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Why the Hong Kong Election Rules That China’s Legislature Established Are Fake Universal Suffrage

[Editor’s Note: On August 31, 2014, China’s legislature ruled out open nominations for the election for Hong Kong’s top leader. The standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) ruled in Beijing that all candidates for Chief Executive in Hong Kong must receive more than half of the votes from a special nominating committee. Beijing called this plan “universal suffrage” because everyone who does vote has the opportunity to choose the nominating committee’s candidates. However, the 1,200 members on the nominating committee are considered to have close ties with Beijing or were vetted by Beijing. Diane Liu, an independent Chinese writer, explained in an article why China’s election rule is really fake universal suffrage. The following is the translation.] [1]

By definition, direct election is the election of a head of state and of government officials in which the people vote using the form of “one person, one vote.” In contrast, indirect election is a system of two stages. First voters elect delegates. Then the delegates, who act as secondary voters, elect the officials.

America’s Founding Fathers, when establishing the United States Constitution, took into consideration the vast land, the growing number of states and the population, efficiency, and fairness to the smaller states. They devised the Electoral College system, which nominally is direct election for presidential candidates. A popular vote in the form of “one person, one vote” results in their election. When one votes for a presidential candidate in a state, he really votes to instruct the electors in his state to cast their ballots for the candidate who won that state. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a state wins all the votes of the state’s electors.

Argentina, Chile, and some other South American countries have also adopted indirect elections. In the parliamentary cabinet system, the Prime ministers in Japan, India, Israel, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom are also elected indirectly. As a rule of thumb, in countries with large populations and vast land, direct election is not the most feasible choice.

The disadvantage of indirection is that electors (secondary voters) who represent voters are small in number. They are prone to be swayed or coerced by some groups or forces, and may not truly reflect public opinion. Even in democratic countries, this cannot be completely avoided.

The advantage of indirect election is that electors produced by the popular vote are of higher education and of good character, which compensates for a deficiency in knowledge and judgment among grassroots voters. A suitable head of state can then be elected while avoiding the operational difficulties involving a huge number of voters across the country.

If a democracy is robust and the system of political parties is functioning well, electors (secondary voters), under supervision and constraint, have to make responsible decisions. Under these conditions, indirect elections can also serve the purpose of genuinely reflecting public opinion and the voters’ interests.

The advantage of direct elections is that those in power can hardly purchase, coerce, or sway the majority of the voters. However, if voters are not necessarily well educated or have other achievements, then some problems may come up, such as their being misled because of a lack of knowledge or poor judgment.

Now, back to our topic. Which suits Hong Kong better, direct or indirect elections?

If it were not for the special situation of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) autocratic rule, considering the quality of Hongkongers, it really would not matter. Either direct or indirect elections would have been effective.

Yet, since Hong Kong is under the pervasive infiltration, coercion, and enticement of the CCP, the mode of election truly matters.

Even people in democratic countries are concerned about coercion and vote-swaying, yet this way of doing things has been taking place in Hong Kong all along. That is why, with such a high degree of freedom and such a comprehensive rule of law, those who are pro-democracy are in an absolute minority in policy circles. This is also why the people in Hong Kong demand direct election in the form of “one person, one vote.” With this special situation, with 3.5 million voters out of a population of 7.13 million, with high achievements and an awareness of civic duty among these voters, and within such a small area of cosmopolitanism, direct elections have an unparalleled advantage.

Let us take a look at why the decision of the National People’s Congress has ignited anger among Hongkongers and why direct elections are of the utmost importance to Hong Kong.

First of all, the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong government, also known as the head of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region, is elected by a 1,200-member election committee.

The 1,200 members of the election committee are produced from subsectors, with corresponding functional constituencies. These functional constituencies are divided by trade or profession, with complex and detailed rules on the sectors from which these members are drawn.

Society in Hong Kong is divided into 38 subsectors. The division of 1,200 election committee members comes from four broad sectors as follows: 300 from industry, commerce, and finance, 300 from professional fields, 300 from labor, social services, and religious groups, and the other 300 are Legislative Council members, members of district councils, and Hong Kong delegates to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Friends in Hong Kong explained to me that subsectors and their mapping to each Functional Constituency is rather complex and lacks fairness. First of all, it is heavily slanted toward the commercial and business subsectors. It is not hard to see that candidates for the chief executive must first court favor from the commercial and business fields in Hong Kong. Next, it is heavily slanted toward delegates to the NPC and CPPCC, and it leaves the impression that members who are pro-CCP are in the majority.

