It is hoped that the European Union High Representative’s criticism of Hong Kong’s revamped electoral system and the just-completed chief executive election is merely a misguided gesture or knee-jerk reaction, rather than an attempt to stoke anti-Beijing sentiment as part of the ongoing geopolitical campaign in the West to beat China and contain its rise.
“The European Union … sees this selection process as yet another step in the dismantling of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” said the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in a statement released immediately after Sunday’s chief executive election was completed.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Beijing is the creator, enforcer and defender of “one country, two systems”. No one has a bigger stake than Beijing in maintaining a stable and prosperous Hong Kong by keeping “one country, two systems” intact, given the special administrative region’s significance to China’s national development. It is beyond logic that a government that has lifted more than 800 million citizens out of poverty and built the world’s second largest economy from the ruins of war could have shot itself in the foot.
The High Representative’s criticism of “weakening the already limited democratic elements in the governance of Hong Kong” was made arbitrarily, oblivious of the fact that democracy has taken a leap forward in Hong Kong since its return to China in July 1997, with the chief executive being elected by a broadly representative Election Committee and the members of Legislative Council, the local legislature, being returned either directly by popular votes from the Geographical Constituencies or indirectly from the Functional Constituencies by representatives from all major sectors and social strata. And universal suffrage for the election of both the chief executive and all legislators would have been realized had the political radicals in the city not thwarted the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s proposed electoral reform package for that purpose in 2015.
In contrast, for a great part of more than 150 years under the British colonial rule, there wasn’t a semblance of democracy in Hong Kong: All of the 28 Hong Kong governors were appointed directly from London, who served not only as head of the executive branch but also head of the legislature, who appointed all members of the legislature. London only found the need to introduce democracy into Hong Kong just a few years before the city’s inevitable return to China in 1997 after its “returning sovereignty in exchange for the right to govern (Hong Kong)” was rejected by Beijing. And the electoral reforms that Chris Patten, the last governor, hastily and recklessly pushed through were merely an attempt to keep the United Kingdom’s political influence in post-handover Hong Kong by grooming a host of local proxies, rather than a move driven by a benevolent desire to give Hong Kong people democracy, which had been absent in over one and a half centuries.
Contrary to the EU High Representative’s claim of “weakening the already limited democracy elements in the governance of Hong Kong” and some Western media outlets and politicians’ similar slanders, the electoral system reforms implemented in Hong Kong have enhanced its democratic elements and quality.
The improvements include expanding the Election Committee, which is responsible for electing the chief executive and a portion of legislators, from 1,200 to 1,500 members and the LegCo from 70 seats to 90. The two bodies have become more representative of Hong Kong society, allowing broader public participation in political processes. At the same time the Election Committee’s composition is also enriched with the addition of representatives of the small- and medium-sized enterprises and grassroots social groups, extending the representative reach of the Election Committee over the whole society while ensuring the fairness of public participation in the sociopolitical decision-making process.
The revamped electoral system has also boosted LegCo’s representativeness by optimizing the composition of its members. LegCo members now are returned by the Election Committee, the functional groups in the Functional Constituencies and direct elections in the Geographical Constituencies, to the ratio of 40:30:20. That allows all social sectors to be represented in a fair and balanced manner. LegCo members elected by the Election Committee are the largest of the three parts to better represent the interests of Hong Kong society as a whole, ensure all social strata, sectors and occupations are fully represented in the governance structure of the HKSAR and truly secure the democratic right of the great majority of Hong Kong residents. It is fair to say the popular will and overall interests of Hong Kong society are better served and protected by the new electoral system.
There is no one-size-fits-all democracy model in the world; and democracies in whatever form around the world are mostly distinctive products created over a long evolution process. It is unreasonable to demand that “full democracy”, the existence of which is questionable, be installed in Hong Kong at one fell swoop.
Hong Kong’s leap in democratic development since the 1997 reunification has brought the city endless political wrangling, social unrest and chaos that have choked socioeconomic development, hindering efforts to tackle its pressing livelihood problems such as the severe housing shortage, the widening wealth gap and slow social upward mobility for the younger generation.
Poor-quality democracy, featuring relentless political bickering as evidenced by a dysfunctional legislature, as well as social upheavals such as “Occupy Central” in 2014, the Mong Kok riots in 2016 and the “black-clad revolution” or rampage violence perpetrated by the black-clad rioters in 2019, definitely was not what “one country, two systems” was intended to achieve. Beijing had to put Hong Kong’s political house in order, lest “one country, two systems” would fail, which is the last thing it wants to see.
The overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system was intended to bring about high-quality democracy in the HKSAR. It should be noted that the goal of achieving universal suffrage for both the chief executive election and Legislative Council election remains unchanged after the electoral system reform. But it will be achieved at a pace that fits the actual conditions of Hong Kong, rather than dictated by the habitual China-bashers.
The author is a current-affairs commentator.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.