Democracy in Hong Kong?

By Yeung, Chris | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Democracy in Hong Kong?

Yeung, Chris, Harvard International Review

A Bumpy Road Toward Political Reform

Had there been no 1997 Question, the first step toward democratization in Hong Kong in the early 1980s would never have been taken. As the return of the capitalist enclave to communist rule on July 1, 1997, became inevitable, the paramount concern of the British colonial administration was to ensure an honorable exit and to install firmly rooted democratic institutions to safeguard against communist control after the takeover.

Local Western-minded elites were scared by the notoriously autocratic rule of the Chinese Communist Party and woke up to the need to participate in politics. Beginning in the early 1980s, the first-generation political groups formed by these elites presented their thoughts on how Hong Kong should be run. Resisting communism emerged as the driving force for democratization.

China is not opposed to democracy per se. To the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, who masterminded the "One Country, Two Systems" concept, pragmatism made more sense than dogmatism in securing a smooth takeover. Allowing "Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong" would dispel fears of Beijing intervention. Furthermore, mainland officials admitted they simply did not know how to run the capitalist enclave.

During the 13-year transition, the political debate was not so much about whether Hong Kong should be a democracy, but how and when. Specifically, the discussion was centered on the timetable of introducing universal suffrage for electing the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council (LegCo).

In the present LegCo, chosen in 1998, 20 of its 60 seats were elected directly through Geographical Constituencies (GCs). Another 10 were elected from a grand Election Committee (EC), comprised of 800 members drawn from business, professional, grassroots, and political groups. The other 30 seats were chosen from Functional Constituencies (FCs), which cover subsectors in commercial and professional sectors such as business chambers, wholesale and retail, doctors, and teachers. (Generally only corporate members of these designated organizations can vote, though professional groups usually allow all of their members to vote.)

Under a ten-year timetable in the Basic Law, the number of directly elected GC seats will go up to 24 in the next LegCo elections in September 2000, with the additional seats being subtracted from the EC's allotment. In the third term (2004-07), LegCo will comprise of 30 directly elected seats and 30 FC seats. After 2007, the law allows Hong Kong to switch to a fully elected legislature and a one-man, one-vote system for choosing the Chief Executive.

With fears of communist intervention gradually evaporating in the years after the changeover, the China factor has become less relevant in local politics. Subtle changes have emerged in the democracy debate. Behind the latest push for fresh reforms were systemic failures of the political framework as well as two decades of greater political awareness and cultural change. Many politicians fear that Hong Kong's government could be paralyzed by friction and hostility between the administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and the LegCo.

A decade after popular elections were introduced for the LegCo in 1991, democracy and participatory culture have become firmly embedded at the community level. A record 54 percent of voters cast their ballots in the first post-handover LegCo elections in 1998. District Council elections in 1999 recorded a 35.8 percent turnout, compared to 33.1 percent in 1994. Local Chinese who had acquiesced to a limited say under British rule have become more demanding of their own government and more vocal in airing their grievances about the way Hong Kong is run. The media, meanwhile, is becoming more assertive in functioning as the fourth branch of power to ensure that politics becomes more accountable and open.

Without an electoral mandate, the Hong Kong executive authorities--the Chief Executive, his advisory Executive Council (ExCo) and principal officials from the Civil Service--are severely challenged by their perceived lack of legitimacy and accountability. …

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