However, that is not true. People did bother asking what the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong was, and what "autonomy" for the latter meant. 

In a 2002 study, Ralf Horlemann had already explained that Hong Kong's Basic Law was subordinate to the PRC Constitution, and that Beijing could, at its own pleasure, revoke the Basic Law.

Based on the concept of 'One Country Two Systems' China drew up the Basic Law as an ordinary piece of legislation under art. 31 of the Chinese constitution in order to establish a Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty. The Basic Law is therefore not a constitution in its own right and it is misleading to describe it as a 'mini-constitution'. The HKSAR is not a federated unit within the Chinese state with its own autonomy or indeed its own state authority. As art. 12 BL clearly spells out, Hong Kong is a 'local administrative region' of China. All residual powers lie in the Central People's Government and such powers as are delegated to the HKSAR are revokable according to the provisions "the Constitution of the PRC, art. 60. 1 As an autonomous region it only enjoys those powers which the CPG has delegated to it. Secession from China, i.e. independence for Hong Kong, is impossible. China could at any time unilaterally amend, substitute or even abolish the Basic Law, without Hong Kong's agreement, indeed against its express wishes, although China is legally bound by the obligations it entered into when signing the Joint Declaration. However, China's legal obligations under the Joint Declaration might be difficult to enforce by international courts" (Ralf Horlemann: Hong Kong's Transition to Chinese Rule. 2002, pp. 86-87).

It is inexplicable why some people in Hong Kong felt betrayed when last June Beijing issued a white paper stating that "The central authorities perform overall jurisdiction and constitutional duties as prescribed in the Constitution of the People's Republic of China and in the Basic Law of the HKSAR, and exercise effective administration over the HKSAR". That was no novelty, but simply a confirmation of what was already known. 

The handover in 1997 was a simple business. Britain, unwilling to defend Hong Kong, unwilling to hold a referendum to ask the people of Hong Kong what they wanted, agreed to hand over the entire territory to a Communist one-party state. Margaret Thatcher, the 'iron lady', became a pussycat when she was confronted with a charismatic leader like Deng Xiaoping. During her visit to Beijing on September 1982, Margaret Thatcher first insisted that Britain should maintain its administration in Hong Kong to protect the city's freedom and prosperity. 

Deng, however, was uncompromising. As Mrs Thatcher recalls in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, Deng warned her that, if he wanted, he could “walk in and take the whole lot [of Hong Kong] this afternoon.” 
"There is nothing I could do to stop you," she replied, adding only that in such a case "the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.” Shame was the only weapon Mrs Thatcher could deploy. She had no choice but yield to Deng's position.

The PRC set a deadline of one year: Should Britain and the PRC be unable to reach an agreement on the basis of Beijing's condition that it would resume complete sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, it would settle the issue unilaterally. "In the face of Chinese intransigence," writes historian Steve Tsang, "the British eventually accepted that they would be unable to administer Hong Kong after 1997" (Tsang, Steve: A Modern History of Hong Kong. 2011, p. 224).

People who wonder why the PRC is not allowing Hong Kong to become fully democratic should have known better. The PRC has always been coherent in its determination to uphold a Communist-led one-party state, to mobilise the masses through a mix of nationalist and Leninist rhetoric, and to unite the whole Chinese people against external and internal enemies, as defined by the CCP. 


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