Which System?


The large march in Hong Kong on Sunday December 4 that attracted up to 250,000 people is part of a battle for public opinion between the Hong Kong and central Chinese Governments on the one hand, and the Democratic Party and its allies in the local single-house legislature, the Legislative Council, on the other.

The legislature votes on December 21 on an electoral reform package initiated by the local HK Government. The democrats are refusing to support the package because it doesn’t contain a timetable for the introduction of universal suffrage. The central Government decreed in April 2004 that universal suffrage is not to be introduced for the 2007 Hong Kong Chief Executive’s election, nor for the 2008 Legislative Council elections. And, functional constituencies (not elected by universal suffrage) must constitute 50 per cent of seats in the 2008 legislature.

Maverick legislator, and former professional demonstrator, ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, gave out hundreds of bananas to marchers and amused them with a pithy patter in Cantonese about where the Hong Kong tycoons, who support the Government’s proposal, could put their bananas. One tycoon paid for front page ads in 11 local Chinese newspapers supporting the Government’s proposal. Other tycoons caution against universal suffrage.

And an expatriate democracy supporter who disrupted horse racing at Sha Tin racecourse by running onto the course in a horse costume, was given a jail term.

Recent surveys show 70 per cent of Hong Kong citizens want universal suffrage by 2012, and two thirds want a timetable for democracy now. However, a majority also support the reform package.

To pass its package the Government requires a two thirds majority. The democrats can muster 25 votes, enough to defeat the package in the current 60-seat legislature.

The HK Government says its package is the best that can be approved by the central Government given its previous decree. It warns that rejecting the package will jeopardise future democratic reform. The democrats see the package as another deferral of the entitlement to universal suffrage guaranteed, albeit in a qualified way, by the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution.

Maverick MLC ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung in trademark T-shirt, but without banana

Debate is raging around three issues. Firstly, about the lack of a timetable for the introduction of universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive (or Premier), and about the operation of functional constituencies (such as the industrial, commercial and financial sectors, as well as law, accounting and medicine). Currently, and under the package to be voted on later this month, only extremely small electorates of business and special interest groups elect the Chief Executive and the members representing functional constituencies. The package would double the size of the Chief Executive Election Committee from 800 to 1600, and expand the size of the legislature from 60 to 70 members. However, half of the new legislators are to be elected by functional constituencies.

Geographical constituencies are elected by universal suffrage. But, functional constituency electorates are determined by the Government. Some only have hundreds of electors, and those electors are often corporations and associations. A veneer of democracy is kept in place by the Government’s virtual monopoly on introducing legislation, and the requirement that amendments to Bills be approved by a majority of both geographical and functional constituency members.

Recent research by the University of Hong Kong Law School confirms that the majority of functional constituency members always vote with the Government. Business and special interest groups depend on good relations with Government. And Government licences, laws, taxes, and subsidies, not to mention permits, regulations and land leases are essential for profitability.

Usually in democracies, business and special interest groups constitute lobbies and democratic governments, notwithstanding party discipline, have the support of a majority of legislators who are elected by universal suffrage. But, in Hong Kong business and special interest groups enjoy half the seats in the legislature on restricted franchises. These same ‘small circle’ electorates also elect members to the Committee that ‘elects’ the Chief Executive.

The Government package proposes to double the size of the Chief Executive’s Election Committee, but democrats point out that 129 of the 529 district councillors to be added to that Committee are Government appointees. This is the second bone of contention. The democrats want appointed district councillors dropped from the expanded Chief Executive’s Election Committee.

Hongkongers rally for universal suffrage on 4 December

Thirdly, politicisation of the district councils, concerned with district administration and providing culture, recreation and environmental services, is a feature of the package. Although political parties run candidates for election to district councils, local independents do so as well. Giving all district council members a role in electing the Chief Executive, gives them a new political role. District councilors will make up more than 30% of the expanded Chief Executive’s Election Committee, and they will get five additional functional constituency seats in the expanded legislature. District councilors will then become the biggest functional constituency, accounting for 9 per cent of seats.

This transformation of the role of district councilors seems to contradict Article 97 of the Basic Law which states in part that, ‘District organisations which are not organs of political power may be established ‘ (that is, politicised district councils would be unlawful).   Civic Exchange, an independent, Hong Kong-based, public policy think tank, notes that this transformation hasn’t been fully considered by the Government.

Expanding the role of district councilors to having a role in electing the Chief Executive is also seen as diluting their role of ensuring that district services meet local needs. It is feared that big business and special interest groups will enter district council politics to preserve their vested interest in the Chief Executive’s Election Committee.

Big business will support candidates for district councils who are compliant to their interests, rather than candidates who are concerned with district services and governance. As big business becomes involved in district government its placemen and women, will be indifferent or hostile to the concessions that district councils have secured and protect in a polity where clan, family and money often speak louder than words.

Alternatively, the tycoons complain that including all the district councilors in the Chief Executive’s Election Committee is the thin edge of the democratic wedge.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.