‘A sad day for Hong Kong and democracy’: Scholar slams Beijing’s reform plan

Professor Larry Diamond says decision to impose an Iranian-style rigged system for the 2017 election means no progress has been made on democratic reform

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 September, 2014, 6:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 4:10pm

Calling it a “sad day for Hong Kong” one of the world’s prominent democracy scholars decried Beijing’s new restrictions on Hong Kong’s upcoming elections, saying they would fail to meet international standards for universal suffrage and could invite a public boycott.

This seems to be about the worst outcome imaginable. No progress toward democracy, not even a timetable toward democracy, and frankly, not even an effort to gesture toward democracy
Professor Larry Diamond

“This is a sad day for Hong Kong, and for democracy,” Professor Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said in an email interview. “This seems to be about the worst outcome imaginable. No progress toward democracy, not even a timetable toward democracy, and frankly, not even an effort to gesture toward democracy.”

Beijing plan allows it to essentially screen out unsatisfactory candidates. The international community, he said, will not consider an election based on Beijing’s framework as democratic unless the nominating committee permits candidates across the political spectrum to appear on the ballot.

“It is difficult to see how, under this Iranian-style rigged system, pro-democracy forces will have any chance of nominating a candidate of their own,” said Diamond, founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.

“Unless a shockingly hopeful surprise emerges out of the nominating committee, I suspect that many Hongkongers will see the race as a contest between two slightly different flavours of vanilla and will boycott the election.”

At least two additional international scholars on law and politics said that the blueprint issued by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee failed to meet international standards on universal suffrage, as reflected in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Diamond’s warning came one day after the Beijing committee rolled out a restrictive blueprint for the 2017 chief executive election. It ignored pan-democrats’ demands that the public be allowed to nominate candidates. Beijing also ignored the pleas of political moderates that chief executive aspirants be allowed on the ballot if they won just a fraction of the nominating committee’s support. Instead, Beijing raised the nominating threshold from the current 12.5 per cent to 50 per cent of the nominating committee.

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Professor Gerry Stoker, professor of politics and governance at the University of Southampton in the UK, said in an email that Beijing’s blueprint “fails on too many fronts to be satisfactory”. He said no restriction should be made on the number of candidates that can run, while it was also undesirable to use “narrowing and controlling devices” in selecting candidates.

“The essence of democracy is to trust the choice of the people, and attempting to direct who the candidates should be undermines that great virtue,” Stoker said.

Professor Graeme Orr, a law professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, said the 50 per cent threshold was “terribly flawed” and would make a future contest “a sham election”.

More civic protests, he said, would not likely soften Beijing’s stance, he said in an email, but civic pressure might encourage the nominating committee to use its power wisely.

Beijing’s move was also subtly criticised by US officials. A spokesman for the US Department of State in Washington, DC said that the US believes that the chief executive’s legitimacy would be greatly enhanced if universal suffrage was fulfilled and if the election provided Hong Kong people a genuine choice of candidates representative of the voters’ will.

“We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity," the spokesman said.

Beijing’s blueprint would cap the number of chief executive candidates at two or three. The nomination committee would be modelled on the composition of the previous election committee, which was heavily dominated by the Beijing-loyalists.

All 27 pan-democratic lawmakers in the 70-member Legislative Council have vowed to veto a government election plan if it’s based on Beijing’s framework.

Such restrictions on voter choice, Diamond said, makes Hong Kong’s election system akin to Iran’s, where the Guardian Council, a body appointed by the supreme leader, decides who can run for president.

Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the national legislature, defended Beijing’s decision yesterday in a public forum in Hong Kong. He said that no unreasonable limitation had been imposed on city elections.

Diamond, who once supervised the master’s thesis of executive and legislative councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, said he had reservations about the Hong Kong government’s call that residents should “pocket” the unsatisfactory reform package first to at least secure the prospect of “one man, one vote” in 2017.

“I don’t see what reform there is to ‘pocket’. This is not a democratic reform,” Diamond said. “I do not see in this announcement an invitation to negotiate a future timetable for reform. It’s simply an authoritarian imposition.

“The decision is tantamount to lifting a giant middle finger in the face of pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong asking for serious political reform, saying: ‘We have the power, we can do whatever we want, and if you don’t like it you can leave,” said Diamond. Beijing, he said, made no effort to enlarge the base of the nominating committee, nor did it set a timetable for further reforms. Diamond said he disagreed with the notion that the reform would be historic progress for Hong Kong, as suggested by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who spearheaded the reform taskforce.

“I not only don’t see historic progress, I don’t see any progress,” Diamond said. “What is historic about this decision is the tragic loss of an opportunity to seek consensus around a strategy and timetable for meaningful democratic reform.”

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) expressed its regrets towards the NPCSC’s framework which it said had dashed Hongkongers’ hope for democracy and baffled the city’s democratic progress.

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