National People's Congress

Hongkongers' unacceptable ignorance of China's government

Bernard Chan says ignorance about China's government is unacceptable

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

A couple of weeks ago, something strange started to happen. It seemed most people I met who knew me here in Hong Kong were all asking me the same question: why wasn't I in Beijing?

The explanation is simple. Around every March, I go to Beijing for 10 days or so to attend the annual full session of the National People's Congress. It takes place in the Great Hall of the People, and the TV news shows pictures of China's leaders giving speeches, while a huge audience listens. That was what happened a couple of weeks ago, wasn't it?

Of course it wasn't. The gathering in mid-November was the 18th congress of the Communist Party. I am not a member of the party.

I was struck by how many Hong Kong people were unaware what that event was. It might have looked like the NPC's big annual gathering, but it was a very different occasion. The party nominated the people who will lead the government and bureaucracy, and it defined the broad policies the government will follow. These decisions go to the NPC in March for approval.

Hong Kong people were not alone in paying little attention to the party congress. Mainland students I spoke to here in Hong Kong at the time seemed pretty uninterested, even though they are generally more informed about the country's government structure. We will soon be going through elections for Hong Kong delegates to the NPC - as part of the same five-year cycle as the party congress - and it is quite likely that the local community will largely ignore that process.

It is easy to see why people probably feel remote from the congresses. Information is limited, and these gatherings do not deal with purely Hong Kong issues. Since the vast majority of people here have no part in the selection of Hong Kong NPC delegates, it is understandable that they show little interest in the outcome. It doesn't help that the sessions do not feature public debate.

On the other hand, the overseas media followed the congress closely. The US presidential election just beforehand provided the chance for some interesting comparisons. The overseas press sensed that China could be undergoing significant change as a new leadership comes to grips with the need for economic rebalancing and social and political reform. Much of the commentary in the foreign press was quite perceptive, and it suggested that some overseas audiences were taking more interest than many people in Hong Kong.

Overseas media noted that the result of China's leadership selection seemed to be well-known in advance. But they also pointed out that the process was in part very secretive, with the identity and even the number of Politburo Standing Committee members not revealed until the last minute.

To many people in Hong Kong, this aspect of the process is what made the event distant and uninteresting. But to the overseas (and some local) press, it was a reason to pay more attention. They analysed appearances by retired officials at the theatre and even at a tennis match, and speculated about rivalry between different factions and what it meant for China's future.

It does mean a lot. The new leaders face big questions. Should the private sector be given more room, or will the state-linked companies be favoured? Will the economy become more consumption based, and if so, how? The answers will have a tremendous impact on the course of China's economy, and on Hong Kong.

To understand what is happening in Beijing and elsewhere, we need to know the basics, including the structure of government in China. This was one of the points that got lost during the national education debate: you do not have to like or agree with the party, but we owe it to ourselves and our children to ensure we know how the country functions.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council