- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

HONG KONG - At first glance, this port city of 7 million is everything its sovereign — China’s central government — would like it to be.

Its economy is one of the freest and most competitive in the world. Its wealth matches that of few other places. Its banking system is the envy of some of the most developed countries. Business is booming, and so is tourism, bringing tens of millions of visitors a year.

In the past year, the city has had two elections. A smooth and efficient transfer of power took place in the summer after its chief executive resigned. The legislature is busy enacting laws, and the debate there is often as heated as on Capitol Hill.

“We have a very pluralistic Legislative Council,” said Stephen Lam, Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional affairs. “We have to lobby very hard on every item the government puts to a vote.”

But Mr. Lam concedes what many here say reveals a fundamental problem: “We haven’t had a bill rejected so far.”

The administration of Chief Executive Donald Tsang has 35 supporters in the 60-seat legislature, enough to pass legislation it supports.

What troubles critics is that just half of the legislators are elected directly by Hong Kong’s voters.

The other half is selected by so-called “functional constituencies,” business, professional and other groups that reflect different parts of society. These tend to choose lawmakers who are pro-government and pro-Beijing.

“If the government gets 31 votes, it couldn’t care less where they come from,” said James Tien, chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party, which often backs government initiatives.

Mr. Tsang and his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, were not directly elected either. Instead, they were chosen by a committee that was vetted by Beijing.

Mr. Tsang, a civil servant whose career began under British colonial rule, said repeatedly during a visit to Washington last week that he is committed to moving toward “universal suffrage” as soon as possible.

“Everyone in Hong Kong has embraced universal suffrage,” he told The Washington Times in an interview. “We also have a constitutional duty to do it.”

But he offers no timetable and cautions that it will take time before Hong Kong voters will elect their own leader and the entire Legislative Council.

He says that it will not happen before Hong Kong’s “sovereign” is certain that direct elections for all officials will not result in “chaos.”

“We don’t have a mature political-party system,” Mr. Tsang told The Times prior to a speech Thursday at the Asia Society’s annual dinner in Washington.

He said that a package of political reforms his government proposed Oct. 19 would create the conditions necessary to achieve greater democracy.

“I genuinely believe that the package, which is the result of extensive consultations in Hong Kong for nearly a year, is a significant step forward,” Mr. Tsang said.

The D-word

As far as many visitors to Hong Kong — and many of its residents — are concerned, there is nothing wrong with the pace of democratic reform.

The city is visibly well-governed; it has a strong legal system and one of the best anti-corruption regimes in the world.

Many say that democracy is the last thing on people’s minds and that prosperity and stability are the gods everyone seems to pray to.

Unlike in the rest of China, anti-government demonstrations are legal. But large-scale protests have been rare since 1997, when China took control of Hong Kong after a century of British rule.

One exception was a massive protest of more than a half-million — nearly 10 percent of the entire territory’s population — in 2003 against a draconian national-security bill backed by Hong Kong’s government and Beijing.

The legislation, which targeted treason, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government, was withdrawn as a result.

As a rule, however, the push for democratic reform and truly competitive elections is far more low-key. Lately, some political leaders loyal to Beijing, who consistently back the local government, have been joining their opponents in pushing for greater democracy.

Ronny Tong, an independent member of the Legislative Council, who belongs to the so-called “pan-democratic camp, said that more and more people in Hong Kong think that “our system is being twisted around whichever way Beijing wants.”

He referred to “interpretations” of the Basic Law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, such as last year’s opinion that universal suffrage will not take place in 2007 and 2008, as many had hoped.

In another interpretation, Beijing ruled in April that Mr. Tsang, who became leader last summer after his predecessor, Mr. Tung, resigned, will only serve two years.

“The Basic Law clearly says that the chief executive’s term is five years,” said Lee Wing-tat, chairman of the anti-Beijing Democratic Party.

With no heir apparent to Mr. Tung, Beijing chose Mr. Tsang, who was then the city’s second-highest-ranking official.

The two years are widely viewed as a trial period for Mr. Tsang, during which he can earn the Chinese government’s trust before securing a full five-year term.

Mr. Tong, a lawyer and first-term lawmaker, said that China’s interference “doesn’t bode well for the rest of the 50-year period.”

The Basic Law, negotiated by China and Britain under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, guarantees Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy during its first 50 years under Chinese rule.

Beijing characterizes the arrangement as “one country, two systems,” a reference to communism and capitalism.

“Before we know it, it’ll be ‘one country, one system’ in the sense that every provision in the Basic Law will be interpreted in accordance with the civil-law system on the mainland, and not our common-law principles,” Mr. Tong said.

Reform package

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong objected after the release Mr. Tsang’s reform proposals earlier this month because they fell short of most activists’ expectations.

For those disappointed by the ruling out of universal suffrage in the 2007 vote for chief executive and the 2008 legislative elections, the failure of the package to offer any timeline for democratic development was a further frustration.

“There is no reason to support such a proposal, when the system of appointed members still exists and no concrete timetable has been laid down by the government on how to achieve universal suffrage,” said Margaret Ng, another independent pro-democracy lawmaker.

The package proposes increasing the number of seats in the Legislative Council by 10, with half occupied by directly elected members and half chosen by a functional constituency of district councilors. District councilors now choose only one lawmaker.

The government also recommends enlarging the committee that elects the chief executive to 1,600 from the current 800, with most new members coming from the district councils.

About four-fifths of district councilors are directly elected.

“This set of reforms represents a compromise package,” said Christine Loh, executive director of Civic Exchange, a nonpartisan think tank.

“From Beijing’s perspective, if the reforms do not pass the Legislative Council, then the current system remains, which is something it can readily accept,” she said in a report last week.

“From Tsang’s perspective, getting the package through is important for him to show he is a skillful political leader.”

Mr. Tien, whose pro-business Liberal Party had pushed for district councilors to be given more power, said he and his colleagues will support the package.

‘Insult’ to democracy

But many other politicians with different affiliations have either rejected or strongly criticized the package. Some accuse Mr. Tsang of trying to please Beijing more than satisfy the wishes of his people.

“The central government is very clever,” Mr. Tong said. “They have laid out two vital conditions that would basically stifle any democratic development: that the proportion between directly elected legislators and the [functional constituencies] should remain, and the voting system in the legislature should remain the same.”

Another item in the reform package — that no candidate affiliated with a political party can run for chief executive — drew rare criticism from Ma Lik, chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, Mr. Ma said his party, the largest in Hong Kong, will vote for the reforms despite its reservations, but he expressed doubts that the package will be adopted in its current form.

Unlike regular legislation, constitutional reforms of the kind proposed by Mr. Tsang require a two-thirds majority, or 40 votes. At least 25 council members are expected to vote against it.

“The proposal is an insult to all people who want to have democracy as early as possible,” Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said.

“If we support the government, it would be a complete betrayal to our voters.”

Frederick Fung, chairman of the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, said the chief executive “should be elected directly by the people or by electoral college, like in the United States.”

Building the blocks

Mr. Tsang rejected such criticism, saying that it does not reflect the opinions of mainstream Hong Kong citizens.

“I think it’s natural for people to criticize. It’s their job in the Legislative Council,” he said. “But in terms of criticism from the public, hardly any.”

Hong Kong, he said, has not yet “built the blocks” necessary to move toward full democracy, although he is committed to doing so.

Before the city becomes more democratic, it needs to make some fundamental decisions, such as the “design” of its legislature. “What system do we want — the U.S. congressional model or the British parliamentary model?”

In his first policy address on Oct. 12, Mr. Tsang bewildered some lawmakers and analysts by talking about a “strong government,” provoking worries about an authoritarian style.

In his interview with The Times, Mr. Tsang said had not been able to find an exact English translation of the Chinese word he had used initially.

He said he meant to describe “a government that is determined and knows what it’s doing.”

Politicians in the pro-democracy camp have also decried the way Mr. Tsang was hired for the territory’s top job.

A contender must secure the endorsement of at least 100 of the 800 election committee members in order to become an official candidate.

But since most of those members support Beijing, someone who is critical of the Chinese government’s unwillingness to accept full democracy would never qualify, they said.

Mr. Tsang, who announced his candidacy for chief executive on June 3, received support from 674 committee members and, absent other qualifying candidates, was declared the winner on June 16, almost a month before the election was scheduled to take place.

Mr. Tsang, in last week’s interview, said his work for the British administration had not been a problem for Beijing when he was chosen.

He said that Chinese President Hu Jintao, whom Mr. Tsang called “my president,” had asked him “not to change” and to “serve the people of Hong Kong.”

Foreign relations

Mr. Tsang said he chose to make his first official foreign visit to the United States since he was sworn in as chief executive in Beijing on June 24 because he attaches great importance to Hong Kong’s relationship with the superpower.

After a stop in New York for meetings with business leaders, he held talks in Washington with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and congressional leaders from both parties.

While supportive of his commitment to full democracy, the Bush administration made it clear to Mr. Tsang that the pace of reforms could be faster than what he had in mind.

“The goal of universal suffrage could have been achieved for the next round of chief executive and legislative counsel elections in 2007 and 2008,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Mr. Tsang issued a rare criticism for a Hong Kong chief executive of U.S. foreign policy, saying that Hong Kong’s future should be decided without outside pressure.

“Is it succeeding in Iraq yet? I don’t see any effective governance in Iraq. I can see problems in Iraq for a long while. I wish them well. I don’t believe in drafting a model of government [for] a place that doesn’t have the history and the development for it.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide