Mrs. Anson Chan, who had been the head of Hong Kong's civil
service both before and after the handover to China, was elected to
the Legislative Council on December 3, defeating her pro-Beijing
opponent by 12 percentage points. Her election likely will give new
energy to the movement for greater democracy and universal suffrage
in Hong Kong, but the obstacles imposed by Beijing remain many and
daunting. The United States should continue to
support the democratic forces within Hong Kong society.
Meaning of the Election
The 67-year-old Mrs. Chan, born in Shanghai and educated in Hong
Kong and at Tufts University, worked her way up through the
colonial service during the period of British rule and stayed on as
the head of Hong Kong's civil service after it became a Special
Administrative Region (SAR) of China. Called "Hong Kong's
Conscience," Mrs. Chan left office after disagreements with the
Beijing-appointed Chief Executive.
Her election, seven years after leaving government, was
significant for the democracy movement in several ways. The
candidate she defeated, Regina Ip, was best known for proposing a
highly draconian anti-sedition law while SAR attorney general.
Also, Mrs. Chan will occupy a seat that had been held previously by
Ma Lik, a politician who denied that massacres had taken place at
Tien An Men, and had insisted that universal suffrage should not
come to Hong Kong any earlier than 2020--if then.
Mrs. Chan made her views clear in her victory statement:
The election has come to an end today. But the fight for
universal suffrage in 2012 has come to a new beginning. The result
of this election indicates that Hong Kong people are anxious to
push forward on democracy. We think we're ready to implement
universal suffrage in 2012.
The Democracy Movement
The movement for universal suffrage goes back even before the
return of Hong Kong to China. Today, democracy advocates want a
greater voice for all adult SAR residents in the selection of Hong
Kong's Chief Executive and through direct election of the
The "Basic Law"--the Chinese-granted equivalent of a
constitution--provides for "gradual and orderly" progress toward
that goal, but specifies neither timetable nor methodology. At the
time of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong citizens saw 2007 as the year
for democratic elections. But that was ruled out in April 2004 by
the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, which
functions as the Basic Law's final interpreter. Mrs. Chan and other
democracy advocates now have their sights set on 2012.
It will be a tough go. After announcing that direct elections
will not take place in 2007, the National People's Congress
reserved to itself the right to decide "if there is a need" for any
amendment of the voting system for the Chief Executive or the
Legislative Council. Currently, the Chief Executive is chosen by a
special committee of 800 members hand-picked by Beijing; the
majority of members in the Legislative Council are not directly
elected. In defending the April 2004 NPC Standing Committee
decision, one of its members said that inasmuch as political power
was returned to the people by China's assumption of sovereignty on
July 1, 1997, there was no need for further electoral reform of any
Hong Kong's democracy advocates, including Mrs. Chan, are
actually rather moderate in their proposals. They recognize that
the Chief Executive will have to be someone acceptable to
Beijing--someone in whom the PRC leadership has confidence that the
fragile "one country, two systems" arrangement will not be shaken.
However, advocates also want the Hong Kong public to have an actual
choice between candidates. Accordingly, the democratic caucus in
the present Legislative Council has proposed that by 2012, the
800-member special committee be increased by 400 members who are
elected directly by the public. Rather than serving as an electoral
college, the new 1,200-member council would select candidates to be
put before the public.
Half the 60 seats in the current Legislative Council (usually
called "Legco" in Hong Kong) are filled with members from
"functional constituencies" (teachers, small businessmen, corporate
executives, tradesmen, etc.). Each forms a constituency and elects
a representative. The process looks democratic on the surface, but
most of these constituencies are small and easily manipulated. The
functional constituency model was developed by Mussolini in the
early 1920s as a way to dominate the Italian parliament. It was
transferred to Hong Kong by the British as a way of keeping the
public divided, and now serves the same purpose for Beijing.
The democratic caucus has proposed a mixed election system for
Legco in 2012. Half of the 60 seats would be filled by persons
directly elected from geographic constituencies. The other half
would be chosen by proportional representation with Hong Kong as a
single constituency. Under this system, each voter would cast two
Other Governance Issues
Important as they are to Hong Kong's future, the questions of
democratic reform and universal suffrage are hardly the only
problems facing Mrs. Chan and her colleagues. The once pure air of
Hong Kong is now horribly polluted by emissions from Pearl River
delta factories in China as well as from the SAR's own coal-burning
power plants. In 2006, air pollutant concentrations were 200
percent above World Health Organization guidelines. On December 7,
2007, the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department recommended
that, in view of the air pollution index readings, "people with
heart or respiratory illnesses should reduce physical exertion and
outdoor activities, and avoid prolonged stay in roads and streets
with heavy traffic."
Although its GDP per capita ranks sixth in the world, Hong Kong
has substantial pockets of poverty. According to World Bank
figures, Hong Kong's 2001 gini coefficient (which measures
distribution of wealth within a country--the closer to zero the
more equitable the distribution) was 0.525, making it 18th from the
bottom of the 132 countries listed. By contrast, Taiwan's gini
coefficient that year was 0.326, and the United States' was 0.408.
According to the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, median
monthly household income actually declined slightly in the ten
years after the handover to China.
Dealing with the SAR's health, economic, and social problems
will be difficult enough. Attempting to bring about democratic
reform together with free and fair elections will be an even
greater challenge. Just as they have attacked the pro-democracy
group within the Legislative Council in the past, the pro-Beijing
group (in and out of Hong Kong government) should be expected to
turn their fire on Mrs. Chan. In fact, the attacks began on the
very day she took her seat. But she, perhaps more than anyone else
in the SAR, knows government inside and out and has the skills and
courage to move Hong Kong on the path toward democracy.
In 1992, the United States enacted the Hong Kong Policy Act,
which essentially treats the SAR as an entity separate from China
for key areas of U.S. law, including immigration, customs, export
controls, trade, and air services. The United States should
continue to insist on the path toward an autonomous Hong Kong,
governed by the rule of law and having universal suffrage and
greater democracy, as provided in the Basic Law itself. Through its
Consul General in Hong Kong, as well as through Congressional and
Executive actions, America should support the democratic forces
within Hong Kong society.
Feldman is Distinguished Fellow in China Policy for the
Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
disclosure: Mrs. Chan is a member of the Advisory Council of The
Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.
Professor Xiao Xiarong, quoted in "Universal
Suffrage in 2007 Flouts Basic Law," South China Morning
Post, January 17, 2004.
"Gap between HK's rich and poor widening," South China Morning
Post, June 18, 2007.