Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

The fight for universal suffrage in 2017

Emily Lau says that universal suffrage must encompass people's right to stand for election and, as such, the nominating committee for the next chief executive poll must be broadly representative. Tam Yiu-chung, meanwhile, argues that any plans for democratic development that do not have Beijing's approval will fail, and it is Hong Kong that will pay the price

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 3:14am

Earlier this month, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, Martin Lee Chu-ming, stunned the community by proposing a mechanism for screening candidates of the chief executive election in 2017. He suggested at least five candidates be allowed to stand in the election which will be by universal suffrage, hoping this would ensure a member from the pro-democracy camp can compete.

His proposal was welcomed by the pro-Beijing camp but criticised by members of the pro-democracy lobby, because they do not think universal suffrage should include a mechanism for screening candidates. The following day, Lee withdrew his proposal and apologised for being reckless. He said he had not discussed it with the democratic camp and should not have said the proposal was his bottom line.

Hong Kong people have been fighting for universal suffrage for several decades and are losing patience. Many do not believe Beijing will allow the special administrative region to have democracy as long as China is governed by a one-party dictatorship. Although the Basic Law said the chief executive shall be selected by consultation or election, Beijing insisted political development should be by gradual and orderly progress.

In 2010, the Democratic Party supported political reforms for 2012, which added 10 members to the Legislative Council and 400 members to the Election Committee that picks the chief executive. This was not universal suffrage but because of this step forward, Beijing gave Hong Kong people the undertaking that the chief executive will be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, and after that, all Legco members will also be so elected.

Since Leung Chun-ying was elected chief executive by the 1,200-member Election Committee last year, many people have urged his government to begin public consultation on direct election of the chief executive in 2017, but to no avail. Last month, the chairman of the National People's Congress Law Committee, Qiao Xiaoyang, summoned pro-Beijing Legco members to Shenzhen and told them that the chief executive would be elected by universal suffrage in 2017 but the candidates must love China and love Hong Kong, and must not confront Beijing.

According to the Basic Law, the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage would be upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.

Thus, a lot depends on how the nominating committee is chosen. If it is elected by universal and equal suffrage, its power to impose limitations on the nomination of candidates may be more acceptable.

Qiao said the nominating committee would operate as a whole to nominate candidates for the chief executive election, implying this would be a screening process. Lee's proposal gave the impression he had accepted Qiao's suggestion. This is controversial because universal suffrage means the people's right to vote and the right to stand for election should be universal and equal. According to Qiao, everyone can vote but only those favoured by the nominating committee can stand for election. Pro-Beijing politicians unabashedly state that universal suffrage means only the right to vote.

In March, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held a hearing in Geneva on the SAR government's implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In response, the committee published its concluding observations and recommendations, which urged the SAR government to take all necessary measures to implement universal suffrage in conformity with the covenant, and to outline clear and detailed plans on how universal and equal suffrage might be instituted, ensuring the right of all people to vote and to stand for election without unreasonable limitations.

On the election of the chief executive, how the nominating committee would be formed is most important. Some pro-Beijing politicians said it should be done along the lines of the current 1,200-member Election Committee, which means it would be chosen by the 200,000-odd members of the functional constituencies. This is most undemocratic and unacceptable.

It is possible to design the chief executive election in a way that will conform with the UN covenant and the Basic Law. However, when mainland and SAR officials repeatedly declare universal suffrage in Hong Kong will be implemented only in accordance with the Basic Law, this is a signal the election most probably will not comply with the covenant.

To make matters worse, pro-Beijing politicians argued that the 2017 chief executive election is not the ultimate end and the election method will continue to evolve. This implies the election will not be by universal and equal suffrage.

One good thing that has come out of the Lee saga is that it has stirred up public interest, just like the proposal by University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting to "occupy Central". It also underlines the need for thorough discussion, consultation and debate before a proposal is made public. The Lee proposal referred to negotiating with Beijing and the need to compromise. Many people regard that as essential and reasonable. Some even say that if the Lee proposal is supported by many Hong Kong people, it should be considered seriously.

The Democratic Party is working with members of the pro-democracy movement to draft an electoral method that will conform with the UN rights treaty and the Basic Law. We urge the SAR government to immediately begin consulting the public on the 2017 election so there will be sufficient time for territory-wide discussion and debate.

Democratic Party members have met Professor Tai and support his proposal to use Occupy Central as a means to fight for universal suffrage. We feel very strongly that the people have waited too long for democracy and the election of the chief executive in 2017 should be by genuine universal suffrage. If not, the Democratic Party will not rule out resorting to civil disobedience, including Occupying Central, to achieve our goal. But the action must be peaceful and orderly and involve no violence.

