Hong Kong's long struggle with Beijing over democracy

2009-11-19 10:36

Hong Kong - Hong Kong on Wednesday released a political reform blueprint for electoral arrangements in 2012 for its legislature and leader that will have a key bearing on the city's progress towards universal suffrage in 2017. After a three-month consultation, a final package will be drafted and voted upon by the city's legislature.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee of a high degree of autonomy, is the most politically liberal city in China. While Beijing has promised to grant universal suffrage in 2017, the city's pro-democracy political opposition remains angry at the slow pace of progress and sceptical about Beijing's intentions.


Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, stipulates universal suffrage is the "ultimate aim", with the territory's spirited push for direct elections having posed a long-term challenge for China's conservative Communist leadership.

In December 2007, however, Beijing bowed to public pressure to lay out a timetable for granting universal suffrage. It pledged direct votes may be held for the Chief Executive in 2017, and Legislative Council in 2020, with two new electoral methods to be settled by 2012. Democrats remain sceptical, however, and fear China may propose its own power-preserving version of direct elections, with electoral rules stacked against pro-democracy candidates.


Public opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of Hong Kong's seven million people want to see universal suffrage realised as soon as possible, preferably by 2012. More than 500 000 people took to the streets in July 2003 in a show of discontent with Beijing and government plans for a security bill to criminalise treason, secession, sedition, subversion and theft of state secrets. Rights groups said the bill threatened basic freedoms and it was shelved. China tightened its grip on the territory in April 2004, ruling out universal suffrage any time soon.


Hong Kong's incumbent leader, Donald Tsang, was selected in 2007 by an 800-person election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists, making it next to impossible for any opposition candidate to win under existing electoral rules.

In 2007, for the first time since the Chinese handover, an opposition candidate, Alan Leong, got on to the ballot sheet but lost in a landslide to the bow-tie wearing Tsang.

Half of the 60 seats on the city's legislative council are directly elected. The rest are voted upon by small, mostly commercial special interest groups called functional constituencies, which have traditionally been dominated by pro-establishment and pro-Beijing forces.


Hong Kong's pro-democracy politicians control over 20 seats in the city's legislature, giving them a crucial one-third veto bloc over constitutional amendments including the political reform blueprint.

The democrats have been increasingly frustrated by Beijing's foot-dragging over democratic reforms and want universal suffrage implemented in 2012, the next available window. Failing this, the city's pro-democracy politicians say the electoral blueprint for 2012 must demonstrate clear democratic progress, along with a renewed pledge that true and fully democratic elections will be held in 2017.

Should this electoral package prove less liberal or far-reaching than hoped, the city's pro-democracy advocates have threatened to resign en masse from the 60-seat legislature.


The people of Hong Kong had no say in the choice of London-appointed governors since the middle of the 19th century when Hong Kong became a British colony. In the dying days of colonial rule, however, last governor Chris Patten pushed for more democratic elections for the city's legislature. In 1995 elections, pro-democracy groups took 70 percent of the vote, but after 1997, the post-colonial government moved rapidly to roll back British reforms.

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