Hong Kong’s Future – Analysis


By Tom Roe

As Hong Kong approaches the 17th year of ‘one country – two systems’ it is timely to reflect on the state of play in the former British colony and the challenges it faces in preserving its democratic structures in the face of a more assertive China. This paper considers the role of ‘Perfidious Albion’ pointing to British arrogance and inconsistency towards Hong Kong and China. It considers the possible options for Beijing faced by the sensitive ‘democracy issue,’ suggesting it is likely to opt for some flexibility within a rigid framework. The paper also examines Hong Kong peoples’ fears and desires before concluding with an analysis of the prospects for Hong Kong, especially its future autonomy, freedoms and suffrage in light of the proposal currently under discussion for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017.

Perfidious Albion: British arrogance and inconsistency towards Hong Kong and China

After ruling Hong Kong directly from London for 150 years following Britain’s brutal seizure of it from China in 1847, it was only in the mid-1980s that the British suddenly discovered Hong Kong’s lack of democracy. This was only after the PRC had adamantly refused to extend any semblance of British authority over Hong Kong after the expiry of the New Territories lease on 30 June 1997. Lady Thatcher was freshly confident of her world role and influence following victory in the Falklands war and did not appreciate that the Chinese were in no mood to compromise. Deng Xiaoping was determined to use this negotiation to wipe out China’s humiliation by the West during the nineteenth century.[1] The only points that China accepted to be negotiated were the transitional arrangements for the full handover, that Hong Kong should remain stable, and that its capitalist system could continue after the handover.

The Sino-British Declaration on Hong Kong agreed in September 1984 and formally signed as an international treaty in December 1984 provided for Hong Kong to keep its capitalist economic system, have a high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defence affairs, keep its separate legal system, and included the provision that its government “would be composed of local inhabitants” and its government chief executive would be appointed by the Chinese government “on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.”

China pledged to implement its commitments to Hong Kong in a Basic Law for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and that these would “remain unchanged for fifty years.” It insisted this would be a matter of Chinese domestic affairs subject to Beijing’s sole sovereignty. Henceforth any reform in Hong Kong’s political system would have to be subject to Beijing authority and approval only.

Despite these clear formal limitations on British autonomy the British began to “flirt with democracy” (Steve Tsang p. 231) for Hong Kong through making proposals for some political reform (such as 24 directly elected out of 56 Legislative Council members) beginning already in 1984 in public consultative documents issued in Hong Kong by the British controlled HK Government. A case of trying to shut (maybe more appropriately one should say “open”) the stable door to democracy after the horse of overarching sovereign power had already de facto bolted off to Beijing?

In 1985 China rejected this British impertinence even before their Chinese Basic Law for Hong Kong was promulgated. The British and Hong Kong people were expected to understand that from now on Beijing would decide the content and pace of reform. Hong Kong was clearly already not autonomous to reform its polity but depended on the Beijing authorities. The British had allowed this situation of de facto Beijing hegemony to emerge – but from thenceforth until the handover in 1997 pretended that they had not.

China did its best publically to respect Hong Kong people by creating a Basic Law Drafting Committee including Hong Kong worthies – but the drafting and the outcome was totally controlled and drafted by Beijing’s majority on the BDLC. The outcome was also influenced by the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 which hardened Beijing’s position and at the same time shocked Hong Kong people into realising the limits of Chinese democracy.

The HK Basic Law was promulgated by China in April 1990. It is interesting that this is the legal instrument that provides an opening towards universal suffrage. In its Article 45 it provides … “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” But the interpretation, timing and implementation of this provision remain for the Chinese Central Government’s – the National People’s Congress (NPC) – to decide, and all is subject to the overall authority of the Chinese Constitution. All this is legally entirely a domestic matter for China.

Nevertheless, beginning in 1984 the British-controlled Hong Kong administration began to revive and accelerate various proposals incrementally to extend suffrage for Hong Kong people to elect their Legislature and Executive government members. In February 1990 – surprisingly and flexibly, under pressure from a Hong Kong people anxious after the Tiananmen Square massacre – Beijing agreed to increase the number of elected members of the HK legislature to 18 (out of 60 total) and then to 20 in 1997, 24 in 1999, and 30 i.e. half of the total 60 in 2003. (Remarkably even after the 1997 handover, China respected and implemented this remarkable commitment to incremental democratisation for HK)

Nevertheless during 1980s, and even more with the appointment of Chris Patten in 1992 as the last British Governor of Hong Kong, the British embarked on a covert as well as a public campaign to accelerate the demand for even wider suffrage and elections into the Hong Kong polity. Patten’s high profile and public pronouncements encouraged Hong Kong people to think that the increased momentum for democracy was becoming sustained and inevitable. In one of his reform actions – to separate the HK Executive from the Legislature – Patten created a HK government that was more Executive-led. Ironically this was something that Beijing liked and would exploit in future years. While the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Chinese proposal was becoming incrementally more democratic in its election, at the same time due to a British decision it became even more a separate “talking shop” separated from the Executive and from direct power. Hence increasing the numbers of directly elected LegCo members was to have a limited impact later in 1997, 1999, and 2003.