In the fight for democracy, Hong Kong people have been exceedingly patient and long suffering, but enough is enough. Beijing and the business tycoons must respect and appreciate the people's desire for universal suffrage. Beijing must honour its undertaking to the Hong Kong people.

Emily Lau Wai-hing is chairwoman of the Democratic Party and a Legislative Council member


Do you have a bottom line? What is your bottom line? If someone challenges your bottom line, how would you respond?

I believe everyone has a bottom line in his heart. Not long ago, Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the National People's Congress Law Committee, suggested that the chief executive of Hong Kong should love the country and love Hong Kong, and should not oppose the central government. These bottom lines are very controversial in Hong Kong.

Some members of the pan-democracy camp asked whether that means they will no longer be allowed to run in the chief executive election. I can hardly comprehend why they automatically consider themselves disqualified under the banner of "love the country and love Hong Kong". Do they admit that they do not "love the country and love Hong Kong"?

To many people, it is easy to appreciate Qiao's point of view. One should respect one's own country. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is part of China. Our chief executive, as head of the SAR, is not only accountable to Hong Kong people but also to the central government. This is clearly enshrined in article 43 of the Basic Law. It would be ridiculous if our chief executive were to confront leaders in Beijing or perhaps urge the overthrow of the Chinese government.

According to article 45, the chief executive must be appointed by the central government, and the method for selection shall be specified in the light of the situation in Hong Kong and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.

The nominating committee should be broadly representative. The Basic Law says that the nominating committee has to work by democratic procedures. I hope that the public can give comments and make suggestions according to the framework set by the Basic Law.

The kind of universal suffrage mentioned in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should not be incompatible with the Basic Law. The international covenants do not restrict the sovereignty of a state.

A country is free to decide whether it should ratify a certain covenant. What is more, most countries ratify the UN rights covenant selectively or hold reservations about it. Among them are the United States and Australia.

And why should we immediately launch the consultation for the 2017 election? More time spent on consultation does not mean we can settle on a selection method sooner.

Consultation for electoral reform for 2007-08 went on for two years but in the end no proposals were approved. By contrast, the government spent only a year on consultation for the 2012 reform and the Legislative Council accepted both proposals. Therefore, there should be plenty of time even if the consultation is to start next year.

Some people in the pro-establishment camp believe that the political system in Hong Kong should move along a path towards democracy that has the support of Beijing. The gap between Hong Kong people and Beijing must be narrowed; Hong Kong people should be less hostile towards the pro-China banner, so that Beijing will be more confident in the democratic process in Hong Kong.

If the 2017 chief executive election is not held in a way that is generally agreed on by the Hong Kong population, it will be a major setback to Beijing and Hong Kong. If we want to have a democracy that functions well, other than mass mobilisations and rallies, we should work together to construct a political situation that allows Hong Kong to peacefully adopt universal suffrage. All political parties should strive for this objective.

That is why we are concerned about the proposal to occupy Central. If such a large movement were to take place in Central, the political and financial centre of our city, how far would its impact spread?

We have carried out a survey of approximately 1,100 citizens aged 18 and over in the past two weeks. The results reveal a highly negative view of Occupy Central, and show public concern about its impact.

For example, over 60 per cent of respondents felt that the protest would result in significant losses to the Hong Kong economy, and would tarnish the city's reputation.

Further, though the theme of the protest is "Love and Peace", as embodied in its oath, and despite its claims that "only a righteous political system can lead to a harmonious society", 65 per cent of respondents remained concerned that Occupy Central would lead to violence.

This result reveals the public's belief that civil disobedience is no justification for violence, nor can the attainment of an ideal compensate for the consequences of such a protest.

Similarly, though the aim of Occupy Central is universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election, 67 per cent of respondents do not believe that it will promote constitutional development. Moreover, 62 per cent of people are worried that the protest will affect relations between the mainland government and the people of Hong Kong.

The statistics do not lie. In our poll, about 70 per cent of respondents are against Occupy Central, and we are aware that there are similar results revealed by other polls. More than half of the people asked are against Occupy Central in general. Therefore, unless the organisers wish to go against public opinion, there is no point in proceeding with the protest for the purpose of attaining universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election.

Finally, I'd like to convey the following three messages to the pan-democrats.

First, the timetable for universal suffrage has been settled, and we can all discuss it in a rational manner.

Second, make various proposals so that the public can discuss more.

Third, do not support Occupy Central, which cannot help to promote the peaceful environment necessary for discussing the 2017 chief executive election.

Central is Hong Kong's financial centre. If occupied, Hong Kong people have to suffer the consequences. I sincerely hope that the pan-democrats can abandon the plan to occupy Central, which is not helpful to the consultation and not good for Hong Kong.

Universal suffrage should be carried out according to the Basic Law.

Tam Yiu-chung is chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong