In March 2021, Beijing made the belated and momentous decision to drastically revamp Hong Kong’s electoral system, which forbade “anti-China” elements and their external patrons from contending in the elections for the Election Committee, the Legislative Council and the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
They were hence also excluded thenceforth from Hong Kong’s governance structure. Subsequently, three successful elections have been held, therewith ushering in a novel epoch of “patriots governing Hong Kong”.
From the perspective of Beijing, the original electoral system attempts to mimic a Western system and purports to bring about eventually a Western-style democracy in Hong Kong. Experiences in the last quarter of a century, however, show that this electoral system not only has failed to engender effective governance and political stability but also made it impossible for “one country, two systems” to be comprehensively and accurately implemented. What is worse is that the electoral outcomes pose increasingly serious threats to national security. Concomitantly, the issue of electoral reform has been made a perennial and primary issue on Hong Kong’s public agenda by both the internal and external hostile forces, leaving little room for the social and economic issues that desperately require attention and resolution by the Hong Kong SAR government.
President Xi emphasized that “the development of Hong Kong’s political system should proceed from reality, following the law, and in an orderly manner. It should enable the people to live and work in peace; be conducive to the prosperity and stability of society, as well as safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests.”
Despite the attractiveness of the demands and aspirations of the political opposition to a portion of Hong Kong residents, it is quite certain that in the end, all of them will be disappointed. One should look closely at how Beijing sees Hong Kong’s electoral system, particularly the purposes it is expected and tasked to serve. As Beijing has the constitutional powers and responsibilities to set up Hong Kong’s electoral system, the way it envisages it foretells the future course of democratic development in Hong Kong. Naturally, President Xi Jinping’s admonitions to Hong Kong about its electoral system represent the most authoritative position of Beijing on the matter.
On Dec 26, 2014, at a meeting with then-chief executive Leung Chun-ying, President Xi emphasized that “the development of Hong Kong’s political system should proceed from reality, following the law, and in an orderly manner. It should enable the people to live and work in peace; be conducive to the prosperity and stability of society, as well as safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests.”
On Dec 22, 2021, at a meeting with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, President Xi was pleased to point out that the elections for the Election Committee and the Legislative Council were completed, the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” was realized, and the political configuration of inclusive and balanced participation was established. President Xi was of the view that the new electoral system was good, for it provided the legal underpinnings to ensure that “one country, two systems” will “run smooth and go far”, and that Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability is guaranteed.
In a meeting with the new chief executive-designate of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, John Lee Ka-chiu, on May 30, 2022, President Xi spelled out in greater detail the direction of Hong Kong’s electoral development. President Xi said, “since last year, under the new electoral system, Hong Kong had succeeded in holding successively the Election Committee election, the seventh Legislative Council election, and the sixth Chief Executive election. It has been proved by practice that the new electoral system is decisive in bringing about a good situation where the principle of ‘patriots governing Hong Kong’ is implemented, the right of Hong Kong residents to be their own master is guaranteed, and collective efforts by various social strata and social sectors in the building of Hong Kong are promoted. The new electoral system is a political system as well as a democratic system that is in accord with the reality and the development needs of Hong Kong. It should be doubly cherished and adhered to in the long term.”
Taken together, President Xi’s authoritative instructions about Hong Kong’s electoral system have unambiguously charted the course of Hong Kong’s democratic development in the years ahead. In this context, several important points must be seriously considered.
In the first place, the new electoral system strategically installed in 2021 by Beijing will not be changed in the foreseeable future. Any attempt by the political opposition to restart the process of electoral reform is destined to be a nonstarter since Beijing will not allow it. Instead, Beijing would like to see the new electoral system firmly established and consolidated in the years ahead to ensure that its effects can be clearly examined and its goals can be completely attained. Only when all Hong Kong residents believe that the new system will last a long time will they adapt or adjust their expectations and behavior accordingly. This is particularly so concerning the political opposition for it will not change its confrontational political stance toward Beijing if it still deems it possible to change the system to its advantage shortly.
Second, President Xi takes largely an instrumental view of Hong Kong’s electoral system. While the electoral system is closely connected to the city’s democratic development, its primary purposes however are to serve the more important goals of making “one country, two systems” a success, realizing the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong”, undergirding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, being conducive to the establishment of an executive-led political system, allowing for balanced participation by all social strata and sectors, promoting economic development, and facilitating social solidary and harmony. In President Xi’s mind, the previous electoral system of Hong Kong was not good because it not only failed in achieving those goals but instead has wreaked multifold havoc in the city. Consequently, the Western-style democracy advocated by the opposition and its Western patrons and practiced before and after Hong Kong’s return to the motherland has to be discarded and has no future in Hong Kong.
In short, President Xi is of the view that Hong Kong’s electoral system must be part and parcel of “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics” as Hong Kong is an integral part of China, engaging in a historically unique practice of “one country, two systems”, having the duty to protect national security, and working to safeguard Hong Kong’s “original capitalist system for 50 years”.
The opposition in Hong Kong, in its call for restarting electoral reform, has in mind the speedy introduction of popular elections of the Legislative Council and the chief executive to fulfill the promises of the Basic Law as stipulated in Articles 45 and 68. However, it deliberately ignores the fact that the arrangements for the popular election of the chief executive had already been decided upon by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress back on Aug 31, 2014. However, the implementation of that decision was scuttled by the opposition in the Legislative Council afterward. This decision is still in the lawbook except that it has been “overridden” by the new electoral system for the time being. The principles embedded in that decision, however, will continue to be the guidelines in devising the way the chief executive is going to be popularly elected in the future.
As I see it, looking into the future, the new electoral system will undergo incremental changes after a reasonably long period of practice to prepare for the eventual popular elections of both the Legislative Council and the chief executive. During this interim period, in all likelihood, the distribution of legislators elected by the Election Committee, functional constituencies, and direct elections will change step by step in such a manner to allow more say to the common people. The representativeness of the various sectors in the Election Committee will also increase, for example by adding more subsectors or by expanding the electorates in the different sectors and subsectors.
Most importantly, the pace and scope of change in the electoral system of Hong Kong are contingent eventually on several factors. They will increase if the national security threat from inside and outside Hong Kong is on the decline, if the patriotic camp’s social base continues to expand, if the anti-China elements and their external patrons’ influence in Hong Kong is falling, if the efforts at national education continue to achieve the intended results, and if Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability continue unabated. Given the grim international situation and the determination of the US and its allies to ramp up their containment efforts toward China including Hong Kong in the coming decade, the trajectory of Hong Kong’s democratic development is bound to be tortuous, painful, and uncertain.
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.
HONG KONG NEWS