From 1993 dialogue and trust between the Beijing authorities and Patten broke down. Beijing disapproved of Patten’s initiatives and most of all to the public style which tended to give the impression that the process was dynamic, British-driven and not controlled by Beijing. After dialogue between Patten and Beijing broke down, from 1993 Beijing develop its own plans for the HK government post-handover, and lost faith in Patten’s proposals. Because of their opposition to Patten, so to the Hong Kong people Beijing appeared to lack commitment to maintain momentum towards real democracy after the handover in 1997. Still, Beijing continued to pay lip-service to their formal commitments under the Basic Law.

Beijing’s flexibility within a rigid framework

Thus, rigidly, from 1979 to the present day Beijing has never indicated that it would accept to cede any control over Hong Kong as a region – as an integral part of sovereign China ruled by the Communist Party. For the CCP its maintaining absolute authority over Hong Kong was and is paramount. The British lobbying and machinations since 1984 for more HK democracy are perceived by Beijing as an outside, impertinent, and illegal interference in Chinese domestic affairs.

For Beijing, that they have accepted for Hong Kong people so many freedoms that are not available in the mainland, such as, an independent legal system, a broadly free press, individual human rights (aside universal suffrage issues), and a free capitalist economic system represents already huge concessions to the British, to Hong Kong people, and to international opinion. Indeed within their legal limitations Beijing has been reasonably thorough in respecting its commitments – but which were always hedged around with conditions and possibilities for delays, so that Beijing remains in control ultimately.

In respecting their formal commitments to Hong Kong, especially, even after 1997 extending suffrage to half of the members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council by 2003, Beijing has shown suppleness and consideration. That Beijing continues to consider incremental reform of the selection procedure for the HK Chief Executive in the direction of universal suffrage. This is, for the Chinese leadership, already a remarkable flexibility and generosity to Hong Kong people. It is probably influenced by their underlying desire to show to Taiwan people that “one country, two systems” would work for Taiwan also.

And, even when they have overstepped the mark then Beijing and their Hong Kong government Chief Executive appointees have shown responsiveness to Hong Kong peoples’ opinions and protests. For example, in 2003 (through Tung Tchee Hwa) they proposed implementation of Basic Law Article 23 limitations on individual freedoms in HK. Then in the face of overwhelming public protest in Hong Kong the HK Government Chief Executive withdrew these ill-considered and ill-timed proposals (which had obviously originated in Beijing).

This was another example of how for Beijing it is important that they show to Taiwan that their commitments can be trusted and that “one country, two systems” will not undermine the stable status quo ante for Hong Kong people. Thus by example Taiwan people if they were to accept Chinese unification proposals, can trust Beijing to fulfil its promises to them.

Nevertheless, since allowing in 2003 the expansion to half of the members of Legco being directly elected, Beijing has nevertheless been subtly manipulating the HK government and democratisation process to reduce expectations and slow down almost to a stop the progress towards universal suffrage.

In April 2004, when heated debate in Hong Kong and local HK government officials’ statements became over-optimistic for further extension of suffrage for LegCo elections then Beijing, through issuing an Interpretation of the Basic Law by the Chinese NPCSC (Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress) denied the right of the HK government to increase above half the number of LegCo members directly elected. Pro-democracy supporters in HK then switched their focus to getting universal suffrage for the election of the HK Government Chief Executive.

In 2009 the HK Government (presumably with Beijing Approval) produced a Consultation Document proposing to increase from 800 to 1200 the nominating committee to elect the Chief Executive, and to add 10 members to Legco with just 5 (half) of those for election by local councillors, thus keeping to 50% the number of directly elected LegCo members, albeit in a slightly larger LegCo of 70, and with minimally slightly more suffrage for some of them.

Following sustained lobbying and political debate within Hong Kong, in June 2010, after Beijing and the HK government had accepted that the local councillors’ voting for LegCo members could be free and not limited in blocks or parties, then the above very marginal increments in suffrage for election of the Chief Executive and Legco members were formally accepted (by HK’s LegCo, the HK Government and Beijing) to apply from 2012 onwards. During these negotiations many pro-democracy purists complained that some of their pro-democracy LegCo members had “sold out” to Beijing. Beijing had indeed succeeded to divide the democratic camp and to finesse these very limited and marginal proposals through Legco. (Some pro-democracy LegCo activists had voted for them since they represented marginal progress, while others voted against wanting to hold out for pure universal suffrage.) These marginal reforms were formally approved in Beijing in August 2010 to apply from 2012.

