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Published: 00:50, January 07, 2022 | Updated: 09:35, January 07, 2022
Hong Kong follows own path of democratization
By Lau Siu-kai
Published:00:50, January 07, 2022 Updated:09:35, January 07, 2022 By Lau Siu-kai

In December, Beijing released a white paper on “Hong Kong’s Democratic Progress Under the Framework of One Country, Two Systems”. The white paper asserts that Hong Kong did not enjoy democracy under colonial rule and that Beijing is sincere and determined to promote democratic development in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Back in 2014, I wrote a book titled Hong Kong’s Unique Path of Democratization (in Chinese), arguing that despite possessing many favorable socioeconomic conditions for democratic development, Hong Kong’s path of democratization is going to be unique in view of its special history, constitutional status and political reality. Both the white paper and my book concur on the same theme, i.e., the Western democratic model is absolutely not suitable for Hong Kong.

As a matter of fact, Hong Kong had in the past experienced some failed efforts at democratic reform along Western lines. The botched unilateral attempt of the British to impose a “representative political system” on Hong Kong before the handover is an outstanding example. However, the British were quite successful in their efforts to foster the rise of the anti-China opposition. The democratic system of the HKSAR also contains elements of the Western model, giving priority to the expansion of the electoral rights of the individual and downplaying the broader consequences and repercussions of the electoral outcome. The anti-China opposition has been able to further strengthen these elements through unrelentingly and stridently mobilizing their supporters to demand political reforms. Unfortunately, the democratic system in the HKSAR has not brought about political stability and effective governance. On the contrary, it has resulted in chronic and protracted political turmoil, ineffective governance, sluggish economic development, national insecurity and the encroachment of foreign forces. More ominously, it makes successful implementation of “one country, two systems” impossible.

The new democratic system established in Hong Kong is much more compatible with the requirements of “one country, two systems” and more effective as a “tool” to achieve its strategic goals. This new democratic system will definitely be sustainable and can continue into the future. It is expected that after this new democratic system has been further institutionalized and consolidated, it will be improved from time to time to broaden electoral participation

The major reason for the failure of Hong Kong’s “Western” democratic experience is that Hong Kong’s democratic political system allows the anti-China opposition to gain entry into its governance system through elections and to wreak havoc in Hong Kong’s governance. In addition to its animosity toward Beijing, the anti-China opposition rejects the constitutional order of the HKSAR formed by the nation’s Constitution and the Hong Kong Basic Law. The inclusion of this anti-establishment force in Hong Kong’s democratic system guarantees its malfunctioning, unviability and unsustainability. That this state of affairs can exist attests to the flawed design of Hong Kong’s democratic system. By now, it is clear that in order for democracy to work in the HKSAR, it cannot blindly mimic the Western model. Instead, Hong Kong should pursue its own unique path of democratic development. In fact, “democratic politics with Hong Kong characteristics” can only be developed by abiding by three major principles.

In the first place, Hong Kong is not an “independent political entity”, let alone an independent nation. Accordingly, Hong Kong’s democratic design must seriously take into account its possible impact on national sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity, whereas the “Western model” invariably has a sovereign nation in mind. Since Hong Kong is part of China, it does not have the right to devise and change its political system; only the central authorities have the constitutional power to do so. The chief executive of the HKSAR, elected by an Election Committee, and his or her principal officials are appointed by and accountable to the central authorities. The central authorities have the constitutional power to monitor and assess the performance of the chief executive and the principal officials. 

Even though the HKSAR enjoys a high degree of autonomy under “one country, two systems” with the delegation of powers from the central authorities, the central authorities still retain substantial powers to ensure the successful implementation of “one country, two systems” as well as to safeguard national sovereignty and security. However, the British, the external forces, Hong Kong’s opposition and Hong Kong residents who clamor for the adoption of a Western democratic model in effect regard the HKSAR as an independent political entity. They insist that the elected leaders of Hong Kong are answerable only to Hong Kong residents. Therefore, they in actuality refuse to recognize China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong and the powers of the central authorities in the HKSAR. They vehemently deny Hong Kong’s responsibility to safeguard national security. More viciously, they aspire to establish a Western-style democracy in Hong Kong so that it can be turned into a “pro-West” base of subversion against China. Without any doubt, such a sinister motive on the part of both internal and external hostile forces can never be realized. It is naive to expect China to accept or tolerate a “democratic” system in Hong Kong that is detrimental to national interests and security.

Secondly, Hong Kong’s democratic system must serve and bolster “one country, two systems”, allowing it to operate in accordance with Beijing’s design and continue beyond 2047. In the West, democracy is generally conceived as electoral democracy or procedural democracy at the core of which is the “one man, one vote, one value” popular election. Leaving aside the question as to whether the Western democratic ideal has really been fulfilled, electoral democracy stipulates that the results of the elections, as long as they are conducted in a fair manner and in accordance with constitutional and legal procedures, are a legitimate reflection of the “will of the people” and hence have to be respected and followed through, even though that might bring about calamity to the nation concerned. A vivid and tragic example is Brexit, which was endorsed by only a slim majority in an ill-conceived referendum. From Beijing’s point of view, “one country, two systems” is a major national policy to advance the interests of the nation as well as Hong Kong. 

It cannot be allowed to fail or to be implemented partially and distortedly. The strategic goals to be achieved by “one country, two systems” include: the advancement of national unity, the protection of national security, the realization of the principle of “Hong Kong administered by patriots”, the preservation of Hong Kong’s original capitalist system and the way of life of Hong Kong residents, the establishment of an “executive-led” political system, the achievement of good and effective governance, the promotion of Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, and enabling Hong Kong to play a unique and indispensable role in the nation’s modernization. Compared to these strategic goals, democratization as a goal is much less important. While Beijing is willing to respond positively to the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong residents, the democratic system to be instituted in the HKSAR must not inhibit the attainment of those strategic goals. 

In other words, the democratic system of Hong Kong is basically a “tool” to enable the strategic goals of “one country, two systems” to be achieved. If the “tool” cannot get the job done or instead is destructive of the “one country, two systems” project, the “tool” has to be “retooled” or replaced. The democratic practices in Hong Kong since 1997 have apparently failed to allow Hong Kong to reach the strategic goals of “one country, two systems”. A new “tool” or new democratic system is therefore needed to finish the job. And that is the reason why Beijing has fundamentally revamped the electoral system of Hong Kong.

Thirdly, Hong Kong’s democratic system has to ensure “Hong Kong administered by patriots”. In the past, there was only a weak and ineffective candidate-vetting system in Hong Kong’s elections. Anti-China forces and their external patrons could take part in Hong Kong’s governance via elections. In Western elections, the absence of stringent candidate-vetting processes would not bring about too much harm because very few people in Western nations reject their constitutional order. In Hong Kong, however, because of historical and political reasons, a substantial proportion of Hong Kong residents and politicians harbor anti-China and anti-communist opinions. 

In the past, the parlous and perfunctory candidate-vetting mechanism in Hong Kong allowed the “disloyal” opposition to play an important role in Hong Kong’s governance. It used, in particular, the legislature as the platform to challenge national sovereignty, question the legitimacy of the powers of the central authorities and the Basic Law, collude with external hostile forces, and mobilize mass protest actions against Beijing and the HKSAR government.

Because of the many defects and loopholes in Hong Kong’s democratic system, its electoral system in particular, “one country, two systems” had failed to function in conformity with the original design of Beijing. It is an undeniable fact that this flawed democratic system was the source of Hong Kong’s political impasse since its return to the motherland. The political turmoil in Hong Kong in the past decade, and the 2019-20 “color revolution” specifically, have compelled Beijing to reluctantly redesign Hong Kong’s democratic system. 

The core purpose of the new democratic system is to fully realize the principle of “Hong Kong administered by patriots”. The electoral system of Hong Kong has been drastically revamped. A rigorous vetting mechanism for candidates in the elections has been introduced. Anti-China elements can no longer take part in the elections and through them obtain governing power. Hostile external forces can no longer cultivate their agents or proxies in Hong Kong.

Indisputably, the new democratic system established in Hong Kong is much more compatible with the requirements of “one country, two systems” and more effective as a “tool” to achieve its strategic goals. This new democratic system will definitely be sustainable and can continue into the future. It is expected that after this new democratic system has been further institutionalized and consolidated, it will be improved from time to time to broaden electoral participation by Hong Kong residents and former oppositionists who are willing to pursue their political career within the new constitutional order of the HKSAR.

Lau Siu-kai is a professor emeritus of sociology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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