China’s Decision on Universal Suffrage in Hong Kong

Beijing has spoken. On August 31, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, issued a “decision” that has the force of law and sets new parameters for electing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Under the old system, the CE was picked by an election committee with 1,200 members, most of whom happened to be loyal to or sympathetic with Beijing. Consequently, Hong Kong’s ultimate Chinese rulers could control the selection outcome.

For the 2017 CE election, Beijing pledged to institute universal suffrage, so that all of Hong Kong’s several million voters could express their preferences. It has honored that pledge but only in a narrow sense. If its new parameters are adopted, Hong Kong voters will indeed pick the chief executive in 2017. There is a catch, however. The NPC-SC decision dictates candidates for the contest can only be selected by a nominating committee, and that the new nominating committee will be modeled on the old election committee. Consequently, candidate selection will be in the hands mainly of people who are sympathetic to Beijing. In addition, over half of the members of the nominating committee would have to approve each candidate, which means that no pan-democrat could get nominated if Beijing disapproved of him or her.

By making this decision, Beijing has missed a significant opportunity to broaden its support in Hong Kong. Before today’s decision, there remained at least a theoretical possibility that a genuinely democratic system could emerge. In an op-ed in the August 18th Wall Street Journal, I discussed what was required to permit a competitive election in which the voters would decide whether to select a pro-establishment figure or a member of the democratic camp. The crux, I said, were the rules that allowed for a nominating committee that was broadly representative of Hong Kong society, permitted a reasonable number of candidates; and set a low threshold for the number of committee members needed to nominate a candidate (so that a pro-democracy individual could be picked). I argued that if Beijing was willing to be creative on that point, it would be sufficient to facilitate negotiations with moderate members of the democratic camp (and because any reform plan required two-thirds of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to pass, at least some pan-democrats would have to support it). [For the text of my WSJ op-ed, request one at [email protected].]

The NPC-SC decision makes this compromise impossible, but it also ensures that Beijing’s plan will not get adopted. No member of the democratic camp will support it, so a two-thirds majority will be impossible, and the system for 2017 will be the same, “small-circle” arrangement that was used in 2012. China will blame the pan-democrats for denying the vote to Hong Kong people, but the true reason is Beijing’s rigidity and unwillingness to compromise. In the short-term, the prospect is for a new round of popular protests, even the civil disobedience campaign promised by the Occupy Central movement. The more extreme elements of the Hong Kong system, both pro-establishment and pro-democracy, continue to control the agenda, at the expense of a compromise crafted by moderates.

In the end, Chinese leaders were unwilling to risk the uncertainty of a truly competitive process, even though the odds are that Hong Kong citizens, who are generally conservative and pragmatic, would not have supported a democrat with a radical, anti-China, soak-the-rich platform. No doubt Beijing did not want to appear weak and create a precedent for democracy elsewhere in China. And it feared, without justification, that an elected democratic Chief Executive, backed by “foreign forces,” would seek to destabilize Communist Party rule in China. As a result, however, Beijing has bought itself the uncertainty of sustained political disruption in Hong Kong and deeper public alienation and frustration.