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Hong Kong Pushes Beijing Back as Democracy Demands Continue

Author: Esther Pan
December 23, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What's the latest in the political sparring between Hong Kong and China?


On December 21, Hong Kong politicians turned down a Beijing-backed proposal to reform Hong Kong's political system. The proposal— for which Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang lobbied hard and ultimately in vain—would have doubled the size of the group that chooses Hong Kong's leader, to 1,600, and expanded the seats in the legislature to seventy, giving Hong Kong citizens five more directly elected seats. Democracy advocates criticized the reform proposal as a half-measure that did not go far enough, and rejected it for failing to address their most pressing demand: a timetable to universal suffrage for Hong Kong citizens.

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What else have Hong Kong democracy advocates done recently?

They held a massive rally December 4 to push Beijing for greater freedoms. Organizers said 250,000 people marched to demand a timetable for democracy for the territory, although police put the number at 63,000. The protest came after Tsang released his reform plan, which was slammed from the beginning as too timid. Democracy advocates want Beijing to allow one-man-one-vote for Hong Kong, in line with promises they say China made when it took control of the island in 1997 after more than 150 years of British colonial rule. But in the years since the handover, critics say, China has tightened its grip on Hong Kong and delayed indefinitely any plans for full democracy for the island. Specifically, China has denied Hong Kong the right to directly elect a chief executive in 2007 and the entire Legislative Council, Hong Kong's governing body, in 2008.

How has China responded to demands for greater democracy?

Chinese officials have rejected the appeals. In April 2004, the Standing Committee of the
Communist Party in Beijing ruled out universal suffrage for Hong Kong voters in the 2007 and 2008 elections. The Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution, makes direct election of the chief executive an eventual goal, but does not set a date for achieving it. Experts say Chinese officials had pushed Tsang's modest reforms to appear sympathetic to Hong Kong citizens' demands for democracy while delaying any true suffrage. Polls show a majority of Hong Kong's 7 million residents support universal suffrage.

"They're not saying never, they're just saying not right now," says Elizabeth Economy.

How are Hong Kong’s leadership posts currently filled?

An 800-member group controlled by Beijing selects the chief executive, and Hong Kong voters directly elect only half of the sixty members of the Legislative Council. The other half are chosen by "functional constituencies"—professional associations, including lawyers and businessmen—that tend to be conservative and pro-Beijing. The two-tiered system of voting is set out in the Basic Law.

Why is China resisting pro-democracy efforts?

Experts say the Chinese government is focused on maintaining political control even as
economic reforms bring prosperity—and new freedom to travel—to millions of mainland Chinese. China permits limited elections at the village level, but the country's leaders are worried that granting Hong Kong the vote will result in an independent-minded legislature that will break ties with Beijing. In addition, experts say the communist leadership sees universal suffrage as radical political reform that would set a destabilizing precedent. "Other parts of China could see Hong Kong and think, 'If we have large demonstrations, we can have democracy too,'" says Veron Hung, an Asian law and politics expert. "China sees the threat posed by Hong Kong to domestic politics as imminent, and [something] that needs to be dealt with."

What is the U.S. position?

The United States supports Hong Kong citizens' demands for a timetable for democracy. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said December 6, "We believe it is important to achieve universal suffrage in Hong Kong as soon as possible, that the people of Hong Kong are ready for democracy, and that the sooner a timetable for achieving universal suffrage is established, the better," he said.

How is Hong Kong currently governed?

The Basic Law guarantees "a high degree of autonomy" to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for fifty years and enshrines the "one country, two systems" idea. This is the notion that traditionally capitalistic Hong Kong belongs to China, a country with a communist leadership and a socialist economy. Chinese officials have said "one country, two systems" does not mean two states with complete autonomy, but only two different systems: socialism for China and capitalism for Hong Kong. Tsang is a charismatic former finance minister who was elected in July—with Beijing's approval—after the resignation of his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa. He's profiled here by the BBC. Tsang, although still popular with the Hong Kong public, is now bearing some of their anger at Beijing's denial of reforms.

What is the Basic Law?

The Basic Law was negotiated by Britain and China in preparation for the 1997 handover. It claims Hong Kong as "an inalienable part" of the People's Republic of China, but gives Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and legislative and judicial rights not shared by mainland Chinese. These include the right of Hong Kong courts to have the final say over legal matters in the territory, the island's right to continue having a capitalist economic
system, and the rights of Hong Kong residents to free speech, free assembly, and protection from unlawful detention. Private property rights, limited voting rights, and human rights for citizens are also protected in the Basic Law, among other "fundamental rights and freedoms." Under the Basic Law, Beijing controls Hong Kong's defense and foreign affairs, and the Hong Kong government has control over only external issues relating to trade. For example, Hong Kong on its own is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Hong Kong joined the WTO January 1, 1995, nearly seven years before China, which joined December 11, 2001.

How can the Basic Law be amended?

It can only be amended through a process of consultation that ends with the National
People's Congress. Article 159 of the Basic Law says: "The power of amendment of this Law shall be vested in the National People's Congress." Other groups can offer amendments to the law—after winning approval from a two-thirds majority of regional deputies, two-thirds of the Legislative Council, and the Hong Kong chief executive—but the ultimate decision is with China's Standing Committee. In its April 2004 ruling the Standing Committee effectively reversed the order of events needed to amend the Basic Law, says Adam Segal, the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. That decision effectively said "reform cannot be initiated except by the Standing Committee," he says.

Who has the right to interpret the Basic Law?

China. The Basic Law's Article 158 says, "The power of interpretation of this Law shall be
vested in the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress." Chinese officials have said their rulings limiting the right of interpretation to Beijing were not clampdowns, but merely clarifications of the law in accordance with their rights in Article 158.

Does China reject all political reform?

Not necessarily. Some experts stress that while Beijing authorities are approaching reform cautiously, they are not completely against it. "They're not saying never, they're just saying not right now," says Elizabeth Economy, the C.V. Starr senior fellow and director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Have Hong Kong democracy advocates been able to mobilize significant numbers of people?

Yes. They have proved consistently able to bring out crowds for protests, including:

  • July 1, 2003: 500,000 people protest to demand democracy.
  • January 1, 2004: 100,000 people protest on New Year's Day.
  • June 4, 2004: 80,000 people observe a candlelight vigil on the anniversary of the
    1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
  • July 1, 2004: 500,000 people come out on the anniversary of Hong Kong's independence to protest China's decision to delay universal suffrage.
  • July 1, 2005: 15,000 people protest on the anniversary of independence.
  • December 4, 2005: 250,000 people (police say 63,000) mobilize to demand a timetable for full democracy.

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