Has Beijing changed its mind about giving Hong Kong people the vote?

Cliff Buddle says 10 years after people were promised a say in electing their leader, we are no closer, despite having endured three chief executives whose governance suffered from having no popular mandate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 8:09pm

Ten years ago, Hong Kong’s leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen persuaded Beijing to agree that the city could elect its chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017. It was seen as a watershed in Hong Kong’s democratic development, a move which would reshape the political landscape and improve the city’s governance.

Now that the time for that historic election has arrived, Tsang is languishing in prison, convicted by a jury of misconduct in public office. His plans for a democratic election this year lie in tatters. Proposals for universal suffrage were voted down by democrat lawmakers in 2015 in protest at the tight restrictions imposed by the central government on who could stand as a candidate.

We are stuck with an election by 1,194 people, most of whom can be expected to vote for Beijing’s preferred candidate. The result is almost a foregone conclusion. And the candidate likely to win has been careful not to make any commitment to restart the democratic reform process.

All this raises the question of whether Beijing has given up on the idea of universal suffrage for Hong Kong.

In Beijing’s view, winning over the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people is not a priority

The ongoing process for choosing the city’s next leader has, sadly, followed a familiar pattern. It is widely believed that former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is Beijing’s favoured candidate. There have been numerous reports of lobbying by mainland officials to ensure Election Committee members nominate and vote for her.

This has proved very effective. Lam secured 580 nominations, 48 per cent of the voters. Her support came exclusively from the pro-establishment camp. If all those who nominated her also vote for her in the secret ballot later this month, she will be only 21 short of victory. Barring an extraordinary shift in support, she is almost certain to be elected.

Beijing’s backing of Lam has seen another candidate, former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, fall far short of the 150 nominations needed to stand. Ip, a credible candidate, might have drawn votes away from Lam in the poll. But, in her words, she has been “squeezed out”.

The first [chief executive] had to resign, the second is now in jail and the third is widely believed to have been discouraged from standing for a second term

That leaves Lam’s biggest rival, former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who received 165 nominations, and former judge Woo Kwok-hing, who secured 180. Both relied heavily on support from the pan-democratic camp. Even if, as promised, the democrats give all of their 326 votes to Tsang, it is very unlikely he will even get close to the 601 needed to win.

Lam is a capable public servant with many years of experience. If she wins, she is entitled to be given every chance to forge her own path. But she owes her dominant position – and likely election – to the decisive support she has received from the central government, rather than her policy platform or popularity. That, as her predecessors have found, will make Hong Kong very difficult to govern.

Just look at what has happened to the city’s first three chief executives after its return to China. The first had to resign, the second became embroiled in scandal and is now in jail and the third is widely believed to have been discouraged from standing for a second term.

All of them found it difficult to implement their policies. They have faced opposition in the legislature, challenges in the courts, and mass protests on the streets. All three have seen low popularity ratings during their time in office. So much for the idea of an executive-led system.

Lack of popular mandate would make it hard to govern Hong Kong, Carrie Lam admits

Lessons should have been learned from the circumstances in which the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was re-elected for an ill-fated second term in 2002. By that time, Tung had become unpopular amid an economic downturn and various controversies. That did not prevent him, with Beijing’s support, from winning a landslide in the election. He received 714 nominations from what was then an 800-member committee. There was not even a need to proceed to a vote.

Three years later, after criticism of his administration’s handling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak and abandoned plans to introduce controversial national security laws, Tung resigned. While health grounds were cited, it appeared Beijing had decided on a change, opting instead for Donald Tsang, who was more popular at the time.

Tsang was also elected without the need for a vote, with 674 nominations. But the difficulties he, too, faced in governing Hong Kong led to the timetable being established for universal suffrage in 2017. There appeared to be a recognition by the authorities that a popular mandate was needed in order to give the city’s leader more legitimacy.

Such an election would, however, have introduced a wild card – the people of Hong Kong

The need for that popular mandate is still there. But universal suffrage now seems further away than ever. Limits on possible electoral reform were imposed by the central government in 2014. This sparked the Occupy pro-democracy protests and ensured that proposals in keeping with the restrictions would be voted down by democrats when put to a vote in the legislature.

It is interesting to consider what might have happened if the reforms had been implemented for the 2017 election. The proposals required that there be two or three candidates competing for votes from the public. But, in order to stand, each of them would need support from at least half of the Election Committee. Lam would have had no problem getting sufficient nominations. But who would have stood against her? It seems unlikely that Tsang or Woo would have been able to gather sufficient support. Such an election would, however, have introduced a wild card – the people of Hong Kong. Beijing would have been able to exercise tight control over nominations, but not the final outcome of the election.

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Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law, requires gradual and orderly progress towards the ultimate aim of universal suffrage. We are now almost 20 years on from the handover and 10 years from the first point at which universal suffrage becomes possible under the Basic Law. What progress has been made? The Election Committee has expanded from 800 to 1,200 people. Democrat candidates have, in the past, secured enough nominations to stand. This time, the democrats were able to win a record number of seats on the committee, enough to nominate two candidates.

This is progress of a kind. But, just as when Tung was first elected in 1996, it is the central government that determines the outcome and the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong people have no say. Lam is set to face the same problems in governing Hong Kong as her predecessors.

Can any of Hong Kong’s leadership hopefuls regain trust, and restart political reform?

She has said that if she is elected, she will not move on democratic reform until the time is right. When would that be? When there are no more calls for Hong Kong independence? When the democrats have lost sufficient support in the legislature and can no longer block restrictive proposals? When young people have more opportunities and become less radical? Or, perhaps, when the central government concludes more must be done to secure a popular mandate for the city’s leader.

Cliff Buddle is the Post’s editor, special projects