Debate and discussion continued in Hong Kong now focusing on extending the suffrage for the election of the HK Government Chief Executive. Still now in 2014 consultations between Beijing, the HK Government, HK public, and HK pro-democracy Legco members are ongoing as regards the exact method by which the 1200 person nomination committee for the 2017 Hong Kong Government Chief Executive elections will operate. Pro-democrats want the nomination committee to be freely appointed and not subject to influences and blocks and parties and then pure universal suffrage for all Hong Kong people to choose from amongst the committee’s nominated candidates. Others propose complicated limitations on the nomination committee and conditions for candidates’ approval and voting procedures.

Many observers believe that in the end the administrative arrangements for the nominating committee and for electing any eventually nominated candidates will ensure that only Beijing-approved candidates will be proposed by the nominating committee to go forward to the election. While Beijing has allowed this debate to open up, on past performance they are unlikely to simply liberate the nomination committee to choose any candidate which they have not prior approved, nor to lose a control of the outcome of the process.

In the coming weeks the Hong Kong Government is scheduled to issue a consultation paper on the possible future arrangements for the nomination and election of the Chief Executive with the target to get these adopted in 2014 to allow them to be applied fully for the next 2017 election of the Hong Kong Government Chief Executive. (Note Bene: The Hong Kong Basic law Article 45 provides that quote: “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”)

Hong Kong people’s fears and desires

After it became clear in 1982 that Hong Kong would revert to China, Hong Kong people’s main fear has been that they might lose the democratic privileges that they already enjoy –freedom of international movement, a capitalist system with private property, an independent and efficient rule of law and legal system, relatively free speech and expression, and religious and educational freedom. Universal suffrage was and is still in the future.

The overwhelming demonstration in 2003 (about 12% of the whole Hong Kong population “man woman and child” were in the street demonstrating against Article 23 in temperatures that day over 35C!) against the implementation of Basic Law Article 23 provisions to limit personal freedoms was a striking illustration of Hong Kong peoples’ fears to lose democratic freedoms within China. But then China’s immediate and flexible withdrawal of the Article 23 proposals and since then overall respect for Hong Kong’s autonomy and rights has reassured Hong Kong people.

The economic bounce back and boom since 2004 continuing into the present has made Hong Kong’s economy more and more dependent on mainland China for its remarkable dynamism. Tourism, retail, finance, services, transport, transhipment, and the re-export and re-import trade have all become more China-focussed.

Hong Kong people feel more and more a part of China and Chinese. They are anyway 90+% ethnic Chinese. Especially since the 2008 Olympic Games and the global rise of China in cultural, political, sport and every soft power dimension HK people feel more and more proud to be Chinese and comfortable in that identity. For example, although Hong Kong people have all the right to a British (but no right of abode) passport, recently many of them are not applying or not renewing the UK passport on expiry since they cost more than a HK or Chinese passport and British consular coverage is much less wide than Chinese coverage worldwide. Lacking imperial overtones, Chinese identity papers may even be more acceptable in many emerging and developing countries.

The day-to-day desires of Hong Kong people are overwhelmingly pecuniary and material focussed on day-to-day freedoms. These are combined with a desire to hedge their bet on China by investing and getting educated overseas and a desire for the personal freedoms associated with living in any globally linked free metropolis – which they already get now in HK.

As long as these freedoms are not threatened the majority of ordinary Hong Kong people do not put universal suffrage at the top of their breakfast TV or newspaper reading priorities. They probably first look at the Hang Seng index, next at what Korean soap is on TV that night, the latest football scores, the latest modes and gossip, only then at politics, and probably first at local news of direct economic or physical relevance to their lives or business. Political reform towards universal suffrage seems a western idea and a somewhat theoretical matter to many Chinese Hong Kong people.

For ordinary Hong Kong people politics is anyway something that is associated with the elite and so with others. Probably this has been exacerbated by the fact that real political authority has always been far off – in London until 1997 and since then in Beijing. Government and politics are something to be minimised, ideally ignored, complicated and difficult to get involved with. As everywhere politicians are perceived as corrupt, devious and untrustworthy – and increasingly so.

Universal suffrage is thus probably in Hong Kong the active obsession only of a relatively limited elite – the “chattering classes” of lawyers, politicians, journalists, academics, lobbyists, NGO civil society and many of the expatriates in Hong Kong. While a majority of Hong Kong resident people are willing to opine in favour of universal suffrage and elections if asked, if not asked they are unlikely to be on the streets protesting for it unless their other freedoms are threatened. Hong Kong people are endearingly pragmatic, sensible, conservative, fearful of government intervention, possibly preferring a weaker and less intrusive government, and as long as mainland China does not begin intervening not worried about political theories and suffrage. As the post-Tiananmen Square period of anxiety and anti-Article 23 2003 demonstrations showed Hong Kong people will be out on the streets en masse protesting the system only when their personal rights, lives and freedoms are threatened. Many Hong Kong people are suspicious of rocking the status quo if it is anyway acceptable as long as it allows them to get on with their lives freely.

