Journal of Democracy Volume 9, Number 4, October 1998

Liberal Voices from China


By Martin Lee

On 24 May 1998, in an event with profound implications for China¡¦s 1.2 billion people, Hong Kong voters went to the polls in torrential rains to elect their first Legislative Council (Legco) under Chinese rule. Confounding low expectations (including my own), 53 percent of registered voters cast ballots ¡V surpassing the previous record set in 1995, the last elections under British rule. Under the circumstances, the turnout was astonishing.

The vote came less than one year after the People¡¦s Republic of China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997. During that year, an unelected provisional legislature installed by Beijing had enacted controversial restrictions on civil liberties and, ominously, established legal immunity for Chinese central government organizations, including the New China News Agency (Xinhua), Beijing¡¦s defacto diplomatic and intelligence arm in Hong Kong.

The provisional legislature also devised rules for the May 1998 voting, under which just 20 of the 60 seats would be decided by democratic elections. Even these 20 seats were subject to a new proportional representation formula expressly designed to disadvantage the democrats who had dominated these seats in previous elections. The remaining 40 seats were filled by undemocratic methods: 30 members were elected by ¡§functional constituencies¡¨ (some as small as a few hundred members) representing business and professional groups, and 10 members were chosen by an 800-member Election Committee appointed by Beijing.

Despite this rigged system, prodemocracy candidates won two-thirds of the popular vote, and one-third of the total seats. Put simply, although China does not have democracy, it now has some elected democrats on Chinese soil representing political parties independent of Communist control. Legco contains a coalition of opposition parties and independent members in a body vested with legislative authority in a society based on the rule of law. Legco has 20 democratic lawmakers ¡V 13 members of the Democratic Party plus seven other democrats ¡V all of whom support full democracy for Hong Kong. My colleagues and I have the constitutional right to challenge the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government on its bills, to demand answers from government officials on all aspects of life in Hong Kong, and to approve the budget.

For all these reasons, the 1998 Hong Kong election is arguably among the most significant political developments in communist China¡¦s history. Nevertheless, the road ahead for Hong Kong¡¦s democrats is littered with obstacles. Legco is handicapped by Beijing-imposed constraints. According to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, all the terms of this agreement on Hong Kong¡¦s high degree of autonomy, elected legislature, and independent judiciary were to be codified in a Basic Law. Yet, the Basic Law, enacted on 4 April 1990, exactly 10 months after the Tiananmen Square massacre, is inconsistent in many respects with the Joint Declaration. Whereas the Joint Declaration calls for an elected legislature, the Basic Law spells out a gradual plan which fails to guarantee the more than one-half the legislature will ever be elected. Although the Basic Law states that the ¡§ultimate aim¡¨ is the democratic election of Legco, it adds that such arrangements will be ¡§specified in light of the actual situation¡¨ in Hong Kong and ¡§in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.¡¨ This provision, along with several others, caused even the 1990 Legco, itself an undemocratic product of the British colonial system, to pass a motion calling for the Basic Law¡¦s amendment on the very day it was promulgated in Beijing.

The Basic Law¡¦s detailed provisions for the operation of Legco are also at odds with the guarantee that Hong Kong would be vested with independent legislative power. Under the Basic Law, members of the legislature may not introduce bills that ¡§relate to public expenditure or the political structure or the operation of the government.¡¨ The Beijing-appointed Chief Executive¡¦s written permission is required before bills dealing with government policies may be introduced. Not content with these restrictions, the Chief Executive made a bold effort during the opening days of Legco¡¦s first session to expand executive prerogatives even further, challenging several of Legco¡¦s rules of procedure on the grounds that they violated the Basic Law. These efforts to straitjacket Legco have met with formidable resistance. As of this writing, it is not yet clear whether the executive¡¦s attempts to encroach upon legislature authority will lead to a constitutional showdown in the courts.

As Legco¡¦s democrats seek to guard their prerogatives and work within the limits of the law to advance democracy, they are bolstered by their unassailable mandate from the people to push for democracy. In addition to the election results, public opinion surveys show that voters favor direct election of the entire Legco at the next elections in 2000, as well as the direct election of the Chief Executive when his term expires in 2002. In one of the first Legco sessions, the Democratic Party introduced a motion expressing the chamber¡¦s support for the people¡¦s view; given Legco¡¦s composition, however, the motion failed.

During the debate on this motion, pro-Beijing legislators argued that establishing full democracy in two years would destabilize Hong Kong and divert attention from its economic problems. They also claimed that introducing full democracy earlier than called for in the Basic Law would erode confidence in Hong Kong and drive off foreign investors by calling into question the reliability of the Basic Law. The Secretary for Constitutional Affairs of the SAR government, Michael Suen, argued that his team of lawyers had already begun planning for the next elections in 2000 (when just 24 members of Legco are now scheduled to be directly elected) and that moving to full democracy now would upset his team¡¦s careful preparations for the selection of just four more democratic seats.

The Hong Kong government and the majority of Legco have thus put themselves in opposition to the will of the Hong Kong people, who strongly support moving to full democracy at the next possible opportunity. In any democracy, legislators who enjoy the majority support of the voters not only will form the government, but can plausibly claim that they are acting according to the wishes of the people. They posses legitimacy. In Hong Kong, however, until such time as Legco is democratic and the Chief Executive is elected, the pro-Communist majority of legislators can be expected to pass any law that Beijing wishes them to enact. But the Chief Executive will find it more and more difficult to rule Hong Kong if he keeps on acting against the wishes of the people of Hong Kong.

Of course, the system in Hong Kong is established by China¡¦s central government, which has no desire to see democracy in Hong Kong or anywhere else in China. Mainland Chinese are not allowed to learn about the struggle for democracy inside their own country ¡V whether in Zhejiang or Hong Kong. The Party-controlled People¡¦s Daily and Xinhua News Service reported on the mechanics of the Hong Kong elections but not on the victory of the democrats or their ideas. The activities of my colleagues and myself are not reported on by the mainland media. We are not even allowed to travel there. My travel documents have long expired and their renewal has not been granted. Relatives in Guangzhou tell me that whenever I appear on Hong Kong television programs received in southern China, the screen goes blank and my image is replaced with the TV station logo, a big disk. This form of censorship is colloquially know as ¡§getting the big cake.¡¨ Ironically, when Jiang Zemin said some good things about democracy during his visit to the Untied States in October 1997, he too got the big cake.

China¡¦s ability to maintain strict control over political development and insulate itself from pressures to democratize may soon be tested. China¡¦s economy faces growing challenges as a result of the Asian economic crisis. Its economy is slowing down, and, as with many countries in the region, its impressive growth hides structural weaknesses, bad loans, and potentially devastating unemployment ¡V all against the backdrop of a system institutionally ill-equipped to handle unrest peacefully. Unfortunately, China (along with much of the international community) does not appear to have learned the painful lesson of the Asian economic crisis ¡V that economic success is fleeting where it is not accompanied by democracy and the rule of law. China would do well to consider how it will cope with future strains caused by a deteriorating economic climate.

China¡¦s political development has been characterized by extreme ideological shifts, like a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other. When China¡¦s leaders feel confident about their position, they open up, granting more freedom ¡V even a freer flow of information ¡V in order to encourage economic growth and foreign investment. But this liberalization is always carefully controlled, and any sign of what the regime considers ¡§instability¡¨ can lead to sudden restrictions and severe repression. At such times, the regime clamps down, and limited freedoms evaporate. Sometimes the consequences are quite horrific.

We have seen extreme shifts toward repression every ten years or so. The most recent was in 1989, at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is impossible to tell when such an upheaval might occur again. Certainly the Asian economic crisis has the potential to create tremendous pressure on the leadership, testing its ability to respond calmly and humanely to economic hardship and popular unrest.

That is why the experience of Hong Kong becomes so important. Over the past year, China has gained credit for its handling of Hong Kong. I believe that to some degree this view overlooks the attacks on civil liberties, rigged electoral laws, and other more subtle forms of influence designed to extend China¡¦s control into Hong Kong through various proxies. If, nonetheless, China is to be commended for allowing much of Hong Kong¡¦s way of life to continue, it must also be recognized that Hong Kong has not posed a problem for the central government. Fears of Hong Kong becoming a base of ¡§subversion¡¨ have not materialized.

It is time for the Chinese leadership to realize that Hong Kong ¡V prosperous, stable and free ¡V represents the future of China. Taiwan, likewise, has a lesson to offer China. Just a decade ago, the KMT-led government was a dictatorship, intolerant of dissent and responsible for abusing the human rights of its citizen. In a fairly short period of time, Presidents Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui have led Taiwan¡¦s transformation into a democracy, earning the KMT international prestige and respect, while Taiwan has continued to fare extremely well economically.

China¡¦s Communist party has a choice to make: whether to hang on to an outdated and illegitimate model for political control of its people, or to take the lead in transforming China into a democratic society. As Arthur Waldron wrote in these pages in January 1998, ¡§China¡¦s current system is simply inadequate to the challenges it is creating for itself.¡¨ In China, communism is dead as an ideology. The authority and control of the central government are greatly diminished. But the prospect of a violent crackdown and a return to harsh repression is by no means out of the question.

Hong Kong could serve as a model for the mainland. Just as Beijing created Special Economic Zones in the late 1970s and 1980s to develop economic resources in certain areas by attracting investment and expertise, Beijing could allow Hong Kong (and eventually other jurisdictions) to become the leading edge of China¡¦s political development. In order to do that, Hong Kong¡¦s institutions must be able to respond to the will of the people for greater democracy and accountability, and mainland people must be able to lean about these developments. If Beijing has the wisdom to see Hong Kong as an opportunity rather than a threat, and adjusts its policies accordingly, the government of the People¡¦s Republic of China will have made an enduring and historic contribution to its 1.2 billion citizens.

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