For the nearly 17 years since Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China in 1997, we Hong Kongers have been dreaming of the genuine democracy that was promised by Beijing. But today our autonomy and the rule of law it buttresses are under threat from the mainland central government.
Infringement on the freedom of the Hong Kong press has been the most recent example of Beijing’s meddling in our affairs. But even more pernicious is an ongoing campaign by the mainland leadership and its local allies to deny Hong Kongers the right to a democratic future, a right that was guaranteed to us in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and in our mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which was promulgated in 1990.
The world backed the deal to transfer Hong Kong from Britain to China when China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, promised to uphold a new arrangement he called “one country, two systems.” We took these words to heart.
Since 1997, we have plodded along with a quasi-democratic political system. Today, only half of our legislators are elected directly by the people, while the rest are chosen by a group of professional associations called “functional constituencies,” the majority of which are controlled by Beijing. The chief executive, as our leader is called, is picked by a Beijing-friendly committee of only 1,200 people (in a city of seven million).
Hong Kongers have been looking forward to 2017 — the 20th anniversary of the handover and the year that Beijing had ruled that we would finally be able to choose our leader through universal suffrage: one person, one vote. Specifics on how the election process would work have not been established, and now, as the public debate on how to proceed gets under way, Chinese government officials are moving the goal posts by demanding, among other things, that all candidates must “love the country.”
Qiao Xiaoyang, the head of the National People’s Congress Law Committee, told a public forum in 2013 that a person who “confronts” the central government should not become the chief executive. Li Fei, another top Beijing official, has reiterated this point. These are not-so-subtle-hints that Beijing has a much different idea of universal suffrage than Hong Kongers — and the rest of the world.
Beijing loyalists are seeking to control the 2017 election through the nomination process. They say that chief executive candidates should be picked by a nomination committee, and not the wider public, and contend that if every Hong Konger has the right to vote in a general election (even for preselected candidates), then the administration will be fulfilling the “universal suffrage” requirement.
Cryptic comments by Zhang Dejiang, head of the Communist Party’s Hong Kong and Macau affairs office, at a conference last week in Beijing have been interpreted by some analysts to mean Beijing has decided, affirmatively, to control the nomination of all candidates.
In mainland China, screening out critics is the norm. But in Hong Kong, a system that allows Beijing effective control in selecting candidates would put a permanent end to the hope for true democracy — and undermine the transparency, legitimacy and integrity of our system of government. Any faith we may have in the Beijing government will vanish if we can’t pick our own leader by genuine democratic means in 2017.
There are other troubling signs that Hong Kong’s autonomy is being eroded — reminders that without checks and balances, no political system can remain stable.
The current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, is prone to consulting with Beijing in advance of making decisions. And in 2012 the government attempted to usher in “patriotic education” and a manual for all primary school students describing the Chinese Communist Party as “progressive, selfless and united.” (These initiatives were postponed after massive protests.)
The most unnerving recent examples of Beijing’s interference concern the freedom of our press. In January, the respected editor of Ming Pao, an independent newspaper, was replaced by a Beijing-friendly boss (disclosure: I write a regular guest column for Ming Pao). Most independent analysts, and many of the paper’s journalists, believe that the central government pressured the newspaper’s owners to make this move. In a mysterious and disturbing twist, the former editor, Kevin Lau Chun-to, was stabbed in a vicious attack last month on the street in broad daylight.
Meanwhile, a number of large international banks were recently told by Beijing officials to withdraw their advertisements from politically independent Hong Kong newspapers as punishment for the news outlets’ independence, and most did.
Press freedom watchdogs continue to document escalating censorship, self-censorship and obstruction of coverage.
By denying Hong Kong the right to democratically elect our leader and all of our legislators while interfering more and more with our freedoms, Beijing is undermining the framework established in 1997 that protects Hong Kong peoples’ basic rights. Worse, the central government’s interference sets up a perpetual confrontation with Beijing, leaving Hong Kongers no other political outlet than protesting in the streets.
The genius of Deng Xiaoping’s blueprint for Hong Kong was that it preserved our core values: freedom, the rule of law, a system for fighting corruption and an independent judiciary — and for the optimists among us, it provided an example for the mainland Chinese to follow.
Universal suffrage is the only way to honor Deng’s plan “for Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong.” Let’s hope his successors change their minds and keep his blueprint from becoming a litany of broken promises.
Martin Lee is a longtime democracy advocate and the founding chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong.