Hong Kong Democracy: A Pessimistic Review

Antony Ou*


“Newlonkong” is a neologism referring to the three international economic centres namely New York, London and Hong Kong. However, among the three places, Hong Kong might be regarded as the most democratically backward.


The Problems

There is now no universal suffrage for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Instead, an 800-member Election Committee enjoys the special privilege of electing the Chief Executive, according to the Basic Law, the mini-constitution for the Region. The 800 members are drawn from the voters of the Functional Constituencies (FCs), the religious sector, and district and central government organisations. The Chief Executive then appoints the Executive Council, which primarily functions as the “cabinet” of the Chief Executive. Some could easily argue that the Chief Executive and his/her cabinet can by no means represent the citizens of Hong Kong, simply because he/she is not competitively voted by the general public. By any modern democratic standard, such kind of indirect election is definitely a product of authoritarianism.

In addition, the Legislative Council (LegCo) is a quasi-bicameral system, which is constituted by 30 seats of Geographical Constituencies (GC) and 30 seats of Functional Constituencies (FC). For the former, general voters (around 3.37 millions) directly select their candidates based on their geographical districts; for the latter, membership of voters are highly restricted only around 226,000 electors composed by individuals, organisations and corporations. They have the right to cast a vote for their candidates. For the composition of the FC, it includes mainly businesses and a number of professional sectors (See Appendix). For examples, the FCs of Agriculture and Fisheries, Insurance and Transport are elected via process of corporate voting, of which the latter comprises legal entities but not “natural person”. In this sense, the only eligible voters of these FCs are the ones who own companies of respective constituencies. The problem follows that for these 226,000 electors, around 57,000 of them control over 80% of 30 FC seats (i.e. 25 seats). And within these 25 seats, 12 seats are coming from 10 constituencies selected by 5,600 voters who are all corporate voters. That is to say about 5,600 corporate voters control 40% of FC seats. To paraphrase the famous quote from the Animal Farm, we can then say, in Hong Kong, some voters are more equal than the others. It gives corporate minorities too much power and influence over Hong Kong. Most ironically, the functional constituency of Hong Kong might lead someone to associate it with the equivalent functional or occupational legislative representation of the German Nazi regime, which attempted to pave the way to make Germany into a corporate totalitarian state.

“To paraphrase the famous quote from the Animal Farm, we can then say, in Hong Kong, some voters are more equal than the others.”

Worse still, the issue of separate voting is one of the most frustrating built in procedures for the pan-democrats of Hong Kong. For any citizen and legislator, he/she can propose a bill to be passed by the LegCo.

The Logo of Hong Kong Human Rights Moni- tor. The logo based on Chinese character meaning ‘human’

However, this can only be possible by winning separate voting of both GCs and FCs. As for any bill proposed by the government, only a simple majority is required to pass the bill. And for any amendment of the Basic Law, it requires the absolute consent of two-thirds of the LegCo members to support the bill, before entering to the Chief Executive (veto power is given under Article 159) and Hong Kong’s deputies to the National People’s Congress. That is to say, on one hand, by separate voting, any bill proposed by pan-democrats, or any bill concerning public interests, could be easily rejected by the FC legislators, who incline to represent the interests of large corporations and the government. On the other hand, any government bill can be passed relatively easily because the government friendly camps (from both GCs and FCs) ensure the simple majority. The recent controversial bill on the High-Speed Railway System (costing HK$66.9 billion) is a perfect example of such legislative mechanism: despite of a mass rally outside the LegCo building, the government only needed to ensure one thing the collaboration of the government-friendly legislator in order to pass the bill. No wonder Human Rights Monitor criticized the FC as a highly corrupted entity.

In the Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law, it clearly states that the Chief Executive and all the LegCo members of Hong Kong will be ultimately elected by universal suffrage. Yet, the problems remain since we do not know when and how they will be elected. In Annex 1, Section 7 of the Basic Law, it states that laws about the election could be amended as soon as in 2007. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), which has the ultimate power to interpret the Basic Law, promulgates that any amendment to the electoral law must be supported by the NPCSC. On 26 April 2004, the NPCSC abruptly denied the possibility of universal suffrage in 2007 for the Chief Executive and 2008 for LegCo.

