Is Beijing Stacking the Deck in Hong Kong?

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, released the city’s first consultative paper on electoral reform (pdf). At stake is who gets to choose the next leader—the “chief executive”—of the freest place in the People’s Republic of China.

In the last “election,” which took place last year, Beijing essentially picked the chief executive by informally making its preference known to a select group in Hong Kong—1,200 notables in a city of more than 7 million—that constituted the Election Committee, which formally made the choice. The process was deeply unpopular and will surely change in time for the next election.

The Basic Law (pdf), Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution,” provides in Article 45 that the chief executive will be elected and then formally “appointed by the Central People’s Government.” The law contemplates a “gradual and orderly process” toward “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

In October, Leung Chun-ying, the current chief executive, said that Zhang Dejiang, the member of the Politburo Standing Committee holding the Hong Kong portfolio, was on board with reform. “Zhang explicitly said the central government sincerely hopes Hong Kong could achieve universal suffrage in the election of the chief executive in 2017 in accordance with the Basic Law and relevant interpretations and decisions of the NPC Standing Committee,” Leung assured Hong Kong’s increasingly restive population.

Hong Kong people up to now have focused on the promise of universal suffrage. Beijing’s apparent concession on the issue, therefore, should have ended years of controversy over the rules for the 2017 election.

In fact it has not. Albert Chen Hung Yee, perhaps the most prominent Basic Law expert in Hong Kong, has now publicly proposed elaborate nominating procedures that have ignited controversy. Chen suggested that a nominating committee, chosen by the city’s elite, be permitted to toss out candidates standing for election. “It’s not a bad thing if that happens, because Hong Kong people cannot force the central government to appoint someone it couldn’t trust or accept as chief executive,” he explained.

Chen also believes the number of candidates standing for election should be limited to five. The public would then go to the polls to rank the candidates who survived the screening process.

Moreover, he has proposed that Beijing have the right to reject the person receiving the most votes. Chen’s proposal, not surprisingly, has been roundly rejected by the city’s noisy liberals. “The central government can simply refuse to appoint the winner and pick the runner-up without even holding another round of elections,” said the Democratic Party’s vice chairman, Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, rejecting Chen’s plan. “That essentially means Beijing can do anything it wants.”

Chen, in response, has said Chinese officials should establish “clear standards” how they would exercise their power of rejection. “From the pan-democrats’ perspective, they are fighting for a ‘relatively perfect’ democratic system,” Chen explained to a local television station at the end of last month. “But I think it is impossible for democracy in Hong Kong to be completely the same as that of an independent country.”

Beijing should hope that democracy is possible in Hong Kong, for without it the city will remain “ungovernable,” as one activist there, a law school professor, explained to me last month. The current chief executive was deeply unpopular from the day he took office in July of last year, in large part because of the undemocratic manner of his selection. Moreover, these days official decisions—even minor ones and ones that are sound—are scrutinized and sharply criticized simply because an unrepresentative government made them. Activists flying the banner of “Occupy Central”—Central being the main business district of the city—have threatened mass civil disobedience next July if Beijing does not permit free elections.

Chen says he has not consulted Beijing in making his electoral proposals. Maybe he is telling the truth and maybe he is proposing what he thinks Chinese officials want. In any event, given the strong desire among Hong Kong people to pick their own leaders, any procedures that stand in the way of full democracy are bound to rouse an already discontented populace.


Photo Credit: VOA

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