China's Next Major Mess-Up: Hong Kong's Future

"By working so hard to demolish a threat that didn’t really exist, China has lost on several fronts."

Now that China’s legislature has acted, it is clear that most citizens of Hong Kong will have little to say anytime soon about who can campaign for their city’s top political post, despite Beijing’s previous hints and promises to the contrary. The question they now face is what to do about it.

There are no easy answers. The choices range from angry mob protests to supine acceptance, but none guarantee serious progress toward the kind of local democracy that the most dedicated political activists have been seeking. No wonder those who consider themselves pan-democrats, as opposed to reliable followers of the Chinese Communist Party line, seem both defiant and depressed as they ponder the near future.

Yet, however discouraging the situation may seem for those who want to defend and expand Hong Kong’s many civil rights, it is not completely hopeless. The two leading options both allow for marginal advances toward free elections that meet international democratic standards, though major gains won’t result anytime soon. The Beijing decision made clear that true local democracy can’t happen before the central government shows more political pragmatism and tolerance than it has so far; to date, Chinese president Xi Jinping seems to find compromise a sign of weakness and has no time for such things.

The quandary results from an August 31 decision of the National People’s Congress, the compliant Chinese legislature that exists to validate prior decisions the ruling party makes in secret. It authorized universal suffrage for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive, head of the territory’s administration. On the surface, this was a great step forward for a populace that spent 150 years ruled by British colonial governors “parachuted in” from London and never had a popular vote for any top office. At the same time, however, the NPC added key restrictions: only “two or three” candidates will be allowed, and anyone listed on the ballot must first win a majority vote of approval from a special 1200-member election committee in Hong Kong dominated by compliant Beijing loyalists—a provision meant to ensure that all contenders follow the mainland’s lead on important matters. NPC members who nominally represent Hong Kong were among those dutifully voting to restrict political choices in their home town.

The NPC decision followed many months of consultation, confrontation and agitation about how to organize future elections. Since the 1997 handover of colonial Hong Kong to mainland sovereignty, three chief executives have been chosen for five-year terms by small committees of local worthies who mostly represent business groups and others who endorse mainland opinions, often for commercial reasons, rather than political beliefs. None—including incumbent C.Y. Leung—have been popular. But four years ago, China said universal suffrage could be introduced for the first time in 2017, with details to be worked out later. (It also said reforms might be allowed—though not promised—for the 2020 election of the seventy-member Legislative Council (LegCo), but not for the next LegCo vote in 2016.)

This is the “one country, two systems” method designed thirty years ago, when the British and Chinese drafted terms for the subsequent handover. Now called a special administrative region, Hong Kong falls under mainland sovereignty with defense and foreign policy handled by Beijing. But Hong Kong citizens are supposed to administer local affairs “with a high degree of autonomy,” free of mainland meddling. They received written guarantees that their many civic freedoms would be protected, such as a free press and an independent judicial system based on British common law that imports some judges from overseas. This system is supposed to last at least until 2047.

Once universal suffrage in 2017 seemed likely, political activists known collectively as pan-democrats intensified their lobbying for terms that would abolish the special election committee and allow direct public participation in choosing candidates. But this ran into two problems. First, the Basic Law—Chinese legislation that serves as Hong Kong’s de facto constitution—states explicitly that a “broadly representative” election committee must select the candidates, a view held binding by (among others) Hong Kong’s nonpartisan and independent bar association. Second, and most important, the Chinese Communist Party is deeply suspicious, if not paranoid, about any political process that it might not control. Thus, party officials from early days made clear they would not permit primary elections or any system that bypassed the special committee.