After the failure of proposing a seemingly “progressive” political reform in 2005, in 2007, the Chief Executive Donald Tsang asked the central government whether there would be a democratic future for Hong Kong people. Tsang reported that we have to wait till 2017 for the possibility of getting two-thirds of the LegCo members to support the reform. The NPCSC allowed the possibility for the 2017 Chief Executive and 2020 LegCo elections via the means of universal suffrage. In 2009, there was a consultation on political reform, which was very similar to the proposal set in 2005. The key points of the proposed package are summarised as below:

  • The number of members of the Election Committee for the Chief Executive is increased from 800 to 1200;
  • There will be 100 new members of the Election Committee who are District Council and LegCo members. They are chosen by the other District Council and LegCo members ;

“…the Chief Executive election is still a non-democratic election participated by 1,200 privileged citizens instead of the 3.7 million adults in Hong Kong.

  • The size of the LegCo will be increased from 60 to 70 seats with five additional Geographical and Functional Constituencies respectively;
  • The new Functional Constituency seats are all District Council members. They are chosen by the other District Council members via proportional representation (amended in April 2010).

The 2009 political reform proposal, amended in April 2010, by nature, is just like the 2005 one. They are nothing close to universal suffrage. With complicated procedures and newly created traps, the government shows no signs of improvement for the present undemocratic political structure. For instance, the Chief Executive election is still a non-democratic election participated by 1,200 privileged citizens instead of the 3.7 million adults in Hong Kong. Besides, in the name of “gradual and orderly progress”, the “democratic element” added to the LegCo is minimal. According to the government and its “ideologues”, the proposal is one huge step for Hong Kong democratic progress by having more popularly voted District Council members. However, despite the fact that FC is one of the key sources of a non-democratic Hong Kong, the proposal never mentions the abolishment of the FC. Instead, by having five more seats to the FC, the FC is arguably more difficult to be brought to an end in the future. Since the Basic Law ensures the same numbers of GC and FC seats, it is extremely difficult to have two-thirds of LegCo members to abolish the FC by amending the Basic Law. To put it in the simplest sense, who would vote against their own FC seats and step down accordingly?

These odd proposals, together with the long stagnated democratic progress, trigger the new movement, that some people would find it non-harmonious the de facto referendum.

The “Non-Harmonious” Hong Kong

The concept of a “harmonious society” has become an over-arching theme campaigning over the years in China. The Chinese central government advocates that it is necessary to construct a “harmonious society” while enjoying the economic prosperity. The term has been repeatedly criticized as a strategy that underplays the democratic reform of China. Hong Kong, as part of China after 1st July 1997, is of course included in this grand theory of harmonious society. Interestingly, however, according to a recent survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, there are a quarter of Hong Kong population (around 1.53 million citizens) who think that Hong Kong is not a harmonious society and Hong Kong people should apply more radical measures when fighting for democracy and other demands. The result is alarming for the SAR government as well as the central government, both of which emphasise so much on the importance of a stable government.

Some commentators and scholars interpret that the only reason for a government to promote harmony is because the society of which it governs lacks harmony. More importantly, politicians often do not acknowledge the fact that in nature, politics is never harmonious. An open society needs channels for non-harmonious, pluralistic political interactions. Hong Kong enjoys the rights to demonstrate, assemble and express, yet, when it comes to the right to universal suffrage, the SAR government disappoints Hong Kong citizens. The “radical” but non-violent measures that the survey mentioned make people think of the recent controversy on de facto referendum. The League of Social Democrats (LSD) and the Civic Party were the initiators of this so-called “New Democratic Movement”.

The 2010 Hong Kong by-election, which will be held on 16 May, was triggered by the resignation of five pan-democrat LegCo members in January of the same year. The resigned LegCo members named it “Five Constituencies Referendum”, that requires one pan-democratic lawmaker from each of the five GCs to resign and then consequently triggers a by-election, which is a standard legislative procedure. The Basic Law never offers a de jure referendum, nonetheless, the “Five Constituencies Referendum” serves as a de facto one. Its purpose, according to the resigned LegCo members, is to let every Hong Kong citizens to participate in a form of direct

Logo of LSD (League of Social Democrats)     democracy—to decide whether there should be a genuine political reform, which guarantees universal suffrage, and the abolishment of the FC system.

