Hong Kong electoral reform and the mirage of 'one country, two systems'

By Pui Man Katy Chan
PhD Candidate at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Melbourne

In 2020, the Hong Kong Government barred 12 opposition candidates from running in the Legislative Council Elections postponed to 2021, whilst the National People’s Congress Standing Committee of China disqualified four sitting, elected legislators.

In February this year, authorities brought charges against 47 pro-democracy activists and politicians for conspiracy to commit subversion under the newly-introduced national security law.

Now the Congress has further passed a series of changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system. What are these changes and what do they mean for the union of Hong Kong and China?

Reduction of the proportion of popularly-elected seats

Article 45 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, states that the region’s Chief Executive shall be chosen “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative in accordance with democratic procedures”. Nonetheless, such a goal has not been achieved and the leader is currently selected by the Election Committee, which is made up of 1,200 members.

While 117 of these members should come from the votes of district councillors, who are directly elected by the public, the rest are handpicked by the Chinese government. With the recent proposal of the Congress, the committee’s size is set to increase to 1,500 members, yet these expanded seats will be occupied by members of pro-Beijing “national organisations”, such as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, the All-China Women’s Federation, and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce.

A red, Hong Kong taxi passes the Legislative Council building
Hong Kong's Legislative Council building. Pic: Chris/Flickr

More significantly, while the number of Legislative Council’s members are suggested to increase from 70 to 90, the number of popularly-elected seats will not grow accordingly. At present, 30 are elected by geographic constituency and 5 by district councils. These numbers will remain unchanged despite an increase the legislature’s size, and 40 of the 90 seats shall be chosen by the Election Committee. Conventionally, the opposition have the power of veto because they have been able to get at least one-third of the total seats.

Such a change does not only dilute the legislature’s representativeness, but it also makes the acquisition of veto power extremely hard for the opposition in the future. This comes on top of the fact that the Hong Kong government has been excluding opposition candidates from running in elections and cancelling their obtained seats.

Legitimisation of state pre-selection

The Congress has also decided to establish a 10-seat or fewer Candidate Qualification Review Committee, which functions to ensure that only “patriots” can run in elections at all levels.

This Review Committee will be advised in determining the eligibility of electoral candidates by the Hong Kong Committee for Safeguarding National Security, a central government organ recently set up to reinforce the national security law, chaired by the Chief Executive.

This provides executive power priority over legislative power, in addition to the problem of excessive power given to authorities to pre-select candidates before the public can make their choice.

The legislature is supposed to act as a popular check and balance on the executive, ensuring separation of powers. It is supposed to pass or reject policies and budgets drawn by the Chief Executive-led government.

Yet, the Chief Executive now becomes the gatekeeper of the legislature.

Criminalisation of dissent

A black-clad protester walks past a banner reading 'Free HK
Space to political opposition has shrunk rapidly in Hong Kong since the protests of 2019 and 2020. Pic: Etan Liam/Flickr

In addition to this overhaul of the electoral system, freedom to dissent is also going to be tightly regulated. Following an early announcement of the changes, many Hongkongers called for a complete boycott of any official election.

Since the first instance of disqualifications of elected legislators in 2016, some considered Hong Kong’s democratic processes finished and had already shown dissent by submitting blank ballots. This attitude has subsequently spread wider in society, particularly with the announcement of these latest changes.

In the Amendment Bill subsequently compiled by the Hong Kong Government to put the Congress’s proposed electoral changes through the process of local legislation, it notes that inciting voters to submit blank ballots could be outlawed and criminalised.

As officials then elaborated, this act of incitement could include showcasing any slogan to advocate for blank ballots even on one’s private premises or own body.

Not surprised, but uncertain

While these electoral changes have drawn a degree of international attention, Hong Kong people are not surprised.

After all, their hope for liberal democracy from within through the means of elections has long eroded, perhaps since the “831 Framework” released in 2014[i], the countless candidature disqualifications throughout these years, or the moments they witnessed political clientelism[ii]. The latest electoral changes have again proven to the city that their “one country, two systems” union with China is a mirage.

Unlike many colonised regions elsewhere, Hong Kong’s right to self-determination was withheld by the transferral of sovereignty. By the 1985 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Britain agreed to conclude and handover its sovereignty over Hong Kong to China on 1st July 1997 under the principle of “one country, two systems”.

People ride in a vintage car flying Chinese and Hong Kong flags
Three decades after Hong Kong was handed to China, democracy is all but gone. Pic: Jo Schmatz/Flickr

This principle recognised Hong Kong as an integral part of China, yet allowed Hong Kong to run on its own economic and governing systems with a high degree of autonomy while the rest of China adopted socialism with Chinese characteristics.

In 1984, China’s premier Zhao Ziyang told a Hong Kong university student, “In the future, it is of course a sure thing, that Hong Kong will implement the democratisation of the political system, that is what you called the ‘democratic ruling of Hong Kong’.” In 1992, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded in the House of Lords to criticism over Britain’s failure to secure democracy for Hong Kong, “provision for the steady expansion of democracy had already been agreed with China”[iii].

Three decades have passed since the transfer of sovereignty. Democracy is shrinking. The “one country, two systems” promise is fading. When China does fulfill its commitment to “two systems”, how far is Hong Kong from breaking the promise of “one country” in turn?

When an election gets cancelled, what options to pursue political change remain with the people?

Banner image: Protesters walk past a so-called Lennon wall near Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building in 2019. Source: Cherian George/Flickr

[i] The “831 Framework” is a document handed down by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee of China, which would effectively allow the Chinese government to screen candidates in Hong Kong’s elections for the Chief Executive. It triggered the 2014 Umbrella Movement as Hong Kong citizens responded with a demand for true universal suffrage of the Chief Executive.

[ii] Political clientelism means the exchange of goods and services for political support. Scholars and local citizens have widely overserved this phenomenon to have happened with the pro-establishment’s electoral mobilisation.

[iii] Excerpts come from “Fact check: Was Hong Kong ever promised democracy?”, ABC News, 16 Dec 2014.


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