Background on Hong Kong’s Quest for Democracy
The current prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong came in response to an August decision by the Beijing government to limit voters’ choices in future elections for the autonomous territory’s chief executive. The move effectively ended a 17-year period in which Chinese leaders attempted to retain control of Hong Kong politics while still holding out the promise of eventual universal suffrage.
Democracy activists have also raised concerns about growing encroachments on Hong Kong’s civil liberties, including media freedom. The territory received its worst score in a decade in Freedom House’s most recent Freedom of the Press report. (For more on media freedom developments over the past four years, see the China Media Bulletin.)
The following summary, drawn largely from Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, provides a historical overview of Hong Kong’s incremental and ultimately illusory political reforms under Chinese rule.
Hong Kong Island was ceded in perpetuity to Britain in 1842; adjacent territories were subsequently added, and the last section was leased to Britain in 1898 for a period of 99 years. In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, London agreed to restore the entire colony to China in 1997. In return, Beijing—under its “one country, two systems” formula—pledged to maintain the enclave’s legal, political, and economic autonomy for 50 years.
Under the 1984 agreement, a constitution for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, known as the Basic Law, took effect in 1997. The Basic Law stated that universal suffrage was the “ultimate aim” for Hong Kong, but it initially allowed direct elections for only 18 of 60 seats in the Legislative Council (Legco), and provided for the gradual expansion of elected seats over the subsequent years. After China took control, it temporarily suspended the Legco and installed a provisional legislature that repealed or tightened several civil liberties laws during its 10-month tenure.
Tung Chee-hwa was chosen as Hong Kong’s chief executive by a Beijing-organized election committee in 1997, and his popularity waned as the central government became increasingly involved in Hong Kong’s affairs, raising fears that civic freedoms would be compromised. Officials were forced to withdraw a restrictive antisubversion bill after it sparked mass protests in July 2003.
In 2005, with two years left to serve, the deeply unpopular Tung resigned. He was replaced by career civil servant Donald Tsang, and China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) decided that Tsang would serve out the remainder of Tung’s term before facing election. Tsang won a new term as chief executive in 2007, garnering 82 percent of the votes in the mostly pro-Beijing election committee.
Also in 2007, the NPC ruled that universal suffrage could be adopted as early as 2017 for chief executive elections and 2020 for the Legco, in keeping with the Basic Law’s stated goal of expanding the franchise.
Meanwhile, pro-Beijing parties retained control of the Legco in elections held in 2004 and 2008, though few of their members were elected by popular vote. Instead, most won seats determined by about 200,000 “functional constituency” voters—representatives of various elite business and social sectors, many with close ties to Beijing.
In 2010, amendments to the Basic Law—set to take effect in the 2012 elections—added 10 seats to the Legco, giving it a total of 70 seats. While 30 members would still be elected by the functional constituency voters, 35—up from 30—would be chosen through direct elections in five geographical constituencies. Hong Kong’s 18 district councils would nominate candidates for the remaining 5 Legco seats from among themselves, and the nominees would then face a full popular vote. The Basic Law continued to restrict the Legco’s lawmaking powers, prohibiting legislators from introducing bills that would affect Hong Kong’s public spending, governmental operations, or political structure.
The 2010 reforms also slightly altered the system for electing the chief executive. He would be chosen by a 1,200-member election committee, up from 800 members, but the group would largely retain its existing composition. The functional constituency voters would elect 900 of the committee’s members, and the remaining 300 would consist of Legco members, Hong Kong delegates to China’s NPC, religious representatives, and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body to the NPC. Candidates for chief executive had to be nominated by at least 150 members of the election committee.
In March 2012, the election committee chose Leung Chun-ying, a member of the CPPCC, as the new chief executive. He won 689 of the 1,050 valid votes cast following an usually competitive race against two other candidates—Henry Tang, a high-ranking Hong Kong civil servant who took 285 votes, and Democratic Party leader Albert Ho, who secured 76. Tang was initially Beijing’s preferred candidate, but after his popularity fell due to a series of scandals, the central government switched its backing to Leung. Officials from China’s Liaison Office reportedly lobbied members of the election committee to vote for Leung and castigated media outlets for critical coverage of him. Leung took office in July.
During the Legco elections in September 2012, which drew a high turnout of 53 percent, pro-Beijing parties won 43 seats, though only 17 of those were directly elected. Prodemocracy parties took 27 seats, enabling them to retain a veto on constitutional changes.
Leung faced growing public discontent in 2013 over his close ties to the Chinese government and stalled discussions on political reforms that would allow universal suffrage for future chief executive and Legco elections. He survived an impeachment attempt initiated by prodemocracy members of the Legco.
In September 2013, the director of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong publicly rejected the open nomination of candidates for the next chief executive election in 2017—the clearest indication yet that the central government would not permit major electoral reforms.
Finally, on August 31, 2014, the NPC’s Standing Committee issued its decision regarding reforms for the 2017 chief executive election. Nominations would require a majority vote by a committee selected in the same way as the existing Beijing-friendly election committee, a much higher hurdle than the current nomination threshold of just 150 members of the 1,200-member panel. Only candidates chosen in this way would then be presented for a popular vote, effectively ensuring that viable prodemocracy candidates would never appear on the ballot. The prodemocracy minority in the Legco could still block the reform, but they would then be left with the existing system.
The NPC’s blueprint appeared to slam the door on genuinely democratic elections, setting the stage for the current protests.
Photo Credit: Citobun
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.