Logo of Civic Party

Since late January 2010, LSD and Civic Party advertised their campaign with the (in)famous slogan “uprising of the people” ( ). It generated a lot of media attention, controversy from the general public, and strong condemnations from Beijing and the “Royalists” (the pro-Beijing advocates). On one hand, Rita Fan, a Hong Kong Deputy to the NPCSC, denounced the slogan was dangerous and misleading, since the term “uprising” in Chinese implies revolution and violence and it is a term that destabilises and disharmonises any healthy society. Other pro-government critics, such as Elsie Leung, Ip Kwok-him and Gordon Wu, insisted the slogan entailed anarchy, treason or even armed conflict. Whilst on the other hand, Audrey Eu and Raymond Wong, the Presidents of the two “uprising” parties, argued that the purpose of the slogan was never meant to support any  violent revolution and independence. Rather, it referred to any rational political activities such as the “de facto referen- dum”. For the other pan -democrats, their positions on referendum were more am- biguous. The “Alliance for Universal Suf- frage” is composed of 13 pro -democracy communities, including the Democratic Party (the largest pan -democratic party). The group has persistently advocated for a mild political position, that pan-democrats should strive for dialogues between Hong Kong and China on the issue of democracy, based on rationality and mutual under- standing. However, the “uprising” parties and their supporters criticised the Alliance as too simple and naïve, since the pan- democrats have been “rational” and “reasonable” for more than 20 years. Yet, no visible changes have resulted. For the “radical” advocates, without any radical but non-violent measure in order to express their democratic demands, Hong Kong people can never see a reasonably democratic future.

The SAR government’s responses are plain: 1) The nature of the 2010 by -election is solely to fill up the five LegCo seats, and 2)

Maria Tam

it is totally unnecessary to have a by – election for the sake of 2012 universal suffrage, since the NPCSC has provided a schedule for Hong Kong people, assuring a “gradual and orderly” democratic progress. In other words, the SAR government does not encourage citizens to vote and would rather see a low voting-rate. By contrast, the responses of the Central Government as well as its subordinates are much more vigorous and severe. For instance, Peng Qinghua, the Head of Communist Party of China Hong Kong Liaison Office, criticised,

“There are political groups that have launched the so-called ‘five constituencies referendum campaign,’ even proposing sensational and extreme slogans like ‘civic uprising’ and ‘liberating Hong Kong’. This is a total violation of mainstream public opinion that wants stability, harmony and development.”

Among many “Royalists”, Maria Tam is the most out-spoken one. As a member of the Preparatory Committee for the HKSAR, a deputy of the NPC, and Hong Kong Affairs Advisor (PRC), she insisted that the “de facto referendum” is an attempt to violate the Basic Law. She said Hong Kong is not a sovereign state, but only a special administrative region, which does not have absolute control over critical political reform. In this sense, the resigned legislators are not granted the authority to up- hold any referendum.

For the government friendly camps like the Liberal Party and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), they chose to boycott the “unconstitutional act”. For the Liberal Party, its former chairman James Tien and his brother Michael Tien were once showing interest to gain LegCo seats like any other opportun- ists. However, they never handed in their applications. For DAB, its vice – chairman Ip Kwok-him saw disparag- ing opinions towards the by-election and argued that DAB would only participate if the by-election were not interpreted as a referendum. Chair- man Tam Yiu-chung even challenged the resigned LegCo members by saying that the by-election is a farce which squanders taxpayers’ money and disharmonises social stability.

The NPCSC Deputy Secretary-General Qiao Xiaoyang recently repeated what was al- ready stated in the 2009 political reform consultation document— The Five-Step Mechanism”: Step One: The CE shall make a report to the NPCSC as to whether there is a need to amend the two electoral methods; Step Two: A determination shall be made by the NPCSC that the two electoral meth- ods may be amended; Step Three: The motions on the amend- ments to the two electoral methods shall be introduced by the HKSAR Government to the LegCo, and be endorsed by a two- thirds majority of all the members of the LegCo; Step Four: Consent shall be given by the CE to the motions endorsed by the LegCo; Step Five: The relevant bill shall be reported by the CE to the NPCSC for approval or for the record. The Five-Step Mechanism emphasises NPCSC is the ultimate power of any Hong

