Hong Kong’s unenviable choice

Hong Kong’s unenviable choice

The proposed arrangements for electing Hong Kong’s leader in 2017 have drawn protests from pro-democracy parties and activists—but KERRY BROWN sees some possible consolations for the democrats.

In 2009, I was working on a project analysing in what ways foreign support was helping the cause of democracy in Greater China. After a trek through the People’s Republic, where the news was largely negative (one funder of projects greeted me with the news that `I could not have come at a worse time’), the few days I was due to spend in Hong Kong promised at least the possibility of some positive stories.

In fact, the interviews I held there were in some ways more sobering than those across the border. The Special Administrative Region, established `with a high degree of autonomy’ in 1997 after reversion to Chinese sovereignty, had largely been viewed as a success.

And yet its political development was still problematic. A representative of a civic society organisation told me why. There were real capacity issues around political parties in the city. They lacked finance, they often did not have much institutional strength, and on the whole politics was regarded as a game waged between two extremes. The pro-Beijing camp occupied their zone. The pro-democrats lived in theirs. There was little space in between. And they largely spent their days cursing each other.

In terms of membership of political parties, and financial support, too, things were tough. The British had not done much, at least until the very end, to educate Hong Kongese in the nuances and vagaries of democracy. Two chief executives had presided since 1997, both of whom had ended up unpopular, the first of them forced to leave office early because of public dissatisfaction with him, and the second only surviving through unexciting anonymity.

But 2017 figured in the imaginations and hopes of most people I spoke to back then as a moment when at least Hong Kong people were going to have universal suffrage, and could chose their own leaders. That, at least, was their abstract understanding of the promises contained in the 1984 framework agreement between the United Kingdom and China, and then the Basic Law derived from it.

Sobering moment

Last week’s announcement, on 23 April, of what the 2017 deal will actually be—as long as the Legislative Council passes the proposal later this year—was always likely to be a sobering moment. The dynamics of politics in Beijing—always something intimately linked to the possible outcomes in Hong Kong—is erring more towards caution than ever before. Throughout 2014 and into this year, the central government has made the parameters clear. Symbolically, Hong Kongers having the right to vote on a number of candidates offered to them is fine. But the issue is how these candidates get put before them in the first place.

The current deal proposes that anyone, in principle, can put their name forward. But their first port of call will be a nomination committee of 1,200 people. If they don’t secure at least 240 votes from these people, then they can’t stand in the full election where the full 5 million strong electorate can pass judgement on them.

Hong Kong has only two choices. Take the new deal, with all its limitations, or live with things as they are.

The pro-democracy parties have declared that this is not democracy. The nomination committee will be appointed largely with the assent, overt or subliminal, of Beijing. And it will be entrusted to turn away any figures regarded as unfriendly or troublemakers. This will be, in their view, a highly managed and manipulated process. The only real role for the voter will be to legitimise choices already made on their behalf.

For the pro-Beijing side, the simple fact is that for the first time ever within the sovereign territory of the People’s Republic, one person, one vote will be practised. And in theory, there could be five or more candidates to choose from. They argue that this is manageable in view of Hong Kong’s relative immaturity as a self-governing entity.

Brute reality

Whichever side observers sympathise with, the brute reality is that if the Legislative Council doesn’t pass the proposal into law in the next few months (and there are a sizeable number of representatives who are vehemently opposed, with a 70 per cent majority needed for it to make the constitutional change needed in order to become law) then the current arrangement stands.

Hong Kong therefore has only two choices. Take the new deal, with all its limitations, or live with things as they are. This is an unenviable choice.

Politics is rarely about ideals. Perhaps it is better if it isn’t. Idealistic politicians can end up causing terrible misery—Mao Zedong is the most relevant one to think of here, with his largely utopian visions for China which ended up causing social catastrophe for most of the last two decades of his reign. Pro-democrats in Hong Kong have every right to assert that the deal they are presented with now to vote on is not what they were expecting. But then, that’s the case for political choices that finally get offered to publics across the world. Democracies too have to manage endless amounts of compromise.

The only consolation for the democrats who do accept the deal is that, if and when it is implemented, they have at least some ability to set the platform for greater democracy in the city in the future. It will be down to the quality of political figures who are identified, and their ability to get through the selection process, and then, if elected, robustly defend the interests of the city and its citizens that will initially be most important.

Since 1997 Hong Kong has had a series of poor quality leaders, figures who in many ways were not politicians but business people or bureaucrats. It has the chance now to at least see the appearance of an authentic political leader. If that happens, then the system proposed now with its limitations does have the chance to develop and grow.

Umbrella revolution in Admiralty ( Pasu Au YeungHong Kong Umbrella Revolution #umbrellarevolution via Wikimedia Commons).

Kerry Brown is Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Politics at King’s College, London.

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