Hong Kong’s future autonomy, freedoms and suffrage

Britain has become a marginal, almost irrelevant player in the debate on Hong Kong’s political future, of mainly historical interest, unable and unlikely to exert any significant role towards universal suffrage aside pontificating occasionally. British relations with Beijing have in recent years focussed on trade and finance as the Chinese economy has burgeoned to become world number two. These commercial relations are occasionally perturbed by issues such as human rights, British PMs meeting the Dalai Lama and suchlike. If London has pushed on these human rights issues then China has become brutally robust in reply. The UK-China Human Rights dialogue has just been cancelled by Beijing while London mayor Johnson continues to kow-tow for Chinese inward investment and the Chancellor of the Exchequer seeks Renminbi and Chinese finance business for London. In a world with a rogue Russia, the UK and the West as a whole need a friendly China on the UN Security Council, and the UK will not let Hong Kong’s political development mess up these economic and geo-strategic priorities.

A number of Western countries plus civil society, some media and academia will continue to opine in favour of universal suffrage and democracy for Hong Kong but will not take significant action in that regard. The European Union can be expected to occasionally issue statements encouraging progress towards universal suffrage in Hong Kong. But these will be lost in the plethora of hundreds of such statements emanating from Brussels each year, and will have zero effect on Beijing and the negotiations for suffrage in Hong Kong. The credibility and leverage of post-imperial powers telling their ex-colonies what to do are becoming less and less as Europe declines in world importance as has its own problems to manage.

China itself has a great interest in a stable and happy Hong Kong which has been explained in detail above. For the HK Chief Executive elections China is likely to allow marginal progress towards a symbolic universal suffrage choice amongst a set of candidates filtered and controlled by a nomination committee under Beijing’s de facto control, making sure that no candidate is (s)elected that might thereafter defy Beijing.

China’s main international interest in maintaining the appearance of an orderly progress to extend electoral suffrage in Hong Kong is to show to Taiwan people that political reform within China under a “one country, two systems” regime is possible and realistic. China’s worst scenario would be that it has to publically and brutally intervene in Hong Kong. But it would not hesitate to do so if events veered out of control.

The main lobbyists for political progress in Hong Kong are Hong Kong Chinese people themselves. But this is a subtle and complex challenge for them. Too aggressive and public a defiance of Beijing might be negative since the Beijing leadership might freeze even incremental progress. Then Beijing might even engender limitations to Hong Kong people’s existing democratic freedoms. Recently a couple of brutal attacks on pro-democracy journalists in Hong Kong are worrying signs that might have emanated from Beijing’s security forces. The HK press is already reported to suffer from a minor degree of self-censorship with especially local journalists feeling scared to criticise Beijing. Many of the most vocal pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council (LegCo) are rather aged – being leftovers from the pre-1997 ancienne regime – and it is not so clear that their younger successors will be so vocal in future. To get to the top of the Hong Kong Government an official must show steadiness and loyalty to their masters. Disturbing relations with Beijing would be the end of a Hong Kong government official’s career. The top officials in the HK Government are directly appointed by Beijing and swear allegiance to central Government at their appointment during an impressive public swearing-in ceremony. HK academics can be expected to continue to opine for further suffrage. Whether the same occurs also amongst academics based within China will be an indication of possibilities. But free speech within China has for the last couple of years increasingly been gagged and brutally censored and controlled. If that begins to occur in Hong Kong it will be a clearly negative sign.

Ultimately, like so much in East Asia, developments in the Chinese leadership and its attitude and China’s progress or not towards key challenges:- domestic reform, progress or not in unification with Taiwan, the continued growth of the economy, control of dissent, will predicate what happens in little Hong Kong. For Beijing Hong Kong is a side-show. If the situation within China improves, then the Chinese leadership will continue to allow incremental steps towards universal suffrage in Hong Kong, as long as they remain within a rigid and predictable framework of central controls. Beijing has been surprisingly flexible and tolerant of free debate and dissent within Hong Kong, up to now respecting its commitments til 2047 for freedom for Hong Kong people under the Basic Law. It would be a pity if an out of control process of lobbying for pure universal suffrage were perversely to undermine the stability and freedoms that Hong Kong people enjoy even now 17 years after the handover within China under its Communist party leadership.

Reference: Tsang, Steve, A Modern History of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2004.

[1] China had also never forgiven the UK, US and Russian leaders meeting in Yalta in 1945 for their meagre unfair post-WWII settlement for China that had fought on their side against Japan. Later it even emerged that Churchill had said he wanted then to return Hong Kong to China, but that the US had vetoed that!

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