Mr. Qiao Xiaoyang

Kong democratic reform. In other words, NPCSC is the ultimate hope of the “ultimate universal suffrage”. Back in 1991, way before the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the U.K. to the PRC, Kuan Hsin-chi, the former de- partment head of Government and Public Administration, Chinese University of Hong Kong, now the chairman of Civic Party, con- tended that,

“Hong Kong is a British colony. It will be- come, in 1997, a Special Administrative Region under the authority of the Central People’s Government of China, i.e. a local government within a unitary state. Thus, Hong Kong is and will remain a dependent polity. In a situation of power depend- ence, the choice of the rulers of the hegemonic country who set the rules of the game is crucial for political change in the dominated polity.”

Appendix: Structure and Electors of Hong Kong Functional Constituencies**

In other words, Hong Kong’s democratic future is, to a large extent, pre -destined The rules and procedures can never be changed solely by Hong Kong citizens, rather, there is only one single Leviathan that has the absolute power over the  democratic progress of Hong Kong: she determines, reallocates, permits, prohibits, justifies, internalises and normalises. The resigned LegCo candidates will most probably be re-elected with low turnout rate (This essay was written just before the by election/ referendum). However, what is the point of going through all these political ad-vocacies? Maybe some Hong Kongers are losing their patience. Maybe some of them never trust their government. Maybe they are showing their anger and grievances towards a political hegemony and economic oligarchy. Or maybe, they are fighting for a just  cause, of  which Goliath might   feel slightly uncomfortable about it. The de facto referendum was in fact broadcasting nation – wide, and was deeply criticised by the PRC. The government controls basically all the media, yet, whether the people would think exactly the same way is another question.


I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to Miss Erica Lowe for her editing of my script. Usual disclaimer applies.


Antony Ou is a PhD Researcher of University of Sheffield and the China Review editor of Political Reflection Magazine. His monograph, Just War and the Confucian Classics: A Gongyangzhuan Analysis, has been pub- lished and is available at amazon.com.

E-mail: ouantony@gmail.com

Twitter: https:/ / twitter.com/ ouantony

** Source: Constitutional & Mainland Affairs Bureau, Public Consultation on the Methods for Selecting the Chief Executive and for Forming the Legislative Council in 2012 Government of Hong Kong, 18 November 2009.

Further Reading:

1) Chan, Ming K. and Alvin Y. So (eds.) 2002. Crisis and Transformation in China’s Hong Kong. Armonk and London: M.E. Sharpe.
2) Cheung, Anthony Bing-leung and Kin- sheun Louie. 1991. Social Conflicts in Hong Kong, 1975 -1986: Trends and Implications. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Institute of Asia- Pacific Studies, Occasional Papers No. 3.
3) Hughes, Richard . 1976. Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time : Hong Kong and its many faces. London : Andre Deutsch. (2nd rev. ed.)
4) King, Ambrose Yeo -chi. 1975. “Administrative Absorption of Politics in Hong Kong: Emphasis on the Grass Roots Level,” in: Asian Survey 15:5 (May). P. 422 – 439.
5) Kuan, Hsin-chi. Power Dependence and Democratic Transition: The Case of Hong Kong. The China Quarterly, No. 128 (Dec., 1991), pp. 774 -793. Cambridge University Press
6) Lau Siu-Kai (ed.) 2002. The First Tung Chee-hwa Administration: The First Five Years of the HKSAR . Hong Kong: The Chi- nese University Press.
7) Lau, Siu-kai. 1982. Society and Politics in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: The Chinese Univer- sity Press.
8) Miners, Norman. 1991. The Government and Politics of Hong Kong. (5th. ed.) Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
9) Sing, Ming. 2004. Hong Kong’s Tortuous Democratization: A Comparative Analysis. London: RoutledgeCurzon.
10) Scott, Ian. 1989. Political Change and the Crisis of Legitimacy in Hong Kong. Lon- don: Hurst & Company.


Previous post The Fear of a Free Kurdistan in the Middle East of the 21st Century
Next post Enhancing Peace, Security and Stability in Western Balkans Through EU Membership and Kosovo Issue

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *