Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

Patriotism seems straightforward, but not in debate on Hong Kong's future

The meaning of the word patriotism seems straightforward, but not so in the debate on Hong Kong' s future, where it has a long history of flux

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 April, 2013, 4:52am

Samuel Johnson called it the last refuge of the scoundrel. Calvin Coolidge said it was "looking out for yourself by looking out for your country". But in Hong Kong, patriotism is not so succinctly defined.

The concept of "patriotism" was first applied to Hong Kong's political system in 1984, when paramount leader Deng Xiaoping raised it as part of his "one country, two systems" formula - while making it explicit that support for socialism was not a prerequisite for elected office in Hong Kong.

But recent remarks by mainland officials insisting that the city's next chief executive - due to be elected under universal suffrage for the first time - must not oppose the central government indicate a shift in Beijing's definition of the term. That, in turn, has stirred a debate on what patriotism actually means.

Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng kicked off the latest round of heated rhetoric early last month, when he reportedly said in a closed-door meeting with Hong Kong delegates to the nation's parliament that "opposition" and "centrifugal forces" could not be allowed to rule Hong Kong after universal suffrage was attained.

The chairman of the Law Committee under the National People's Congress, Qiao Xiaoyang , later stoked the debate when he said members of the opposition camp who insisted on confronting the central government could not become chief executive. It was seen as the clearest hint yet that a screening mechanism would form part of the 2017 chief executive election - which Beijing has long vowed will allow a vote for all Hongkongers.

Qiao, who made his comments to Beijing-loyalist lawmakers at a meeting behind closed doors in Shenzhen, admitted it would be difficult to write into law the criteria that a candidate must "love country, love Hong Kong". But, he added, those "who confront the central government" would not qualify.

"As long as [the opposition camp] insist on confronting the central government, they cannot become the chief executive," he said. "One day, when they give up going against the central government, return to the stance of 'loving the nation, loving Hong Kong', and prove by their actions they will not harm the interests of the country and Hong Kong, the door is open for them."

Qiao added that unsuitable candidates could be weeded out in a three-stage process: by the nomination committee that will put forward candidates, by the voters and "lastly, the central government will decide whether to appoint [the candidate] or not". He added: "Every person has a scale in their hearts."

He hinted that if a politician such as Civic Party chairwoman Audrey Eu Yuet-mee became chief executive, she would face a dilemma on National Day - whether to join celebrations or protest against one-party rule with others in her camp.

Beijing loyalists have insisted Qiao was merely reiterating the central government's longstanding position. But China-watcher Ching Cheong sees a big difference between past statements and what Beijing is saying today. Qiao's idea of "patriotism" could be cause for concern, he said.

"In 1984, when Deng raised this point, everyone was happy because he did not ask for support towards socialism," Ching said. "But Qiao's remarks caused resentment and pressure since in his interpretation of Deng's idea, it was [implied] that those opposing one-party autocracy and supporting the separation of powers are not patriotic, and ineligible for candidacy."

Deng first introduced the phrase "love China, love Hong Kong" at a meeting with Hong Kong politicians in June 1984. He said patriots must form the main body of the city's administrators after the handover.

"A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong, and wishes not to impair Hong Kong's prosperity and stability," he said. "We don't demand that they be in favour of China's socialist system; we ask only for them to love the motherland and Hong Kong."

The phrase resurfaced about a decade later amid Sino-British talks on elections in the city.

A February 1994 white paper released by the British government quoted the Chinese side as suggesting that to "uphold the Basic Law", someone wanting to be elected to serve in the legislature in 1995 would have to "love China and love Hong Kong".

To meet the criteria, the lawmaker would have to uphold the resumption of Chinese sovereignty over the city, and they could not oppose the Basic Law or take part in activities such as attempting to overthrow the Chinese government or undermine the mainland's socialist system.

By that time, the negotiations had broken down and the "through train" - the idea that legislators elected in 1995 under a system considered closer to universal suffrage than anything before or since would continue in the Legislative Council after 1997 - had hit the buffers.

Ching suggested that Beijing's idea of patriotism did not change until after the 500,000-strong march in Hong Kong in July 2003 that forced the government to shelve national security legislation. The protest is regarded as a turning point in Beijing's policy towards the city.

In 2004, months after the mass protest, the Xinhua news agency released the clearest definition yet by mainland thinkers of what it is to be a patriot.

As well as allegiance to Hong Kong, it stressed that "anyone who participated in any action aiming at subverting the central government or changing the socialist system on the mainland would be regarded as failing to uphold and abide by the Basic Law and contravening the 'one country, two systems' principle". It said the criteria were applicable to the chief executive, principal officials and lawmakers.

But the definition did not worry pan-democrats who were able to nominate the Civic Party's Alan Leong Kah-kit and Democritic Party's Albert Ho Chun-yan for chief executive in 2007 and 2012 respectively. Both were well beaten in the "small circle" elections, which were decided by an election committee consisting largely of Beijing loyalists.

Ho told the South China Morning Post that by suggesting those "who confront the central government" would fail to qualify as patriots and could not be chief executive, Qiao was paving the way for the screening of candidates in the 2017 election.

Under Article 45 of the Basic Law, the chief executive is to be elected by universal suffrage "upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures". Pan-democrats fear that the "democratic procedures" may not be enough to allow pro-democracy candidates to seek the public's vote.

"Qiao's definition of 'confrontation' is very fluid, and we believe it is an excuse for screening," Ho said. He is worried by the remarks of Beijing-loyalist veterans since Yu made his comments. NPC Standing Committee member Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, for instance, raised "a personal suggestion" that a "primary" could be held to shortlist hopefuls in 2017, to ensure there would not be "too many candidates".

Eu said the comments from Beijing have taken the discussion on the meaning of patriotism to a new level. "It had been unimportant, but now it is a so-called 'precondition', a bottom line … and even a defining exclusionary clause by Beijing," Eu said.

The central government, she said, was suggesting that "unless somebody is patriotic in Beijing's eyes … we cannot even start the consultation" on moving to universal suffrage. Beijing should keep its promise that universal suffrage would comply with international standards.

"We are not talking about Western standards, but universal standards … that the election must be equal and universal," Eu said. "So we will insist on that and accept no less."

Ching agreed that Hongkongers should persevere in reminding Beijing of its promises, while Ho said he would continue lobbying for electoral reform acceptable to all.

Pan-democrats could perhaps seek solace in the phrase often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." They may be less reassured by the fact there is no evidence he ever said it.


1984: Deng Xiaoping says "a patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation … We don't demand that they be in favour of China's socialist system."

1990s: Legislators were not to take part in activities such as trying to overthrow the Chinese government or undermining the mainland's socialist system, the Chinese side was quoted as saying by the British administration.

2004: "Anyone who participated in any action aiming at subverting the central government or changing the socialist system … would be regarded as failing to uphold and abide by the Basic Law", Xinhua says.

March 6, 2013: Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng emphasises the importance of ensuring Hong Kong is ruled by patriotic forces. "Opposition" and "centrifugal forces" can not be allowed to rule Hong Kong after universal suffrage is attained, he says.

March 24, 2013: While it would be hard to write criteria for "love the country, love Hong Kong" into law, Qiao Xiaoyang says, those "who confront the central government" would not qualify to be chief executive. "As long as [the opposition camp] insist on confronting the central government, they cannot become the chief executive," he says.