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Why Hong Kong Should Accept Beijing's Universal Suffrage - And Wait

On Sunday 14, thousands of Hong Kong citizens marched from Causeway Bay to the Legislative Council to protest against the electoral reform package proposed by the government. Demonstrators held yellow umbrellas and wore yellow ribbons, powerful symbols of the Umbrella Revolution that rocked the former British colony last year. They protesters denounced Beijing's version of universal suffrage, demanding 'genuine' democratic elections for Hong Kong.

If the electoral reform is passed by the legislature, Hong Kong citizens will for the first time vote directly for their Chief Executive. But critics argue that the democratic reforms are 'fake', as the candidates for the post of Chief Executive will be selected by an electoral committee. 

On August 31, 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) passed a decision on the implementation of universal suffrage, a concept enshrined in Paragraph 2 of Article 45 of the Hong Kong Basic Law. According to the Standing Committee of the NPC,

the principle that the Chief Executive has to be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong must be upheld. This is a basic requirement of the policy of "one country, two systems". It is determined by the legal status as well as important functions and duties of the Chief Executive, and is called for by the actual need to maintain long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and uphold the sovereignty, security and development interests of the country. The method for selecting the Chief Executive by universal suffrage must provide corresponding institutional safeguards for this purpose.

The prerequisite of "loving the country and loving Hong Kong", which had already been formulated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, reflects Beijing's sense of insecurity about Hong Kong. The central government therefore wants to make sure that the Chief Executive is a person who follows the broad directives of the Communist Party's United Front Policy. A democrat who criticises the Party and is intellectually too close to foreign countries is perceived as a danger. 

In order to safeguard the central government's core interests, the NPC ruled that a "broadly representative nominating committee shall be formed", which "shall nominate two to three candidates for the office of Chief Executive ... The Chief Executive-elect, after being selected through universal suffrage, will have to be appointed by the Central People's Government."

According to the reform package proposed by the Hong Kong government, the Nominating Committee shall be composed of 1200 members from various sectors, such as the industrial, commercial and financial sectors. The Committee would also include 300 members from the Legislative Council, representatives of members of the District Councils, and representatives of pro-Beijing organisations and institutions: the Heung Yee Kuk, the National People's Congress, and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political
Consultative Conference.

Pan-democrats in the Hong Kong legislature have vowed to veto the reform package. They are backed by large sections of public opinion who are weary of Beijing's interference in Hong Kong's affairs. The city's legislature is currently debating the reform package, with the pan-democratic camp firmly opposed to it. Only 41 of the 70 members of the legislature seem to support the reform, below the two-thirds majority required for approval (47 votes). 

But is it wise for Hong Kong's pan-democrats to reject the electoral reform package?

Legislative Council complex by Tksteven

The universal suffrage envisaged by Beijing is far from being truly democratic. The Communist Party has created an electoral system that contains mechanisms for keeping out of the executive branch of government people who oppose the Party. Yet even though this electoral system is not what many people of Hong Kong want, what can they achieve by rejecting it?

Occupy Central and the Umbrella Revolution have come three decades too late. The early 1980s, before and during the Sino-British negotiations that sealed Hong Kong's fate, was the right time to take to the streets and voice one's opposition to the handover. Beijing played its cards smartly. On the one hand, Deng Xiaoping threatened he would invade Hong Kong. On the other hand, he reassured London and the citizens of Hong Kong that the liberties that the Crown Colony enjoyed as well as its capitalist system would be preserved. The Communist Party first shouted and intimidated, then put on a friendly smile. 

Some say that neither Britain nor Hong Kong had a choice; the city had to be handed over to the People's Republic of China. But if the Hong Kong people had no choice then, how can they have a choice now? In 1984, they were British subjects, China was weak, and Britain had a strong government and economy. Now, Hong Kong is part of the PRC, China is the world's second largest economy, and Britain has a fragile economy and a trade deficit with the Communist superpower. Deng Xiaoping and his successors have got their way.

Since the end of the Maoist era, the Communist Party has evolved into a new and unique hybrid. It has maintained its Leninist authoritarian structure. But it has rejected fundamental concepts of Soviet-style Communism such as class struggle and the planned economy. The Party has largely retreated from the private life of the citizens, yet it dominates society by controlling the army, the media, education and state organs. As Richard McGregor explains in his book The Party:The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers:

The tentacles of the state, and thus the Party, go well beyond the government. As well as sitting above state-owned businesses and regulatory agencies, ... party departments oversee key think-tanks, the courts, the media, all approved religions, and universities and other educational institutions, and maintain direct influence over NGOs and some private companies. The Party also directly controls China’s eight so-called ‘democratic parties’, by appointing their leaders and financing their budgets. By many measures, China is freer than it has ever been. But the Party ... has made sure it secures the heights of the political battlefield along the way (Richard McGregor: The Party - The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers, 2010, pp. 458-464).

Applied to Hong Kong, this new Chinese Communist model means that the Party neither needs nor wishes to rule the city directly. It simply co-opts the business elites of Hong Kong, as well as politicians and parties who are willing to enter into a 'united front' with the CCP.

Opposing the CCP is for the pan-democrats impossible. It is as if a small army tried to conquer a city against an enemy force that is not only superior in number, but also occupies all the strategic positions. The attitude of Hong Kong's democrats - to get everything now or to lose everything - is a gamble that might end up in a disaster. 

The new electoral system is not worse than the previous one. Vetoing it is an important symbolic act, but with no practical consequences other than strengthening the hardliners in Beijing who regard Hong Kong as an unruly city. 

Saving Hong Kong's uniqueness and making its government more representative is a long-term goal that cannot be achieved without perseverance and a clear vision for the future. The pan-democrats cannot defeat the Communist Party. They need to engage in a dialogue with liberal-minded officials within the ranks of the Party itself. But, most importantly, they need to shift the focus from universal suffrage to the extension of the 'one country, two systems'.

While the 'one country, two systems' formula is far from perfect, it has ensured the continuity of Hong Kong's way of life and social structure after 1997. In 2047, however, it will be over. Nobody knows what will happen to Hong Kong after that date. It will be at the mercy of the Communist Party. Extending the 'one country, two systems' model far beyond 2047 will make sure that Hong Kong can preserve its unique characteristics. This will allow the pan-democrats to make their case with more patience and perseverance. 


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