Decision time looms for Hong Kong democratic reform

April 16, 2014

 A crisis is fast approaching in the relations between Beijing and the people of Hong Kong, a relationship which has been on a downhill slide since the territory was returned to China in 1997.

Within the next few months, Beijing is set to decide whether to keep to its promise made before the handover to foster democratic government in Hong Kong, or to continue dictating who will run the territory of over seven million people.

The prospects for meaningful reform in Hong Kong do not look good.

Increasingly, in recent years Beijing has been given little cause to think Hongkongers can be trusted to run their own affairs without causing problems for China’s Communist one-party state.

Months of public consultation by the Hong Kong government on the territory’s future political structure will end early in May. But it may not be until early next year that it produces recommendations for rules governing the next elections for the 70-member Legislative Council in 2016, and the planned direct election of the head of government, known as the Chief Executive, in 2017.

These also will be subject to public consultation, but no one is in any doubt that it is only Beijing’s voice and vote that counts. The attitude of the Chinese Communist Party regime to its recalcitrant subjects in Hong Kong may well be influenced by events in the meantime.

At the moment half of the members of the Legislative Council are directly elected and the other 35 are selected by what are known as “functional constituencies.” These are professional and business groups, all of which are one way or another beholden to Beijing. These, together with some directly elected members who support the Chinese government, ensure that Beijing always has a majority in the legislature.

The plan is that all the members of the legislature will be directly elected in the 2020 election, but there are fears that if Beijing decides to totally oppose Hong Kong democracy, it may renege on this promise.

Most contentious are the rules surrounding the next selection of the head of Hong Kong’s government, the Chief Executive. At the moment, a committee of 1,200 people, all with close ties and loyalty to Beijing, select the Chief Executive.

In 2017 the next Chief Executive is supposed to be chosen by direct election. But there is a stipulation in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, that candidates for the Chief Executive election must be approved by a Nomination Committee.

The critical issue, therefore, is how this Nomination Committee is chosen and how representative it is of the people of Hong Kong. The fear, of course, is that Beijing will keep control of this committee and thus ensure that only people it trusts to follow orders get to govern Hong Kong.

Perhaps most significant in determining Beijing’s attitude will be Hongkongers’ response to the 25th anniversary on June 4, of the Chinese

government’s bloody crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In the aftermath of the massacre at least a million Hongkongers took to the streets of their city. Their protest was not only a signal of support for the Chinese reformers, it was also an expression of their anxiety for their own future under Beijing’s rule.

Every June 4 since then tens of thousands of Hongkongers have gathered in Victoria Park in the city’s Causeway Bay district to remember the victims and renew calls for political reform in Hong Kong and China. In recent years, as relations between the people of Hong Kong and China have become more tense, the size of the crowds at the Victoria Park demonstrations have grown.

Another key date is July 1, the anniversary of the 1997 handover of sovereignty. Pro-reform activists in Hong Kong are planning a mass demonstration called “Occupy Central.” The Central district is Hong Kong’s hub of business.

Beijing’s attitude towards Hongkongers’ propensity to make their feelings clear in street demonstrations – most of them entirely peaceful, it must be said – has already produced a backlash. It has announced the summit later this year of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum will not be held in Hong Kong, as planned, but in Beijing.

In an effort to attract international support and convince Beijing that the world is watching, two of Hong Kong’s most prominent reformers, Anson Chan and Martin Lee, last week visited the United States and Canada. They lobbied politicians in Washington and Ottawa, and ex-patriate Hongkongers in New York, Toronto and Vancouver.

Anson Chan was the Chief Secretary – the head of Hong Kong’s civil service – at the time of the handover in 1997 and stayed on to ensure continuity in the first years under Chinese sovereignty. She was and remains highly popular in Hong Kong, as all polls taken around the time of the handover showed she was the clear favourite if Hongkongers had been allowed to choose their own government leader, known as the Chief Executive.

Martin Lee, a lawyer, was founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party in 1994 and was a member of the territory’s legislative council for 23 years before retiring in 2008.

Last year, Chan set up a group called Hong Kong 2020, which argues and lobbies in a rational, non-confrontational way for the territory to have full democratic freedoms by that date. A key recommendation from the group is a Nomination Committee for the Chief Executive candidates that represents as wide a section of Hong Kong society as possible.

“We want to do our best to ensure what eventually comes out of the government is a credible set of proposals that the people of Hong Kong can support,” she said last week.

And Lee, who readily admits Hong Kong’s freedoms and promised autonomy are under threat from Beijing, also believes reform can be achieved.

“All is not lost yet,” he said in an interview. “Chinese President Xi Jinping has not decided what reforms, if any, to allow. If we push hard and show we have community support, I believe he can be persuaded to support reform.”

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


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