Beijing has no need to fear free elections in Hong Kong

Frank Ching says Beijing's fear of free elections may be feeding the mistaken view that pro-establishment politicians lack popular support

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 3:20am

When Hong Kong's last British governor, Chris Patten, tried to negotiate an agreement on electoral arrangements with Beijing two decades ago, he came upon a revelation. "The Chinese style is not to rig elections," Patten said he was told by a veteran colonial official. "But they do like to know the result before they're held."

In the 16 years since the handover, there have been five "elections" for chief executive. China candidly called the first one a "selection", by the Selection Committee. The second and third "elections" each had only one candidate.

The fourth featured Donald Tsang Yam-kuen running for a second term, opposed by Alan Leong Kah-kit, of the Civic Party. Only the 800 Election Committee members could vote. Tsang won, by 649 votes to 123. It was a small-circle election but Leong lagged in opinion surveys, too. There is little doubt that, had the election been held by universal suffrage, the outcome would have been the same.

In the fifth election, in 2012, there were three candidates - former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, former Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying and Albert Ho Chun-yan, then chairman of the Democratic Party. Tang was an early front runner but his popularity plummeted after a scandal-ridden campaign and Leung emerged victorious. Ho was an also-ran. Public opinion surveys showed him trailing Tang and Leung throughout the campaign. In all likelihood, if the Hong Kong public could have voted, the outcome would have been similar.

Chinese officials know that their preferred candidate would have won even if the last two elections had been held by universal suffrage. Yet Beijing appears to have strong misgivings about allowing genuine universal suffrage. That is because, as Patten said, the Chinese like to know in advance the outcome of all future elections. That is the very antithesis of democracy.

In fact, democratic elections are sometimes so close that the media get it wrong. The Chicago Tribune famously ran the front-page banner headline "Dewey Defeats Truman" the day after the 1948 presidential election, which Harry Truman won.

The Communist Party should understand that, in life, there is no such thing as absolute certainty. In fact, it has used this argument to chide the US for its missile defence programme, saying that Washington was seeking to achieve "absolute security".

It is unnecessary for the Chinese government to try to have "absolute certainty" that its preferred candidate will win every election in Hong Kong, regardless of who the candidates are and what the issues are.

The past 16 years have shown that pro-establishment candidates are fully capable of winning elections; the pro-establishment camp has more seats in the legislature than the pan-democrats.

Hong Kong voters are not biased against pro-establishment candidates. In fact, opinion surveys in 2007 and 2012 clearly show a lack of public support for the pro-democracy candidates in those elections. There is no need for Beijing to fear genuine elections.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1