December 3, 2009 2:00 am

Hong Kong tiptoes towards democracy

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Is the dream of democracy in Hong Kong a psychedelic fantasy? That is what may be implied by the choice of LSD as the acronym of the territory's most radical advocate for universal suffrage, the League of Social Democrats. It is also the only conclusion one can sensibly draw from the tortuous to-ing and fro-ing in Hong Kong over the best way of reaching full democracy by 2020.

Last month Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's bow-tie-wearing chief executive, proposed reforms aimed at fractionally democratising the oligarchic system inherited from British colonialism. The new rules would govern elections in 2012 for Mr Tsang's replacement and for the next Legislative Council, or Legco.

Legco, with its echo of the children's toy, sounds like a pretend parliament in which democracy is constructed one tiny brick at a time. That about sums it up. As things stand, half of Legco's 60 seats are nominated through so-called "functional constituencies", by just 211,000 people representing professional and business elites. Hong Kong's 3.2m ordinary voters get to choose the other 30. In 2004 elections, pro-democratic candidates received 60 per cent of the vote but only 40 per cent of the seats.

As if that were not skewed enough, Legco's split-vote system ensures that the 30 democratically elected members cannot pass legislation without the say-so of their 30 unrepresentative brethren. The chief executive, a title entirely lacking the smell of politics, is selected by Hong Kong's crème de la crème, a 796-member "election committee".

Mr Tsang's proposals would add 10 new seats to Legco, half of which would be elected and half of which would be reserved for representatives of the lower-tier district councils. Meanwhile, the election committee to select the chief executive would be expanded to - wait for it - 1,200. If it were widened by 400 members, say, every five years, all 3.2m Hong Kong voters would be eligible to elect their leader by the year 41997.

This tiptoeing to democracy is too timid for many of the territory's democrats who want to abolish the functional constituencies forthwith. They worry that Beijing will renege on its promise of allowing democratic elections for the chief executive by 2017 and for Legco by 2020. Beijing might, as at least one mainland academic has suggested, reinterpret the meaning of universal suffrage, perhaps to include some intermediary body such as a functional constituency. Or it might impose a selection process so that voters would only get the chance to choose between candidates pre-screened by Beijing.

Some Hong Kong democrats are fed up with pussyfooting around. They want to bring the issue to a head. They are proposing a risky resignation of five pro-democratic Legco members in order to force a territory-wide by-election. That would be fought as a de facto referendum on Mr Tsang's proposals for democratic reform. If they won - and victory is not guaranteed - it could conceivably force Mr Tsang to come up with bolder proposals.

Popular protest has worked before. In 2003, more than half a million people took to the streets to protest against national security legislation deemed to threaten the freedoms and rule of law enjoyed by Hong Kong citizens. The legislation was scrapped. However, that show of rebellion may have convinced Beijing to rule out universal suffrage for Hong Kong before 2020.

Democrats face formidable opposition. That is because there is a confluence of interest between Hong Kong's elite, which likes the way things are, and China's Communist party, which is loath to see an example of democracy on Chinese soil. That has produced a rather odd alliance between a Communist autocracy and a Hong Kong aristocracy that owes much of its wealth and standing to favours dished out by British colonialists.

The territory's elite - the tycoons, property developers, bankers and lords of logistics - know on which side their bread is buttered. To associate themselves with a push for democracy would endanger lucrative contracts on the mainland. Hong Kong's rich have been masters of flexibility: they have made money whether those in charge were British or Japanese imperialists, or Chinese communists. But even if Beijing were not involved, why would Hong Kong's rich give up a system that protects their interests so completely? To cite just one example, Legco has never seen fit to enact a competition law that might erode their interests.

Hong Kong's establishment often argues that too rapid a move to democracy would produce a populist government peddling a welfare-state agenda. Certainly, income disparities, high in the colonial era, have widened still further. Some people still live in tiny "cage homes" too small to stand up in while, at the other end of the scale, luxury flats have been put on the market at HK$300m ($39m, €26m, £23m) each. Under such circumstances, why wouldn't there be a popular backlash? Yet Martin Lee, a veteran advocate of democracy, argues convincingly that the territory's voters have shown themselves to be remarkably pragmatic.

In the end, what colour of government an electorate would choose is not the point. That is the people's prerogative. Whether, when 2020 finally rolls around, Beijing will allow them to exercise it is quite another matter.

david.pilling@ft.com

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