Putting Democratization Back on Track in Hong Kong

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Putting Democratization Back on Track in Hong Kong

May 15, 1998 13 min read
Stephen Yates
Senior Associate Fellow in African Affairs

On May 24, the people of Hong Kong will vote in an historic election. They will select representatives to a new Legislative Council for the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong. Not only will this be the first election in Hong Kong since China regained sovereignty over the former British colony last July, but it also will be the first legislative election in the history of the People's Republic of China in which even a fraction of legislators is directly elected by the people.

The election itself, then, is a step forward in putting democratization in Hong Kong back on track, a process that was halted abruptly when Beijing imposed an unelected provisional legislature on Hong Kong.

Democracy in Hong Kong is important to the United States for several reasons:

  • First, if democracy withers on the vine in Hong Kong, then hope for the spread of greater political freedom and democracy throughout the rest of the People's Republic is lost.

  • Second, Hong Kong's progress toward democracy is a measure of Beijing's commitment to live up to pledges made in international agreements. Beijing committed to continuing Hong Kong's transition to democracy in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

  • Third, the more democracy progresses in Hong Kong, the easier it will be for the United States to sustain and improve U.S.-China cooperation in addressing economic and security concerns--ranging from legal protection of property to counternarcotics efforts.

For U.S. policymakers, the election will serve as a measure by which they can evaluate the health of democracy in Hong Kong, the nature of Hong Kong's relationship with Beijing, and China's respect for its obligations under international agreements. After the election, the United States should continue to press the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong to uphold their legal and stated commitments to democratization, and hold them accountable for real progress.

To protect the important American interests at stake in Hong Kong, and to promote the expansion of democracy and preservation of freedom, the United States should:

  • Hold China to the promises it made to the people of Hong Kong in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration;

  • Meet with the elected Legislative Council members and other democracy advocates while on official travel to Hong Kong; and

  • Speak out on the importance of freedom, in all its forms, to global peace and prosperity.

The Transition to Democracy

Until 1985, members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) received executive appointment. They served as an advisory body for the colonial governor and had no power to introduce legislation or overturn acts of the executive. The British began implementing Hong Kong's transition to democracy after signing the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which outlined the terms by which Britain would cede sovereignty over Hong Kong to China.

The British colonial government began by gradually introducing democratic reforms into Hong Kong's legislature. Whereas the governor of Hong Kong used to appoint representatives to LegCo from different occupational sectors (such as medicine, law, and business), beginning in 1985 these representatives were elected by professionals from these "functional" constituencies. It was not until 1991 that any part of the legislature was elected directly through geographically defined

The transition to democracy was gradual and limited. London and Beijing agreed in the 1984 Joint Declaration that the legislature of the Hong Kong SAR would be constituted by elections. In addition, Beijing stated in Article 68 of the 1990 Basic Law (Hong Kong's quasi-constitution) that its "ultimate aim is the election of all members of the Legislative Council (LegCo) by universal suffrage." Article 45 of the Basic Law similarly states that "the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage."

Despite this lofty objective, however, the process outlined in the Basic Law merely stipulated phasing out--by the year 2007--the ten legislative seats that were elected indirectly through an election committee, leaving half of the legislature indirectly elected through functional constituencies, and included no plan for the direct popular election of the very powerful chief executive.1

This limited transition to democracy was progressing, on track and free of controversy, until the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, which raised serious concerns about Beijing's tolerance for the basic liberties that the people of Hong Kong took for granted. Many wondered who would protect civil liberties and represent popular interests after the 1997 handover, when Hong Kong would be governed by an appointed chief executive and an indirectly elected legislature.

Governor Patten's Reforms

Governor Chris Patten was the first Hong Kong governor to begin his tour of duty after the fallout from the 1989 turmoil, and the last governor of Hong Kong before the handover. Governor Patten's predecessors struck several unpublished gentleman's agreements with Beijing, in which they committed to going slow on democratization in exchange for assurances from Beijing that the modest democratic gains in Hong Kong would not be lost after the change of sovereignty. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, however, Patten was sent to Hong Kong with a mandate from London, as well as from the Hong Kong people, to accelerate the democratization process.

In June 1994, following 17 rounds of unsuccessful talks between Britain and China, and despite Beijing's strong objections, the Legislative Council approved Governor Patten's proposals to lower the voting age, open all LegCo seats to election, and increase significantly the number of voters selecting LegCo seats through indirect elections. But Beijing considered Hong Kong's new election law to be inconsistent with the 1990 Basic Law, and vowed to disband the council on July 1, 1997.

The Provisional Legislature's Revised Election Procedures

True to its word, Beijing replaced the Legislative Council that was elected democratically in 1995 with an appointed provisional legislature that would sit until elections could be held for the new LegCo in 1998. This placed Hong Kong's democratic transition in limbo for an entire year.

The concerns surrounding the upcoming election have roots in the questionable legitimacy of the provisional legislature and the nature of the changes it made in Hong Kong's election law. Since the provisional legislature was not constituted by elections and was not even mentioned in the Basic Law, it has remained in a shroud of controversy since its inception. Adding to this controversy, the newly appointed chief executive, C. H. Tung, gave the unelected body the authority to enact revised electoral procedures in order to undo the "damage" caused by Patten's reforms and allegedly to restore Hong Kong to the "gradual and orderly" democratization process outlined in the Basic Law.

The provisional legislature passed its revised election law on September 28, 1997, and set the date for the upcoming elections. Critics charge that the new election guidelines limit the democratic franchise in Hong Kong and are deliberately aimed at restricting the number of democracy advocates in the legislature. To evaluate the basis for these charges, a basic knowledge of the changes made in the election law is needed.

First, the 1998 Legislative Council is to be created by the direct election of 20 geographic seats and by the indirect election of 30 functional and 10 election committee seats. By 2004, the SAR government plans to increase the number of directly elected seats and phase out all of the election committee seats, leaving half of the legislature elected by geographic constituencies and half by functional constituencies. Although the distribution of constituency seats in the new LegCo will be the same as it was in 1995, significant changes were made in voting procedures.

The provisional legislature changed the number of voters who are allowed to elect representatives from the functional constituencies and the election committee. In the end, only one-third of the new LegCo will be elected directly by the full voting population of 2.8 million; the remaining two-thirds of the legislature will be elected indirectly by a mere 140,000 voters who are eligible to cast a second ballot--over a million fewer than under the previous election law, and only 5 percent of the total number of eligible voters. In 1995, half of Hong Kong's electorate were eligible to cast a second ballot for a functional constituency or election committee representative.

Because of these changes, election watchers around the world are interested in two aspects of the election on May 24: voter turnout and the final party line results. Voter turnout could be depressed by the fact that only 5 percent of voters have a say in who will fill two-thirds of the seats in the legislature. The new procedures may produce a legislature that includes many fewer advocates of democratization than the 1995 legislature held.

The three constituencies, and how they are determined, are as follows:

  1. Geographic Constituencies
    In 1995, Hong Kong was divided into 20 geographic voting districts, each returning a single representative to the legislature. Every registered voter was eligible to cast a vote in his geographic constituency, and the candidate receiving the most votes won the seat. In 1998, every registered voter remains eligible to cast a ballot in his geographic constituency, but Hong Kong will be divided into five geographic voting districts instead of 20, and the seats within each district will be distributed to candidates on party lists according to the proportion of the vote each party receives. Advocates of this form of proportional representation claim that this system will return a legislature that reflects the preferences of the electorate more accurately. But it is unclear how this system can possibly fulfill a promised equitable distribution of seats, because two-thirds of the legislature will have been elected indirectly by the other constituency groups.

  2. Functional Constituencies
    In 1995, more than 1.1 million (out of 2.6 million) eligible voters cast a second ballot (in addition to their geographic constituency) to elect a representative in their functional constituency. This was an improvement over 1991, when only 69,000 voters were eligible to vote for functional constituency representatives. Since half of the legislature's 60 seats were allotted to functional constituencies, Governor Patten sought to make LegCo more representative of the voting population by vastly expanding the number of eligible voters in these constituencies. The current guidelines, however, return to the exclusive nature of the functional constituency franchise, with only 139,000 voters eligible to cast a second ballot in 1998.

  3. Election Committee
    In 1995, 283 directly elected local government officials representing their constituents voted to fill the ten election committee seats. In 1998, a complex procedure was put in place to select an 800-member election committee which would in turn elect the ten election committee seats. In 1995, every registered Hong Kong voter was eligible to vote for the local officials who would represent them on the election committee. In 1998, however, only a small subsection of the electorate was eligible to participate in the selection of the election committee several weeks ahead of the general election. The complexity of the new procedures and their similarity to the functional constituency procedures confused many of the 23 percent of eligible voters who participated in the selection of the election committee in April 1998.

The New Legislative Council

Under Hong Kong's executive-led political structure, the legislature and administration are not coequal branches of government. The Legislative Council is charged with enacting laws, controlling public expenditures, and monitoring the performance of the government by forwarding questions on matters of public interest. But these powers are limited by Article 74 of the 1990 Basic Law, which prohibits LegCo from introducing bills that involve "public expenditure or political structure or the operation of the government." Legislators can introduce other bills only with the consent of the chief executive. These powers were granted to the legislature only recently.

Although few predictions can be made about how the new council will work to achieve democratic reforms, observers are somewhat wary because the council will have been elected under a law that was revised by the new SAR government and passed by the unelected provisional legislature. The controversy surrounding the provisional legislature and the new election law has its origins in the standoff between Beijing and London over the pace of democratization in the former British colony before the transfer of sovereignty to China. The fruit of this standoff--the new election law--complicates an already complex election process and may produce a LegCo that is less representative of the Hong Kong people than the council elected under British rule in 1995.

Most analysts expect the upcoming election to be carried out in strict accordance with the law, but many in Hong Kong and abroad charge that the revised election procedures passed into law by the provisional legislature are flawed. They suggest that the procedures themselves may threaten Hong Kong's path to democracy.

Implications for Hong Kong and the U.S.

The Democratic Party of Hong Kong has expressed concern that these electoral changes will result in a Legislative Council that is dominated by commercial interests. Since commercial interests in Hong Kong depend on access to China's market, some fear that important rights and freedoms in Hong Kong might be compromised in order to placate Beijing.

The leader of the Democratic Party, Martin Lee, has charged that the procedural changes are aimed at limiting the representation of pro-democracy forces in the legislature. If the Democrats receive the same proportion of the popular vote as they received in 1995 and end up holding many fewer seats, the outcome will appear to support their claim. However, if they again receive the same proportion of the popular vote and the number of seats they end up holding remains similar to the number they held in 1995, their criticism will lose its credibility.

For example, although some polls project that the Democrats and their allies will receive just under half of the popular vote, they are expected to secure only 15 to 20 seats, or only one-quarter to one-third of the legislature. In 1995, they received a similar proportion of the popular vote and won 25 seats--nearly half of the legislature.

In addition to concerns over the progress of democratization, the United States has other important interests at stake in Hong Kong. First among them is protecting the rights and property of the now more than 50,000 U.S. citizens and 1,200 American companies currently in Hong Kong. The United States also seeks the continued cooperation of the Hong Kong government in the fight against illegal drugs, illegal immigration, commercial piracy, and money laundering. But perhaps more relevant to the upcoming election, it has an interest in holding Beijing to its commitments made in the Joint Declaration.

How Beijing honors its international agreements and continues democratization in Hong Kong is a key indicator of what kind of global power China will become in the future. Beijing's role in the establishment of the provisional legislature, which passed the revised election procedures, was not reassuring to those who want Beijing to hold to agreements to respect Hong Kong's autonomy and allow for democratic progress.

To protect and promote U.S. interests in Hong Kong, and to promote the expansion of democracy and freedom, policymakers from the United States should:

  • Hold China to the promises it made to the people of Hong Kong in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. China promised to allow the people of Hong Kong to rule the SAR with a high degree of autonomy in all areas except defense and foreign affairs. Such autonomy is critical not only to the preservation of democracy and economic freedom in Hong Kong, but also to the promotion of U.S. interests in fighting drug trafficking, money laundering, the smuggling of aliens, and commercial piracy.

  • Meet with elected Legislative Council members and other democracy advocates while on official travel to Hong Kong. U.S. leaders would add credibility to their claims of concern for democracy and reinforce Hong Kong's momentum toward democracy by meeting with pro-democracy advocates.

  • Speak out on the importance of freedom, in all its forms, to global peace and prosperity. Economic, political, and social freedoms are necessary for societies to be competitive and secure in this modern era. Freedom of the press, assembly, and enterprise are as conducive to entrepreneurship as they are to human rights. U.S. leaders should emphasize that Hong Kong-style economic freedom and rule of law, rather than state planning or crony capitalism, are keys to prosperity and stability. This message should be conveyed in Hong Kong, in China, and throughout Asia.


While many aspects of the new election procedures raise concerns about Hong Kong's path toward full democracy with universal suffrage, the election is only one part--albeit an important part--of Hong Kong's transition. After May 24, Martin Lee and the Democratic Party will take their seats in a legislature dominated by pro-business interests that is also part of a government dominated by a strong executive.

On the surface, such a legislature is not very different from the one that existed just before the handover. Yet the situation today is vastly different. Hong Kong is now a part of the People's Republic of China. And although the momentum in Hong Kong's march toward democratization was halted when a provisional legislature was imposed, the May election will be an important first step toward regaining that momentum in the future.

Much work lies ahead for Hong Kong's leaders to guide the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong toward a free, prosperous, and secure future, and the people of Hong Kong will be better served by the return of limited democracy in the May 24 elections.

Stephen J. Yates is a former China Policy Analyst for the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Voters will cast either one or two ballots on May 24. Each registered voter will cast one ballot for geographic constituency representatives, but a small minority will be eligible to cast a second ballot for either a functional constituency or an election committee representative. The 1998 Legislative Council will have 30 functional constituency seats, 20 geographic constituency seats, and 10 election committee seats. By 2004, the election committee should be dissolved; LegCo then would have 30 functional and 30 geographic constituency seats.


Stephen Yates

Senior Associate Fellow in African Affairs