Democracy with Chinese characteristics?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2007, 12:00am

The remarks by chairman of the National People's Congress Wu Bangguo to the effect that the extent of Hong Kong's autonomy is decided by Beijing underline a reality that may not be palatable to some people. However, that is the reality.

Still, his emphasis on an executive-led government and his rejection of the separation of powers are troubling, and potentially damaging to Hong Kong. Any attempt to weaken the independence of the judiciary would be a body blow and would go against China's promise of 50 years of no change.

Besides, this opposition to the separation of powers is not rooted in the Basic Law, which clearly sets out the different roles of the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Article 62 defines the executive's powers and functions; Article 72 sets out the legislature's powers and functions; and Article 83 stipulates that the judiciary's powers and functions 'shall be prescribed by law'.

In his explanation to the National People's Congress on the Basic Law on March 28, 1990, Ji Pengfei, chairman of the Basic Law Drafting Committee, said: 'The executive authorities and the legislature should regulate each other as well as co-ordinate their activities. The chief executive must have real power, which, at the same time, should be subject to some restrictions.'

This is an acknowledgement of the need for a separation of powers.

In addition, Ji displayed the pragmatic attitude of the Chinese authorities at the time by saying that 'the part of the existing [pre-1997] political structure proven to be effective will be maintained'. Before 1997, the judiciary was independent. Making it subservient to the executive would be a fundamental change in the political structure.

True, all legislators were appointed by the executive at the time of the signing of the Joint Declaration, but it was China's decision, encapsulated in the Basic Law, that the entire legislature should be elected, and thus not controlled by the executive.

Mr Wu cites Deng Xiaoping as his authority for opposing the separation of powers by pointing out that the late paramount leader had said 'the Hong Kong system of government should not be completely westernised' and it would not be appropriate to adopt 'the separation of three powers'.

It is true that Deng was opposed to the separation of powers. He had said that it was difficult to deal with the United States because it had two governments - the administration and the Congress - but these days China is dealing with both the White House and Congress.

It must be remembered that after the death of Mao Zedong , Deng had opposed blind compliance with whatever the chairman had said in his lifetime.

The question, then, is why raise these issues now, 10 years after the handover? One possibility is that Beijing is responding to the proposal made by Alan Leong Kah-kit, during the election campaign, that the chief executive should be allowed to pick his own ministers without having to seek Beijing's approval. But Mr Leong recognised this could not be done without an amendment to the Basic Law, and that, of course, cannot happen without Beijing's consent.

The other possibility could be that Beijing is apprehensive about Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's promise to consult the Hong Kong public on how to proceed towards universal suffrage. If so, then Mr Wu's remarks may represent an attempt to pre-empt the chief executive and the Hong Kong public.

It may be that Beijing wants to ensure that what emerges in Hong Kong will not be considered 'real democracy' in the rest of the world, but 'democracy with Chinese characteristics'.

However, universal suffrage is itself a western concept and, unfortunately, there is no Chinese model for Hong Kong to copy.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.