Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy

It’s just gone 17 years since the former British colony of Hong Kong was returned to China, but communism still weighs lightly on it. It retains the appearance of a vibrant capitalist economy and continues to rank near the top of indices of economic freedom. The promises made by China in the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984, usually summarised as “one country, two systems”, have, by and large, been kept – much better than many people expected at the time.

But although the people of Hong Kong enjoy a high degree of personal freedom, they do not choose their own government. Half of the Legislative Council is democratically elected, but the other half and (crucially) the whole of the “election committee” that selects the chief executive are chosen by a gerrymandered system of functional constituencies that favors pro-Beijing candidates.

Of course, Hong Kong was not a democracy when it was under British rule either; it was essentially run by civil servants appointed from London. In many ways, its citizens are more empowered now than they were: they also enjoy (imperfectly, but pretty well in the circumstances) the protection of guarantees of human rights in the territory’s basic law.

But although government by non-politicians can do some things well, the fundamental lack of democratic legitimacy creates all sorts of problems. And the basic law contemplates that democracy should eventually become the norm: article 45 states that “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.”

Exactly what those words mean and how they are to be implemented is the hottest topic of debate in Hong Kong. Last week, chief executive Leung Chun-ying presented a report to the government in Beijing in which he endorsed the aim of universal suffrage for the 2017 election, but claimed (while acknowledging contrary views) that “mainstream opinion” would limit the candidates to those approved by a nominating committee.

Pro-democracy campaigners, on the other hand, demand that the public should have the right to nominate candidates for chief executive. Anything less, they say, would result in Beijing manipulating the process to screen out anyone hostile to its point of view.

There’s nothing inherently undemocratic in having some sort of screening process for a direct election. Most countries with presidential systems have limitations – sometimes quite severe ones – on who gets to appear on the ballot, to avoid having an unmanageably large number of candidates. Most commonly, candidates are required to have the support of a prescribed number of voters or of some smaller class of people such as legislators or local officials.

The important thing is that this screening process should be objective, with everyone having to play by the same rules, and not result in an ideological test being imposed.

But even a process that clearly fails to meet the criterion of objectivity may nonetheless fail to prevent a democratic expression of opinion. Last year gave a striking demonstration of that in the Iranian presidential election, when the Guardian Council disqualified hundreds of nominees but let through a candidate, Hassan Rouhani, who was sufficiently reformist to rally anti-regime feeling and win a decisive victory.

From Beijing’s point of view, Hong Kong itself is not the main game. A mildly hostile chief executive, which is the worst that democracy is likely to come up with, would be no more than a minor irritant. Much more important for it is to send the right message about the future of democracy in the rest of China.

It does not want the rest of its citizens to get the idea that universal suffrage is something they should aspire to. It wants to continue to tell them that “western” democracy wouldn’t work in China. But it also doesn’t want to show itself off as hostile to accountable government. That’s a very fine line to walk.

What it would ideally like, I suspect, is a process that it can show off as a success in “managed” democracy, where public input will be sufficiently strong not to put the democrats completely off side, but not so strong as to deprive Beijing of ultimate control if things turn nasty.

Whether such an ambition is realistic, or whether it will amount to an attempt to square the circle, should become clearer in the next few months.

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