HK Democrats: the Divisive Power of Harmony

[Update, June 22: For a summary of the years running up to HK Chief Executive Tsang’s Monday announcement, see this informative comment.]

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾荫权) will to some extent include the Democratic Party’s proposals in his plan for democratic reform, which will be voted on by the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Wednesday. The Democrats had originally suggested that every voter in Hong Kong should have two ballots on geographical constituencies, and one for functional constituencies*). In Hong Kong, only thirty out of sixty LegCo members are directly elected by the people, while the other thirty are elected by 28 functional constituencies, which may either be natural persons as well as other designated legal entities such as organisations and corporations. The Democrats are critical of the functional constituencies as they tend to be groups of interests rather than political ones, and because many of them may be more concerned with pleasing the central government in Beijing, than with representing the people of Hong Kong.

The central government reserves the last word about democratic elections of the territory’s chief executive and many other political reform steps to itself, a fact which made Chief Executive Tsang appeal to the Hong Kong public in April to support his original plan, before including the Democrats’ suggestions:

“In 2005, we let a golden opportunity slip away. We cannot afford to let that happen again. Doing so would mean wasting a few more years and stalling further our constitutional development. And, the infighting will continue over this perennial issue.”

With his statement, the Chief Executive apparently referred to opposition to a reform package proposed in 2005, vetoed in the LegCo in 2005, when Martin Lee Chu-ming (李柱铭) was still an active politician. Lee stepped down from Hong Kong’s legislature in July 2008, as it was “time to get some new blood”.

Last week, Donald Tsang apparently lost a televised debate with barrister and opposition leader Audrey Eu (余若薇) of the Civic Party (公民黨), according to surveys conducted by the University of Hong Kong and – apparently – the City University of Hong Kong. Chinese party and state chairman Hu Jintao reportedly told Tsang in December to handle constitutional development issues properly to ensure social harmony, and chief state councillor Wen Jiabao urged Hong Kong’s chief executive to take care of deep-rooted contradictions in Hong Kong.

After finding that much of the audience during the televised debate had remained unconvinced of his original plans, Tsang has apparently decided to overcome contradictions by seeking common ground with the opposition. He made his announcement of inclusion of the Democrats’ suggestions on Monday. He said that these suggestions corresponded with the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s constitution) and the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress – apparently a decision made on December 29, 2007 which stipulates that universal suffrage for the CE should be implemented by no later than 2017.

According to the HK government’s original plans, the next elections of a Chief Executive in Hong Kong, due in 2012, would still be held indirectly. The electoral college would increase from 800 to 1200 members, and the number of LegCo seats would be raised from 60 to 70, but with seats equally divided between functional and geographical constituencies, i.e. 35 each, from 30 each now.

Given that the original plans neither included a specific timetable for universal suffrage, i. e. direct election of the Chief executive, and all LegCo members, both the League of Social Democrats (社民连) and the Civic Party voiced strong opposition to the plans. Both parties had advocated universal suffrage both for LegCo and the Chief Executive for 2012. And in February, the Democratic Party (民主黨) suggested, among other add-ons, that the five additional functional members from the geographical constituencies should be directly elected.

The suggested compromise bill will have all additional ten members of LegCo elected by the people – five of them as democratically elected legislators from geographical constituencies, and five more, who won’t be voted in by usually pro-Beijing functional constituencies, but also by the people and in charge of neighborhood affairs such as parking and traffic issues, rather than business or labor union affairs.*)

The BBC‘s political analyst Li Wen (李文) believes that the suggestions now made by the Hong Kong government are likely to secure the nine votes from the Democratic Party’s LegCo members, which, combined with the pro-government 34 members, would amount to 43 legislators supporting the reform bill on Wednesday – just more than the two-thirds majority required. However, Li warns that this won’t necessary mark the end of a year-long, often bitter conflict over Hong Kong’s democratization. The pan-Democrats’ final goal of universial suffrage still hasn’t been reached. And there is controversy within the Democratic Party as well. Martin Lee Chu-ming, the party’s founding chairman, announced publicly that he might leave the Democrats. In his view, the “new blood” in his party has apparently turned out to be rather anemic.

The new harmony, if confirmed in LegCo on Wednesday, may come at a price, and not only for the functional constituencies. And it may turn out to be only temporary.


*) I’m not perfectly sure if I have got this right – the coming days’ coverage should provide more specific details than the ones I can find until now — JR


How to Corrupt an Open Society, August 29, 2009
China’s December 2007 Decision, CRS Report for Congress, January 10, 2008

8 Responses to “HK Democrats: the Divisive Power of Harmony”

  1. It is a very complicated issue with many proposals. I think you would have to really love this issue to know everything everyone has said about it. However, I believe, in simplified form, you can say that the Democrats were originally concerned with the road map. For the most part, they could have accepted the government’s reform package as long as there were a promise of scrapping the functional constituencies later on. The idea of directly electing the members of the functional constituencies came only after certain pro-Beijing officials in the HK government noted that they thought that the Functional Constituencies were not incompatible with universal sufferage, therefore they may not be scrapped in the future and the Democrats may be incorrect in asking for a road map to scrap them.

    From this standpoint came the counterpoint from some Democrats that Functional Constituencies would only be in line with the concept of universal sufferage if all of the members of the functional constituencies were elected by the public. From this came a new proposal for compromise from the Democrats that stated that they would accept the government’s proposal if the five new Functional Constituency legislators were elected by the public. However, it is important to note that the candidates must be nominated by district councillors. Therefore, pro-Beijing interests still would have some degree of say in who holds the new legislative posts.

    Nevertheless, this is a genuine compromise. The government’s original plan offered little in the way of making the system more democratic. And it was a wise compromise by all parties. If the reform package were vetoed, Tsang’s political career could be finished, tensions would rise in Hong Kong, AND the Democrats would potentially be radicalised. With the compromise, the Democrats come off looking quite reasonable, meaning they can gain more support from the mainstream. This could help them in future elections. Meanwhile, Tsang gets to save face. Beijing does too. In reality, the changes to the system are minor, but they could feed expectations of larger changes in the future, or at least more compromises.

    My own thought on this is that the Democrats played their hand brilliantly. They know that Beijing does not want to lose support in Hong Kong because such support is essential to maintaining the aura of success that surrounds the One Country, Two Systems model. In the face of a hugely influential Beijing, the Democrats knew when to hold their ground, and they won concessions.

    This makes me all the more peeved at the KMT in Taiwan. Taiwan is much more capable of swaying Beijing than Hong Kong is because the Taiwan authorities and people are not actually subordinate to Beijing. There is no need to bend over backwards to please the Chinese.


  2. I’m getting the feeling that president Ma may be a great manager, but that he is no leader. No vision, and maybe no convictions – except for the rather questionable one that “Taiwan is a province”.
    Is his comparatively wide range of options in dealing with Beijing overburdening him, or does he genuinely believe that Taiwan is a province?
    Either way, it’s time for Taiwan to elect a president.


  3. Probably not if we agree that the five additional functional members from the geographical constituencies being directly elected is a step into the right direction. I feel a lot of respect for Martin Lee, but I think the Democrats can still oppose the government more fundamentally than last year, if it turns out that flexibility on their – the Dems – part begets no flexibility on the others’. After all, they have shown that they are prepared to negotiate constructively, as long as there are negotiation partners available.



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