The fundamental issue still lies elsewhere. It lies in the election of members themselves. The 1,200 members are elected by representatives who are business leaders in each trade or profession. There are 240,000 such business leaders who vote, while there are 3.5 million voters in Hong Kong. In other words, 3.26 million voters (3.5 million minus 240,000) have been deprived their right to vote for these 1,200 members who are on the election committee.

Let me give another example of how chaotic the subsectors are related to membership in the election committee. In the gory details of the division of the individual industries, 60 of the 1,200 members are from the fisheries and agriculture related businesses. Hong Kong has long bid farewell to the days when it was a fishing village. In this modern cosmopolitan territory, there are only 4,000 people engaged in a business related to fishing, yet those in fisheries and agriculture occupy 60 seats on the 1,200-member committee.

In contrast, education, a well developed field that serves today’s modern Hong Kong society, has only 30 seats.

In addition, these fisheries and agriculture members are not elected by the 4,000 Hong Kong residents engaged in fishing or by the farming business. Most of the 60 members are appointed by the previous Hong Kong administration. What is most unfair still lies next, which is the NPC standing committee’s rule of August 31 regarding the nomination of the candidates for chief executive.

Despite the slant in functionary constituencies, there are still 17 percent of the members who are pro democracy. The rule that governed the previous chief executive’s election was that a candidate needed one eighth, or 12.5 percent, of the committee members’ nominations to come before all Hong Kong voters and run for the top office. This percentage still leaves some a slim hope that the people in Hong Kong’s aspiration for democracy and those pro-democracy members on the committee, who are low in number, may get to nominate their candidates.

An op-ed on the Front Line magazine observed, “Playing politics also calls for graciousness. It is well known that the election committee itself was chosen by a small circle [of Hong Kong people]. The majority of these 1,200 members are courting favors from the CCP, as they rely on it economically and politically. It is impossible for them to betray the CCP. The CCP simply needed to raise the percentage of committee members needed for nominating candidates running for chief executive to 15 percent or at most 20 percent. In that way, all pro-democracy candidates would be guaranteed to be blocked. The 20 percent number sounds a lot better, and it is useful in winning over middle-of-the-roaders. However, on August 31, 2014, the National People’s Congress (NPC) increased this percentage to be 50 percent. The only reason that the CCP would make the number as high as 50 percent is that it does not trust the members who court its favor and worries that they could betray the Communist Party, not in isolated cases, but on a large scale.”

We can go over the history of the Hong Kong people’s fight for universal suffrage. Even under Britain’s colonial rule, appeals and protests took place in large numbers in Hong Kong. In 1988, the Hong Kong government conducted a survey regarding direct elections. The results showed that, in 1988, the Hong Kong people predominantly favored direct elections. Under pressure from China, the Hong Kong and British officials engineered the survey results and presented tweaked statistics that, in 1988, the majority of Hong Kong people did not agree to direct elections.

In 1992, Chris Patten announced measures for political reform. One measure was a significant increase in the number of Legislative Council seats that were directly elected. In the 1995 Legislative Council election, the last prior to the 1997 handover, 20 of the total of 60 members were directly elected district or municipal seats. That was the highest number for all Legislative Council elections. There were 30 functional constituency seats and 10 election committee seats. All appointed seats were abolished.

The Chinese government was unhappy about this election reform, and claimed that Patten took advantage of loopholes in the Basic Law. Lu Ping, then director of the Hong Kong and Macau Office of the State Council, openly called Patten a “criminal of a thousand years.”

After the CCP took over in 1997, it manipulated to cancel the “through train,” an arrangement which allowed direct election of Legislative Council members to continue through 1997. It stipulated that these directly elected members would continue to serve through June 30, 1997, but they would be gone by the end of their elected term.

The CCP also increased the power of the executive branch (using what it called Administration Guidance). For example, according to Article 74 of the Basic Law, proposals put forward by the Legislative Council members regarding government policy would first have to gain the approval of administrative officials in writing. Such restrictions were never in place prior to the Hong Kong’s handover.

This type of concentration of power, which results in the “Legislative Council having votes but no power, while the government has power without votes,” is what the Hong Kong people cannot accept. No one knows better than the people of Hong Kong who is “the criminal of a thousand years.”

I would like to end my article by raising a most simple and straightforward question: In Hong Kong, with its tiny area and only 3.5 million voters, the easiest and best way to represent public opinion is to have direct elections. Why then does the CCP refuse to walk down this straight path and instead favor sideways or fake “universal suffrage”?

[1] Secret China, “Why Hong Kong’s Election Rules That China’s Legislature Established Are Fake Universal Suffrage, October 21, 2014.