Over the past few years, a battle has erupted in Hong Kong over the future of the former British colony which was handed over to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997 and became a Special Administrative Region (SAR). According to the “One Country, Two Systems” model proposed by Deng Xiaoping, Hong Kong was to maintain a high degree of autonomy as well as the freedoms inherited by the colonial state.
According to the Basic Law of the SAR, promulgated in 1990 by the PRC government and put into effect after the handover, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong “shall be the head of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and shall represent the Region“. He “shall be accountable to the Central People’s Government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in accordance with the provisions of this law.”
The function of Chief Executive basically replaced that of the British governor in colonial times. But while the governor was appointed by London (all governors were “white” British citizens and most of them – with some exceptions, like Cecil Clementi – spoke no Cantonese), the Chief Executive was to be a local Hongkonger. He would be “selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.”
The Basic Law, however, was a work in progress and did not clearly define how democratic the election process would be. In fact, the Basic Law is vague about the electoral procedures, but it pledges to introduce universal suffrage in a gradual way. “The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.“
After the handover, the candidates for Chief Executive were nominated by a committee of 800 people and (from 2012) 1,200 people. This oligarchic system was widely considered non-democratic, as the Chief Executives and their administration were de facto shadow governments of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
After 1997 Beijing often indicated that universal suffrage might be implemented by the Chief Executive Elections in 2017. On August 31, the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing announced its decision that in 2017 the Chief Executive will indeed be elected by universal suffrage. However, only three candidates will be allowed to run, and they will have to be selected by a committee of 1,200 people.
But why did it have to go that far? Why is Beijing stubbornly refusing to grant genuinely universal suffrage? What would happen if the CCP finally yielded to the protesters’ demands?
The CCP leadership may think that giving in to pro-democracy groups would weaken the party and the central government. They may think it would be a loss of face. They may fear that genuine democracy in Hong Kong would “infect” the rest of China and undermine the one-party regime.
However, I would argue that the PCC has nothing to lose by granting true democracy to Hong Kong, but it has much to gain.
First of all, giving Hong Kong full democracy would be a huge boost for the Communist Party’s image. It would show that the party is not the enemy of the people, is not just an authoritarian regime that took over Hong Kong in order to turn it into a replica of the mainland’s political system. Hongkongers would be reconciled with the Beijing government, would stop confronting it, and would go back to business as usual. Pro-democracy forces would, too, be given a voice and real influence, and they would start participating in the political process in an orderly fashion.
Second, the CCP could set legitimate restrictions to what a Chief Executive can and cannot do. He or she would be completely free to enact the policies he or she wants, except for three major topics: foreign policy, defence, and independence. If Hongkongers should ever demand independence, Beijing would have the right to deny it. Following the logic of Abraham Lincoln’s argument during the American Civil War, a people has the right to secede if it is denied democratic rights; but if it is given full democracy and equality before the law, secession is tantamount to anarchy.
Third, Hong Kong could be an experiment in democracy. The Chinese leadership, which is unacquainted with democratic procedures and, I’m afraid, barely understands what democracy is all about, would be able to learn from the Hong Kong model. Not unlike the Guomindang in the Republic of China, the CCP could learn to be successful within a democratic and competitive framework. Only losers are afraid of competition and force everyone to agree with them by threats. The CCP has delivered good economic results in China over the past decades. I wouldn’t be surprised if it could maintain its leadership even if it allowed opposition parties to form.
However, there are, as I will show in my next posts, two obstacles to the CCP’s acceptance of pluralism: 1) unlike the Guomindang, the CCP does not have democratic principles in its political DNA; 2) the CCP has its own understanding of democracy, i.e. the “United Front” (more about this in my next post), and seems unable to abandon this approach to politics.
Instead of causing more trouble in Hong Kong, the CCP should understand that it has nothing to lose by granting Hong Kong genuine universal suffrage, but it has a lot to gain by finally loosening the fetters that hinder the city’s free development. Today Hong Kong resembles ancient China’s custom of foot-binding; its natural growth is obstructed and retarded by a cruel and artificial practice that has no rational justification.
On the other hand, Hongkongers should be aware that democracy is not the end of history. Democratic governments can be incompetent or inefficient. While it is right to desire a pluralistic, open and non-ideological government, it would be a mistake to expect that an elected government would automatically deliver the economic and social improvements that the people are hoping for. This the protesters should always bear in mind.