China Vetoes Hong Kong’s Democratic Hopes

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 4

China has moved to effectively veto Hong Kong’s expectations of constitutional progress towards a greater degree of democracy or, at the very least, to delay indefinitely any such advance. In doing so, Beijing appears to have vitiated its former promises to grant the former British colony a “high degree of autonomy” with “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” under a system of “one country, two systems.”

As Beijing asserts ultimate control over its Special Administrative Region (SAR), urges pro-China Hong Kong businessmen to take a more active political role, continues not to talk to Hong Kong’s democratic leaders, and encourages a party line that equates democratic activism with “unpatriotic” activity, it risks both dividing and alienating the Hong Kong community.

The current crisis has political and constitutional roots. First and foremost, there was the massive demonstration of Hong Kong People Power on July 1, 2003. Well over half a million residents undertook an orderly three-mile march to protest a national security bill that the Hong Kong government had sought to hurriedly pass at Beijing’s insistence. As I then reported (see China Brief, July 15, 2003), the huge rally, like the even larger one that took place in Hong Kong to protest the Beijing Massacre on June 4, 1989, signaled Hong Kong’s deep-seated fears of China’s authoritarianism. But it also stimulated understandable, though unjustified, fears in Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, regarding Hong Kong’s fervent democratic hopes.

The shock was the greater for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership because Premier Wen Jiabao, visiting Hong Kong the day before, had been assured by Chinese officials there that only 30,000 to 40,000 people would demonstrate. According to a reliable source, one Beijing reaction (not publicized at the time) was for President Hu Jintao personally to urge a delegation of visiting Hong Kong businessmen to play a more active role in supporting Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s government, and to try and unite the middle class in countering calls for rapid democratization.

Hu’s remarks indicated that, while Beijing was taken by surprise by the demonstration, its intelligence had grasped the significance of July 1. The rally succeeded in its main aim of opposing the national security bill, which the government withdrew once it lost its ability to pass the measure in the Legislative Council (Legco). It also showed the high degree of discontent with Tung’s leadership. As it was followed by several smaller but still significant demonstrations, the rallies led to additional demands for an increased pace of democratic reform.

These demands had a constitutional focus. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is selected by a group of 800 mainly pro-China people. But Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, allows 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” (Article 45).

Similarly, the Basic Law stipulates a slowly increasing number of directly elected members of Legco, down to this year’s election, when thirty members will be directly elected and thirty elected by professional or business groups. But it allows that “the ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage” (Article 68).

Two annexes refer to changing the method of choosing a chief executive “subsequent to the year 2007” and changing the way Legco is formed “after 2007.” Regarding both changes, the procedure is to be almost the same: “With the endorsement of a two-thirds majority of all the members of the Legislative Council and the consent of the Chief Executive, and they shall be reported to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress….” But while the Legco change requires this report to the SCNPC be “for the record,” in the case of the change in the chief executive’s election, China’s NPC has to give its approval.

These legalities are a crucial part of the current crisis. Within Hong Kong, the numerous demonstrations, the large voter turnout for District Council elections last November, when pro-government candidates suffered severe losses, the discontent with the government’s performance and with Tung’s leadership, have solidified the conviction, first, that the next chief executive should be chosen by universal suffrage in 2007, and second, that the next Legco should be wholly elected on the basis of universal suffrage in 2008. Less attention has been paid to another Basic Law stipulation, namely, that any such reform process be “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.”

For Beijing, worried about the impact that democratic developments would have on China as a whole, this caveat was crucial. But Hong Kong people feel they have waited long enough. The remarkable depth of community-wide conviction was illustrated in the latest public opinion polling by the widely-respected Hong Kong Transition Project at Baptist University.

In that poll, 87 percent wanted constitutional reform to be initiated before 2007. In addition, 81 percent supported direct election of the chief executive, with 70 percent preferring this be initiated in 2007; 68 percent thought this reform would make government management more effective, while 77 percent supported the direct election of Legco, with 69 percent preferring that this take place in 2008. Seventy-five percent believed this reform would make government policies fairer, with the highest level of such belief being held by managers, administrators and business people (who are often thought to be opposed to such reform). No less than 85 percent supported the government holding a referendum on reform; only 8 percent were opposed.

While it has often pledged to “listen to the people,” the Tung Administration never came out strongly for reform. Instead, it promised to initiate, but constantly delayed, a consultation process under which it would put forward its proposals and encourage community-wide responses. Progress along these lines was expected when Tung have his annual policy speech on January 7. Instead, he announced the formation of a three-person “constitutional development task force” (CDTF), led by his number two official, Chief Secretary Donald Tsang, which would first proceed to Beijing for consultations. This was because China had told Tung that, before any consultation process in Hong Kong, he had to “conduct thorough consultations with relevant departments of the central government.”

This Beijing intervention was coupled with dark hints from Zhongnanhai that calls for democracy in Hong Kong were a U.S.-led conspiracy. Former foreign minister Qian Qichen, for example, saw democracy primarily as a means for Britain and the United States to increase their influence in Hong Kong, while former vice foreign minister Zhou Nan maintained that it should be fifty years before democracy developed in Hong Kong. Another Beijing official, Xiao Wei Yun, suggested that 2037 or 2047, rather than 2007, would be relevant target dates for direct elections in the Hong Kong SAR.

Quite clearly, the top CCP leadership was worried about Hong Kong’s democratic drift, feared that it might lose control of the SAR, and gave its orders to the lower officials who actually met the task force when it came to Beijing on February 9 and 10. Just in case there was any doubt, a Xinhua statement issued as the CDTF flew back to Hong Kong erased any doubt of the extent to which Hong Kong was being reined in. Among other points it stressed the following.

– “One country” is the premise of (e.g., comes before) “two systems”

– “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” means that “patriots are the main body ruling Hong Kong”

– “A high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong means “self-governing under the authorization of the central government”

– Far from merely notifying or seeking Beijing’s approval for reform, “the HKSAR had to consider the central government’s opinion when discussing ways of electing SAR chief executives and the Legislative Council”

When it is recalled that “patriots,” in the Chinese lexicon, refers to pro-communists or to those who sympathize with the CCP, and that the Chinese government has all along refused to talk to Hong Kong’s leading democrats in the belief that they are unpatriotic, it becomes easier to see the devastatingly wide gap between Hong Kong hopes and Chinese reality that these assertions open up.

In the immediate aftermath of the CDTF visit, anonymous sources in Beijing have told the Hong Kong media that there is no question of introducing universal franchise reforms in 2007 or anytime soon, and questioned whether Hong Kong’s opposition to the national security bill, and the July 1 march itself, were “patriotic” activities. One leading pro-China personality in Hong Kong has publicly named three democratic leaders as being “unpatriotic,” while an independent Legco member and democracy advocate, Margaret Ng, has been refused a visa to visit China as part of a government delegation.

Divisive days clearly lie ahead. One Hong Kong reaction is to view the Chinese statements as a hardline reinterpretation of the Basic Law. More optimistically, others suggest that China is merely stating a tough opening position as a prelude to bargaining to come. But those who have all along warned that, for China, resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong means nothing less than complete political control, are feeling completely justified in their pessimism.