US-led rebukes of HK election hollow

Soon after the successful holding of the Legislative Council election under revamped rules on Dec 19, a US-led coalition, including the Five Eyes and G7 nations, and the European Union, issued joint statements condemning the elections as in breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, undermining rights and freedoms, restrictive of voters’ choice, and eroding the democratic elements in our legislative elections.

For anyone who understands Hong Kong’s history and knows what has been going on, nothing could be further from the truth. The charges are trumped up against the central government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administration. These statements do not have a leg to stand on if checked against the facts.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration is being used repeatedly against China as evidence of its alleged breach of faith. The fact is, the Joint Declaration is a pair of linked statements by China and the United Kingdom, the former declaring its decision to resume exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, and the latter declaring that it will restore Hong Kong to China with effect from that date. 

The Chinese government made a third statement spelling out its basic policies toward Hong Kong, which are elaborated in Annex I to the Joint Declaration, and later laid out fully in the Basic Law. In Article I of Annex I setting out the SAR’s constitutional arrangements and government structure, there is no reference whatsoever to democratic development as perceived by the West, let alone universal suffrage. The key words are that the Hong Kong SAR “shall be directly under the authority of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China”, and “The government and legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be composed by local inhabitants”. 

Election of the chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR and the entire legislature as “the ultimate aim” is a promise given by Beijing in Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law, but subject to two clear preconditions — “in the light of the actual situation” in Hong Kong and “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress”. 

Clearly, when a pandemic is raging, it is perilous to hold mass-based elections involving millions of voters. Nor would it be easy for voters to make informed, rational choices when they are in the grip of highly fraught, societal convulsions, as in Hong Kong during the 2019 turmoil.

It is shameless of the Five Eyes nations, particularly the United Kingdom, to claim to be the promoter of democratic development in Hong Kong. As well-documented by SOAS scholar Dr Steve Tsang in his monograph Democracy Shelved, during the period 1945-52, Britain passed up the opportunity to increase the democratic element in Hong Kong’s governance after considering various options. In the late 1960s, the British administration again rejected a proposal to introduce “local authorities” with an elective element, owing to strong objections from local British officials who considered that electoral politics did not sit well with the Chinese political tradition.

Britain only started pushing democratic development in Hong Kong, starting with District Council elections, in the early 1980s, when it learned that restoration of Hong Kong to China in 1997 was not negotiable. In the last five years of British rule, then-governor Chris Patten tried to remake Hong Kong in the image of Westminster. The constitutional reform which he implemented despite Beijing’s strong objections created a volatile political environment in Hong Kong after 1997 for which the local administration was ill-prepared.

As for the US, its complaint about the reduction of “meaningful opposition” in the new Legislative Council under our improved system rings hollow given that scores of states in the US had since earlier this year enacted legislation to restrict voters’ rights. More than a 100 democracy scholars across the US had sounded warnings about imminent threats to the integrity of the US’ electoral system, declaring that American democracy had reached “a moment of great peril and risk”.

As China’s white paper on “Hong Kong Democratic Progress under the Framework of One Country, Two Systems” points out, the Basic Law grants extensive democratic rights and freedoms to Hong Kong people. China is committed to democratic development in Hong Kong and had, since 1997, made three attempts to advance democratic progress in Hong Kong. The last attempt, embodied by a decision made by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Aug 31, 2014, to draw up a road map for the election of the chief executive and the legislature by universal suffrage, was vetoed by the self-proclaimed “democratic” camp in the legislature. Many self-styled “democratic” members of the legislature were involved in supporting an unlawful, and occasionally violent, occupation of Hong Kong’s business districts for 79 days starting in September 2014.

Our improved electoral system not only ensures that only “patriots”, meaning those who truly uphold the Basic Law and bear allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR, will fill positions in our legislature, it also allows more broad-based participation by a wide range of representatives from different backgrounds and professions. The new 40-strong Election Committee Constituency enables many talents hitherto unable to take part in electoral democracy for want of a campaign machinery to partake in the legislative process. Many are distinguished leaders from economics and finance, technology, corporate management, the legal profession and education who will greatly expand our LegCo’s talent pool.

The formation of the seventh-term Legislative Council as from Jan 1 marks the dawn of a new era in Hong Kong. Coupled with updated LegCo Rules of Procedure put in place in the past year, the new Legislative Council will be rid of debilitating filibustering and disorder. Many pressing problems, most notably the land and housing shortage and lack of upward mobility for young people, need to be solved. The real litmus test of the improved electoral system is not the voter turnout rate in the Dec 19 election, but the extent to which the new LegCo can work with the government to resolve these problems.

The author is a member of the Executive Council and a lawmaker-elect.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.