Cliff Buddle
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Cliff Buddle
My Take
by Cliff Buddle

More democratic system would create a stronger Hong Kong

  • The city’s election system appears set for a shake-up. But the reforms will be made in Beijing - not Hong Kong - and will turn back the clock on the progress already made

The question of how to reform Hong Kong’s election system has dominated the city’s politics since the 1980s, although change has not been easy to achieve.

Now, it appears, the system is finally set for a shake-up. But the reforms will be made in Beijing – not Hong Kong – and will roll back democratic development instead of advancing it. This is a sorry state of affairs.

The issue was not on the agenda for last week’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee meeting. But the Post reported top officials discussed the reforms on the sidelines and a package is likely to be presented to China’s legislature in March. Amendments to the Basic Law, the city’s de facto constitution, might be necessary. It would be a drastic step.

There was a time when Hong Kong people believed they would be allowed to elect their leader through universal suffrage. Beijing gave the green light for this to take place in 2017. But it was not to be. The central government imposed tight restrictions on the nomination of candidates prompting democrat lawmakers to unanimously reject the proposals in 2015.

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Universal suffrage was one of the five demands of protesters in 2019. But talk of democratic reform evaporated when the protests ceased and a new national security law was followed by arrests of opposition figures.

Reform is now being discussed again. But the proposals floated would, if implemented, see the removal of modest achievements made since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.

Beijing’s aim is to neutralise the opposition, which it blames for violent unrest and sees as a threat to national security. Concerns have even been expressed that the existing election arrangements could allow a puppet of a foreign government to become chief executive.

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The proposals target district councillors. This is because the opposition won a landslide in district council elections in the wake of the 2019 protests. Councillors could be removed from the 1200-member committee that elects the chief executive. Another proposal would see the scrapping of the Legislative Council’s five “super seats”, contested by district councillors and elected by more than three million voters.

Hong Kong is required by the Basic Law to make gradual and orderly progress towards universal suffrage. That progress has been slow. Universal suffrage was one of the options included in the first draft of the law in 1988. It was not adopted. Instead, the chief executive has been elected by first 400, then 800, and now 1200 people.

Worries that an agent of Western governments – or even a democrat – could become Hong Kong’s leader are far-fetched. The Election Committee is dominated by Beijing’s supporters. It has never failed to return the central government’s favoured candidate.

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The Basic Law says universal suffrage is the “ultimate aim”. There were hopes it would be introduced in 2007, the earliest time allowed by the law. Now, 14 years later, we are further away than ever. Progress towards universal suffrage is needed if Hong Kong is to emerge stronger from the pandemic and from its deep political divisions. The city faces many challenges. There are numerous problems in society, from the housing crisis to the wealth gap, that need to be resolved. A more democratic system would give the chief executive greater legitimacy, strengthen governance and lead to better policies.

Reform has been slow because it requires the support of two thirds of Hong Kong’s legislators as well as Beijing. Democrat lawmakers have voted down proposals they disagree with and finding a consensus has not been easy. The only time a deal was done was in 2010 when the “super seats” were created and the Election Committee expanded. Now, these gains appear to be in jeopardy.

The resignation of opposition lawmakers last year provides an opportunity for the pro-establishment camp to push reforms through. If this must be done, ahead of Legco elections this year, it should make progress towards a more democratic system – not turn back the clock.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: More democratic system would create a stronger HK