Hong Kong’s Democracy Dilemma

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong demand that their legislators reject the election framework put forward by Beijing. Credit Alex Ogle/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Sunday the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress issued restrictive guidelines for the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017. Shorn of its technical details, the proposal in effect gives Beijing the means to control who could run for the top office in Hong Kong: Voters would get to cast a ballot, but only for one of just a handful of candidates pre-selected by the Chinese government.

“By endorsing this framework,” Cheung Man-kwong, a veteran politician of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, told the media, “China has in truth and in substance reneged on her promise to give Hong Kong universal suffrage.”

Three decades ago, when Beijing and the British government, which was in charge of Hong Kong then, were negotiating the terms of the territory’s handover back to China, Mr. Cheung was among those who supported “reunification” on the understanding that Hong Kong would eventually acquire a fully democratic system.

Now some officials here are urging residents to accept Beijing’s undemocratic proposal. They say its version of the one-person-one-vote proposition, however faulty, is “a bird in hand.” But other Hong Kongers rightly suspect that accepting that plan would be like drinking from a poisoned chalice. The Standing Committee’s announcement Sunday certainly came as a shock, after weeks of regular, large-scale protests by pro-democracy groups.

Beijing has made it clear that only someone who “loves the country and loves Hong Kong” is acceptable for the top post in Hong Kong and that screening candidates for that qualification is necessary for China’s national security. There are people here, according to top officials in Beijing, who still do not accept Hong Kong’s reunification with China and are conniving with foreign forces to subvert the Chinese government, using Hong Kong as a base.

It does not much matter whether Beijing really believes what it says. What matters is that what Beijing says is an excuse for its uncompromising position. And it matters that the people of Hong Kong now face a dilemma. They can either reject the framework proposed by Beijing knowing they will be offered no other. Or they can take it, and by validating with a pseudo-popular mandate Beijing’s selection of their chief executive, allow the Chinese government to assume complete control over Hong Kong’s affairs.

Once Beijing achieves complete control, there is no reason why it would allow Hong Kong’s system to democratize. The aggressive administration of the current chief executive, C.Y. Leung, has already been bypassing long-established good practices and principles without any effective checks and balances.

It is no secret that Beijing is dissatisfied with many features of the Hong Kong people’s way of life, including a free press and an independent judiciary with foreign judges (and both institutions have been under mounting pressure to toe the Communist Party’s line). This is largely because the Chinese government has very different ideas about the meaning of freedom and the rule of law. The premium it places on stability and national security, and the degree of stability and security it deems necessary, are poles apart from the common values of the Hong Kong community. And to Beijing, which remains imperial in habit, it is intolerable that Hong Kong’s ordinary people should put their will above that of the government.

The Election Committee, the body with some 1,200 members that oversees the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, has largely been under the control of the rich and powerful of Beijing and Hong Kong. No doubt the same will be true of the nominating committee that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has just endorsed.

In fact, the proposed system will be worse. Under current practice, a person is eligible to run for chief executive with the support of just 150 people on the Election Committee. This has allowed the democrats in Hong Kong to field candidates to challenge the contenders backed by Beijing and force Beijing’s proxies to declare an election platform to which they can then be held accountable. But under the new framework, becoming a candidate will require the endorsement of more than half the members of the nominating committee.

Even with a nominally one-person-one-vote system in place, Beijing’s agents will be able to mobilize enough voters in Hong Kong to elect their chosen one. On Aug. 17, pro-Beijing groups organized a march to counter Occupy Central, a pro-democracy movement that has threatened to hold protests in the Hong Kong financial district known as Central. They succeeded in getting tens of thousands of people into the streets — though not hundreds of thousands, as the opposition regularly manages to do, and the media reported that cash and food were handed out to attract participants. Officials in Beijing, meanwhile, praised the groups for their important contribution.

Democracy is not just the only form of government consistent with citizens’ rights and freedoms. It is also the only form of government that can prevent leaders from becoming so arrogant as to think they can ignore the will of the people, as seems to have happened under the current chief executive.

If there is any virtue to Beijing’s uncompromising position, it is to make clear that the people of Hong Kong could make no worse choice than to accept it. The legislators from various pro-democracy parties who currently sit in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council make up over one-third of that body, which gives them the power to veto the election framework put forward by Beijing. They have pledged to vote against the proposal. And the Hong Kong people will see to it that they do: In a huge rally on Sunday, democratic groups already were declaring a new era of civil disobedience.

Margaret Ng is a barrister and former legislator of Hong Kong.

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