Universal suffrage an elusive goal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:52pm

A quarter of a century has passed and 11 consultation documents on Hong Kong's electoral system have been released since debate on the city's political reform began. But the goal of universal suffrage still seems a long way off.

And those who have followed the debate on constitutional development since the mid-1980s may feel a sense of deja vu on hearing the government's plan to allow 405 elected district councillors to vote on the five extra Legislative Council seats in 2012 and to make them members of the Election Committee that picks the chief executive that year.

The pan-democratic camp has dismissed this proposal, which is expected to be included in the forthcoming public consultation, ridiculing it as a rehash of the reform proposal for the 2007-08 elections, which they rejected in 2005.

But in fact the so-called 'district councils model' was first adopted by the colonial government in 1985 in an attempt to inject a democratic element into the Legislative Council.

In that year's polls, 12 legislators were returned by an 'electoral college' of district councillors. The practice was repeated in 1988 and 1995.

During the drafting of the Basic Law between 1985 and 1990, a district-councillor electoral college was viewed by pro-democracy groups as a relatively democratic method for electing the Legco after 1997.

In a proposal put forward in 1986, the 'group of 190' pro-democracy activists, suggested returning half of Legco's seats by direct election in 1997 with another 25 per cent returned by electoral college. The remaining 25 per cent would be elected by functional constituencies - commercial, industrial, education and legal sectors. The group also demanded that the chief executive be elected by a one man-one vote system in 1997.

Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a democracy activist since the mid-1980s, said that two decades ago pro-democracy groups saw the election of district councillors who enjoyed a popular mandate to Legco as a second-best option to dilute the influence of functional constituencies before the advent of full democracy. 'From a historical perspective, election of lawmakers from district councillors brought a democratic element to the Legco election,' he said. 'But we have to recognise that Hong Kong people's demand for democracy is greater than it was two decades ago.'

Now some pan-democrats, including former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, say creation of new functional constituencies for district councillors would only create more obstacles to universal suffrage.

Tsoi, convenor of pan-democratic group Power for Democracy, has watched the debate on democracy develop since the mid-1980s when it became clear Hong Kong would revert to Chinese rule in 1997.

Like many activists, his interest in political reform was ignited by the Sino-British talks on Hong Kong's future in the early 1980s and the release of the Green Paper on development of representative government in July 1984. The document put forward a package of proposals aimed at developing a system of government, the authority for which was firmly rooted in the city, including the introduction of indirect elections to the Legco the following year.

Tsoi, who became a Chinese University student in 1985 and a member of the university's student union, took part in a mass rally at Ko Shan Theatre in Hung Hom in November 1986. The famous rally, which was organised by about 100 pressure groups, religious groups and community organisations, is a milestone in the pro-democracy movement. The participants, including the core members of the 'group of 190', demanded the introduction of direct elections for Legco in 1988 and a faster pace of democratic development after the handover.

Another green paper in 1987 proposed direct Legco elections for 1988. This was ruled out after the colonial government set up an office to gauge public opinion and concluded people were 'sharply divided' over its introduction that year.

The government was criticised for manipulating the views of some Beijing-friendly groups to ensure that no clear mandate for direct elections in 1988 emerged, although many surveys at the time showed more than 60 per cent supported direct elections. Eventually the government decided to introduce 18 directly elected seats in 1991. Like Tsoi, Chang Ka-mun, a core member of the pro-democracy camp in the mid-1980s, also attended the Ko Shan rally in 1986.

And during the drafting of the Basic Law in the late 1980s he teamed up with fellow democrats including Szeto Wah and Martin Lee Chu-ming to fight for democracy after the handover. Chang, a member of the Basic Law Consultative Committee, was one of the key drafters of a reform proposal put forward by the 'group of 190' and a core member of the Joint Committee for the Promotion of Democracy, a coalition of pro- democracy groups.

The 'group of 89' - 89 business leaders and professionals - put forward a conservative model for a post-1997 electoral system. It suggested electing the chief executive in 1997 by a 600-strong electoral college comprising representatives of various economic sectors.

Despite their divergent views, Chang believed there was a need for the democrats to reach a consensus with the business sector on a post-1997 electoral deal because that would be better than a decision imposed by the Basic Law Drafting Committee. But he was branded a 'capitulator' by some core democrats for his attempts to broker a deal. He parted company with the pro-democracy camp and faded from the political scene. 'My efforts [at a compromise] were in vain because many leaders within the pan-democratic camp were reluctant to compromise with other political factions,' said Chang, who is now a Hong Kong delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. He said he was worried that pan-democrat resistance to compromise with other political forces would make it difficult to reach a consensus on electoral reform for 2012.

The escalation of tension between Beijing and the pro-democracy camp in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown created further obstacles to Hong Kong's democratisation. Given its mistrust of the democrats, Beijing adopted a conservative political model for the city after 1997, aimed at a 'gradual and orderly' evolution. There was also a lack of dialogue between Beijing and the pan-democratic camp for nearly two decades, with some democrats banned from entering the mainland.

The recent row over a road map for universal suffrage is testament to the depth of distrust between them and the central government.

The democrats' call stems from their fears that Hong Kong would get 'fake' universal suffrage in 2017, the earliest date for full democracy given by the National People's Congress Standing Committee in 2007. But Beijing insisted it was serious about its timetable for universal suffrage and pan-democrats should first support the Hong Kong government's proposal for the 2012 elections before demanding specific commitments on universal suffrage.

Tsoi, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front in 2003 when it organised the 500,000-strong march against the national security legislation, agreed it was very difficult to press ahead with political reform in Hong Kong in the absence of trust between the democrats and Beijing.

Democratic Party lawmaker Cheung Man-kwong, part of the fight for democracy since the 1980s, urged the Hong Kong and central governments to endorse three principles, which he said would guarantee genuine universal suffrage. They include a nomination threshold for the 2017 chief executive election that would not be more stringent than that for the 2007 election.

Twenty-five years on, those who have followed the debate on Hong Kong's democratic development are anxious to see whether the democrats and Beijing can muster the political will to resolve the deadlock.

The march to reform

Key dates in the push for political reform in Hong Kong

Jul 1984: Hong Kong government releases green paper on development of representative government, which proposes the introduction of indirect Legislative Council elections in 1985

Sep 1984: British and Chinese governments sign Sino-British Joint Declaration

Sep 1985: Indirect elections introduced to Legco

Nov 1986: More than 1,000 people join mass rally at Ko Shan Theatre, demanding faster pace of democracy after 1997

May 1987: Hong Kong government releases green paper on development of representative government, which suggests direct election to Legco as option for following year

1989: Tiananmen Square crackdown

1990: Basic Law endorsed by National People's Congress

1992: Then-governor Chris Patten announces controversial reform package for 1994-95 elections

Dec 1996: Provisional Legislative Council set up

May 1998: First post-handover Legco election held

Jul 1, 2003: 500,000 join historic march against national security legislation

2004: Hong Kong government launches public consultation on electoral methods for 2007-08 elections

2005: Government proposal for 2007-08 elections vetoed by Legco

Jul 2007: Government releases green paper on constitutional development to canvass public views on roadmap and timetable for universal suffrage

Dec 2007: NPC Standing Committee decides universal suffrage may be used for election of chief executive by 2017 at latest and for Legco by 2020

Nov 2009: Hong Kong government releases consultation paper on methods for electing chief executive and Legco in 2012