Let Hong Kong lead on road to democracy

Jieh-Yung Lo says ensuring Hong Kong becomes fully democratic, and keeping it this way beyond 2047, will shine a light for the rest of China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 5:02am

For China to successfully embrace democracy, Hong Kong should remain a special administrative region after 2047, with the election of the chief executive and all members of the legislature by universal suffrage continuing beyond that date.

Since the handover, Hong Kong has wielded a high degree of autonomy and enjoys legislative, executive and independent judicial power. The Hong Kong government sets its own financial and monetary policies, within the framework of the Basic Law, and makes its own decisions in education, culture and social welfare.

Given its experience, the city is in the perfect position to be a catalyst for the introduction of democratic reform in mainland China.

Hong Kong has played a significant role in the historical debate on democracy. As a British colony, it was a place of ideas for many Chinese leaders and revolutionaries. One of the earliest movements, the Chinese Patriotic Mutual Improvement Association, was founded in Hong Kong in 1892. Modern China's founding father Sun Yat-sen made frequent visits to the city during his early years, and his vision was influenced by many Chinese expatriates living in Hong Kong at the time.

One of the major political reform challenges in China today is to develop a form of democracy with Chinese characteristics. The constitution provides for elections and the associated constitutional structures and independent judicial institutions. If China were ever to become a democracy, it would be defined as a force that assists party leaders to stay in touch with the people and provide a popular check on corruption, rather than the core of a new political system in which people can choose their representatives in free elections.

Many believe China will develop its own system of democracy. In fact, the Chinese government has in recent years introduced direct election of village officials in some regions. In many villages, officials are also making efforts to involve ordinary citizens in decision-making.

For now, the power to vote would seem a trivial issue for the hundreds of millions of Chinese who are barely educated. Democracy is only effective when citizens are informed and understand their rights and responsibilities. In this respect, Hong Kong citizens are ahead of their mainland counterparts.

Mainland China is experimenting with democracy. Think tanks have been set up, village elections held and models discussed.

Hong Kong's fundamental rights and duties under the Basic Law present a practical and successful working model that could be adopted by the rest of China. But, first, universal suffrage must be implemented here. The people of Hong Kong are well equipped and more ready than ever.

The future of Hong Kong beyond 2047 is still cloudy. Ending the SAR structure will halt any possible future democratic reform in China.

Beijing has said that Hong Kong's chief executive could be directly elected in 2017, with the legislature following, by 2020 at the earliest. This needs to be set in stone, coupled with a commitment to engage the people to help shape political and social reform in the rest of China.

Jieh-Yung Lo is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia