With the 50-year lifespan of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” experiment just half-way through, China has moved to overhaul the city’s electoral system to install what the authorities called a "new democratic electoral system with Hong Kong characteristics.” Nothing can be further from the truth.
By overhauling the methods of picking the Chief Executive and forming the Legislative Council (LegCo), the ruling Chinese Communist Party had decided not to take any risk of keeping unchanged the city’s partial-democracy, then gradually moving towards the final destination of full universal suffrage as envisaged in the Basic Law.
Gone are the promises of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong.” Welcome to the new era of “patriots administering Hong Kong" with the communist authorities playing a key role in determining who meets the criteria of patriots.
The electoral overhaul was approved by China’s national legislature, or National People’s Congress (NPC), in the form of a resolution at the end of its annual plenum in Beijing on Thursday. The resolution sets out the general principles and the skeleton of the electoral system, leaving the details to be finalised by its Standing Committee at a meeting later this month or next month.
The Election Committee tasked with choosing the Chief Executive, whose number of members will be increased from 1,200 to 1,500, has emerged as the central plank of the new electoral system. Its original 1,200 members will still come from four sectors, namely commerce and finance, professionals, workers and grass-roots and political bodies such as lawmakers, with 300 seats for each.
The newly-added sector will be composed of local members of the NPC, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a national united front body, and members from Hong Kong branches of all-China associations such as women, youth and overseas Chinese. They are primarily picked by the central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
In addition to picking the Chief Executive, the Election Committee will be given new powers to elect a considerable number of members of the legislature. The Election Committee will also be responsible for nominating candidates to stand in legislative races.
Currently, LegCo has 70 members. It will be upped to 90.
The 90-member legislature will be returned by the Election Committee, geographical constituencies and functional constituencies, which include doctors and lawyers, bankers and nurses. Functional constituencies are expected to be given one-third of seats, or 30. It is still unclear whether the remaining 60 will be equally shared by the other two or the Election Committee getting 40 seats, leaving only 20 to geographical constituencies.
Whatever the final share of geographical constituency seats will be, the strength of the pro-democracy camp will shrink further. Adding to their plight is a new vetting mechanism to be established for “reviewing and confirming the qualifications” of candidates for the Election Committee, the chief executive and the legislators. Details of the vetting body are unclear.
One thing is clear. The city’s democratic force, already the target of political prosecution by the Hong Kong Government for their involvement in the 2019 social movement and the Legco primary election they held in July last year, is facing a set of huge roadblocks on their political path.
The pro-democracy camp has consistently snapped up the majority of votes, or between 55 per cent to 60 per cent, in all previous “one-person, one-vote” geographical elections.
Under the existing LegCo with half of it returned by functional constituencies that are tilted towards the business sector, the majority view of the society has already been under-represented. The gap between public opinion and the body of views in the legislature will grow wider after the new system is in place.
The Beijing leadership has given up hopes that the local fleet of patriots will be able to beat the democrats and win the majority of ballots if the election is held in a free and democratic manner. An overhaul is needed to ensure most, if not all, seats go to the patriots under the disguise of blocking pro-independence and self-determination advocates from sitting in the legislature and district council.
Furthermore, the democrats were blamed for the host of governance difficulties and heightened tensions in mainland-Hong Kong relations since the 1997 changeover, resulting in worsened socio-political conflicts and the growth of splittist thinking in society, in particular among the youth.
The outbreak of mass protests and political turmoil in 2019 and the landslide victory of the democrats in the district council elections in November 2019 have become the last straw on the back of the camel. With their patience and tolerance running out, Beijing moved to crush what they call those who oppose China and create troubles in Hong Kong.
The electoral revamp follows the enactment of the Hong Kong national security law, which took effect on July 1 last year.
Both mainland and Hong Kong officials have hailed the law as a success in restoring social order. They feel confident the electoral revamp will be another success. This time in restoring political order.
With society becoming stable and political dissent silenced, they argue the Government will then be able to resolve economic and livelihood problems. And with the economy back to healthy growth and quality of life improved, political agitation will cool down and democratic aspiration subsided. Imbued with confidence of the success of their China model, or soft authoritarian rule, the Beijing leaders are convinced it will also work in Hong Kong
Whether the huge gamble by Beijing will pay off is too early to tell. But Beijing is already paying a huge price for curbing the freedoms and scuttling the partial-democracy in Hong Kong. Its promise to the people of Hong Kong and the world to keep the city’s systems and freewheeling lifestyle for 50 years after the handover has turned sour.
In Hong Kong, Beijing’s hardball tactic has and will further alienate the mainstream of the populace, inflicting irreparable damage to trust and confidence among the people and the international community towards China.
To Beijing, they maintain they have no choice but to take the stick approach, saying Hong Kong has posed a threat to national security. Most Hongkongers are still perplexed by Beijing’s fears because they understand well and accept the fact that Hong Kong independence has and will never be a real option.
Their modest wish is that the policy of “one country, two systems” will be implemented as they were originally promised. That has become a nightmare many would like to forget.
Speaking at a press conference in Beijing on Friday, deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Zhang Xiaoming, has likened the electoral overhaul as an ““minimally invasive surgery,” which would end turbulence and give the city a “speedy recovery.””
The danger, however, is that the electoral surgery is an overkill, causing irreparable harm to the city in the short- and long-run.