Struggle for universal suffrage in Hong Kong

Political leaders in Hong Kong are struggling to find some workable compromise between pro-democracy groups and pro-Beijing politicians that will allow the Legislative Council to pass a reform Bill on universal suffrage acceptable to Beijing.

Without it, the increasingly frequent protests and demonstrations seen in the territory in recent years will only increase.

Some radicals may even ask for complete autonomy or separation, a development that will certainly be met with stern action from Beijing.

The political scene in Hong Kong has been increasingly chaotic lately. Indeed, protest rallies and marches have become the norm.

Working-class people need basic housing, and the middle class is being squeezed by rising living costs and stagnant incomes. As a result, income gaps have widened and the middle class has become thinner.

Young school and college leavers march to air their grievances in job hunting. Protesters cry for press freedom in support of journalists assaulted by unknown attackers.

And pro-democracy politicians have been exploiting the situation, attributing the chaos to an "unfairly elected chief executive" who does not have a mandate from voters.

In accordance with the Basic Law, the mini-Constitution of Hong Kong, the chief executive is nominated and elected by an election committee which consists of representatives from commercial, professional, social and political sectors.

Pro-democracy activists call this a "small circle election" and demand that it be replaced by universal suffrage.

The radicals ask for "genuine direct election", while the moderates suggest that the committee accept and nominate candidates proposed by the public and political parties.

The pro-democracy camp is also calling for the abolition of the 35 "functional" constituencies in the Legislative Council.

The latter constituencies represent organisations such as the medical council, chambers of commerce, and teachers' unions.

All 70 seats, they argue, should be directly elected.

The subject of universal suffrage is not new. It was discussed in the drafting of the Basic Law.

Under colonial rule, the governor was appointed by the British government and legislators were nominated by the governor. There was no democratic election. But the British pushed for democratisation when they were departing from Hong Kong.

As a result, Beijing agreed, as stated in the Basic Law, that one of the ultimate aims would be "the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures and the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage".

The Standing Committee of the 10th National People's Congress further decided in December 2007 that "appropriate amendments" could be made to the specific method for the election of the chief executive and members of the Legislative Council.

It also states that universal suffrage may be implemented in the election of the chief executive in 2017 subject to the nomination of candidates by a nominating committee.

Universal suffrage could be adopted in the election of the Legislative Council in 2020.

The pan-democratic camp, however, strongly objects to the screening of candidates by the nominating committee.

Since the Basic Law and the central government's subsequent decisions state that universal suffrage is to be held "upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures", a possible solution is to study how to make the committee "broadly representative".

Former Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa was elected by a selection committee comprising 400 members. His successor Donald Tsang was elected by an election committee comprising 800 members.

The number of election committee members was increased to 1,200 for Mr Leung Chun Ying's election.

Despite the stringent interpretation of the Basic Law, Beijing did allow changes to be made in accordance with the need of the actual situation.

As long as the nominating committee can be made as broadly representative as possible, the candidates so selected can then be accepted by voters as a second best option after candidates proposed by the public and political parties.

The election committee also allowed pro-democratic candidates to participate in past elections.

Mr Alan Leong and Mr Albert Ho, both pan-democrats, contested against Mr Donald Tsang in 2007, and Mr Leung Chun Ying in 2012, respectively.

Despite the tough language, Beijing also recognises that it has to give incremental concessions in the process of democratisation.

What will happen if no consensus can be reached? The central government will probably ignore the resulting protests and maintain the status quo without offering any sweeteners.

In such a case, the economy will decline and, should the situation worsen, an exodus of the population may begin.

If that happens, the geopolitics of the region will also be disturbed.

The ripple effects will certainly be felt in Taiwan, an island which has been separated from the mainland for 65 years.

The writer was consul-general of Singapore in Hong Kong, and is currently adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This article was published on April 15 in The Straits Times.

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