Real issue is genuine choice, not suffrage
For many months now, we have been told that Hong Kong needs 'genuine universal suffrage' - instead of the fake variety - when elections for the chief executive are held in 2017 and for the Legislative Council in 2020.
This debate stems from the National People's Congress Standing Committee decision of 2007, which held that the election of the chief executive in 2017 'may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage', followed by similar elections for the legislature. It did not define 'universal suffrage'.
As it happens, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) sheds light on what universal suffrage means.
Article 25 says that every citizen shall have the right 'to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors'.
In addition, the UN Human Rights Committee charged with monitoring implementation of the covenant issued a detailed interpretation of the meaning of Article 25 at its 57th session in 1996. But Beijing and Hong Kong's government say Article 25 is irrelevant because of a British reservation in 1976 - when it refused to commit itself to an elected Hong Kong legislature.
In 1995, the UN committee ruled that even though an elected legislature may not be required, 'once an elected Legislative Council is established, its election must conform to Article 25 of the covenant'.
In March, constitutional affairs chief Stephen Lam Sui-lung said: 'The ultimate aim of universal suffrage for Hong Kong's constitutional development originates from the Basic Law and not the covenant,' adding that the covenant's definition of 'universal and equal' did not apply to Hong Kong. But that is a distinction without a difference: as Lam acknowledged, the government had all along maintained that elections would comply with the principles of 'universal and equal' suffrage.
Besides, if the covenant's definition of universal and equal suffrage does not apply to Hong Kong, whose definition does apply?
The term 'universal suffrage' in the Basic Law was introduced by the Basic Law Drafting Committee, which was formed in 1985, the same year that the Joint Declaration was ratified. And the Joint Declaration says in Section XIII of Annex I: 'The provisions of the [ICCPR] ... as applied to Hong Kong shall remain in force.'
That was the first time that most people in Hong Kong or China, including the future members of the drafting committee, had heard of the ICCPR. Hence, one must assume that when the drafters used the term 'universal suffrage' regarding how the chief executive and all members of Legco would ultimately be chosen, they must have had in mind the term as it was used in the ICCPR.
That is to say, the legislative intent of the drafters must have been to eventually implement universal suffrage as it is understood internationally. As for the chief executive election, the democrats' main concern is that there should not be any political screening of candidates by the nominating committee. Here, the UN committee says that 'any restrictions on the right to stand for election ... must be justifiable on objective and reasonable criteria'.
Suffrage refers only to the ability to vote. That is not the issue here: everyone will be able to vote. It is a question as to whether they will have a choice regarding candidates.
Thus, it would be more accurate for the democrats to demand 'genuine elections' rather than 'genuine universal suffrage'.
It is not the right to vote so much as the right to have a choice that is at stake.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator