Hong Kong has seemed quiet for the last four months. The foreign media moved on to other stories once last fall’s protest movement came to an end. But locally the debate over a new system to elect the territory’s chief executive has continued non-stop, and the situation is about to heat up again. On Wednesday Hong Kong time, the government will announce its proposal for electoral reform. Once it does, the pro-democracy opposition will face some difficult choices.
Here, in not too much detail, is a quick review of the background.
In 2007, the government of the People’s Republic of China, which has sovereignty over Hong Kong, announced it would accept an election of Hong Kong’s chief executive (CE) through universal suffrage for the 2017 election. It also said that candidates would be picked by a Nominating Committee. Pro-democracy politicians and the public at large, a majority of which supports a more democratic system, welcomed the universal suffrage part of this pledge but suspected that Beijing would use the Nominating Committee to restrict who got to run. What good is a one-man-one-vote election, they asked, if voters had to choose between candidates who are from the territory’s conservative establishment camp and will likely accommodate Beijing? (Good question.)
The following ensued:
- After several years of public debate, the Hong Kong government began a formal process consulting the public in December 2013. The key point of disagreement was over whether election candidates could emerge only through a Nominating Committee vote or through other mechanisms as well. Those who wanted other mechanisms believed that the Committee’s membership would be friendly to Beijing and pick candidates accordingly. Some of these skeptics were prepared to engage in civil disobedience to try to get their way.
- In late June 2014, the Hong Kong government announced the results of the consultation and the incumbent CE, C. Y. Leung, made a formal report to Beijing. This was the first step in a five-step process for constitutional revision, a process set by China. There is general agreement that Leung’s report understated the opposition to a nomination system that relied exclusively on the Nominating Committee.
- On August 31st, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC-SC) announced a decision on basic parameters for the new system (step two). Sure enough, it ruled out any supplementary nominating mechanisms. It also strongly suggested that the Nominating Committee would be constituted the same way as the 1,200-person Election Committee that had heretofore selected the CE and whose members were mostly friendly towards Beijing. The NPC-SC also limited the number of final CE candidates to two or three and dictated that each had to receive majority support from the Nominating Committee to become a candidate.
- The public response to the decision was sharply negative. The logical conclusion seemed to be that the new system was rigged in a way that Hong Kong voters have to pick among establishment candidates only, and that a pro-democracy aspirant had no way of getting nominated.
- In late September, students began a civil disobedience campaign that was marked by episodes of violence, and resulted in the occupation of three sets of major roadways in the territory. These lasted until early December, but the campaign did not persuade the government to back down on its basic approach.
- At the same time, the Hong Kong government, staying within the parameters Beijing announced on August 31st, began a second consultation process on its more specific reform proposals.
Why, you may ask, doesn’t Beijing just impose the system it wants? The reason is that it already committed that in step three of the five-step constitutional revision process, the government would introduce a bill in the Hong Kong Legislative Council reflecting its final proposal and that the legislature would have to approve it by a two-thirds margin. Even though the legislature is constituted in a way that gives disproportionate power to interests aligned with Beijing, the establishment camp currently does not have enough votes for a two-thirds majority. Consequently, the government must win over four or five moderate legislators from the democratic camp. In response, the more radical democrats have worked hard to keep the moderates committed to rejecting any government that is based on Beijing’s parameters, because it means that China gets to screen who gets to run.
In light of this problem, the Hong Kong government did a clever thing. In the consultation document, it included the option of “democratizing” the Nominating Committee while remaining within Beijing’s basic parameters. It proposed to do this first by making the body more representative of Hong Kong society and reducing the proportion of seats held by business interests and groups otherwise linked to China. Second, it suggested a two-stage process of selection. In the first stage, the Nominating Committee would consider more “potential candidates” than the two or three that would ultimately be nominated to run in the election. To be picked as a potential candidate, an individual would need the support of only a minority of Committee members (how low was unspecified). This could increase the possibility of one or more democratic politicians emerging as potential candidates and then, in the second stage, at least one of them being selected as a final candidate. The result would be a competitive election.
Last week, Raymond Tam, the Hong Kong government’s secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, indicated that something along these lines would be proposed by the government this Wednesday. He talked of using “the necessary legal room to maximize the democratic elements” and making the “entrance requirement” for potential candidates no higher than one-eighth of the membership. Additionally, there would be greater openness, transparency and accountability in the process of reviewing potential candidates within the Nominating Committee.
The devil, of course, will be in the details of the proposal (more on that later in the week). Moreover, Tam said nothing about making the Nominating Committee more representative of Hong Kong society. Did that element get set aside, and if so, what are the implications? If the membership of the committee is still biased in favor of the political status quo, would it matter if the process within the Nominating Committee is more competitive and transparent?
Whatever the proposal, the ball will then be in the pan-democrats’ court. Do they vote as a block to reject any process that allows the Nominating Committee to screen candidates? Do they then want to expose themselves to near-certain criticism that their recalcitrance denied the Hong Kong public the opportunity to vote for the CE? Or, do they take a chance on the more flexible approach that Tam is proposing, in the hope and belief that a pan-democrat will be screened in, which in turn would seem to set up a competitive election?