Suzanne Pepper

With the referendum now over, all eyes are focusing on the moderate Alliance for Universal Suffrage as the democracy movement’s last best hope. Beijing and the Hong Kong government are naturally eager to convince Alliance members that they should accept the official reform package. The Alliance has responded with a shortlist of demands. In effect, Alliance members want to know if Beijing accepts their definition of ‘universal suffrage.” They also want to know how the official reform package for 2012 can be improved in accordance with their definition.

This demand for definitions is long overdue. But until recently, everyone just assumed that universal suffrage meant the same thing to everyone. In fact, alarm bells should have begun ringing in December 2005 when the government suddenly introduced a package of political reforms that was almost identical to the current 2012 plan. At the heart of the 2005 package was a proposal to create five new Functional Constituency (FC) legislators to be indirectly elected by District Councilors.

Pan-democrats hastily mustered their forces and voted down the package. But they did so without explaining or even considering the long-term implications of the District councils plan. Afterward, everyone forgot about it, only to see the same idea reappear in at the heart of the government’s 2012 proposals. Yet even with decision time fast approaching, the implications of the District Councils plan are still not being discussed. Where did it come from? What are the precedents? Who is promoting it now? Who stands to benefit? And what does it mean for the ultimate goal of universal suffrage?


The immediate origin of the current proposal can be traced to the government’s Green Paper on Constitutional Development issued in July 2007. This paper formally began the present political reform exercise in accordance with the new five-step procedure mandated by Beijing’s Basic Law “Interpretation” of April 2004.

The Green Paper presented three options whereby Legco could achieve the ultimate aim of universal suffrage elections as promised by the Basic Law.

The third option entailed allowing all 30 FC seats to be filled through indirect election by the members of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils. According to the Green Paper, “all Legco seats will then be district-based seats returned through direct or indirect elections” (paragraph 4.14). This third option received no publicity in 2007 and the Green Paper cited only one submission in its Appendix recommending this option.


The 2007 Green Paper seemed to have included the District Councils option only as an afterthought. But of course it was not. Throughout the consultation period for the 2012 reforms, official promoters steadfastly maintained that the government “did not have the authority” to reveal the direction their proposals might take beyond 2012. While they may not have the authority, officials evidently do have a tentative roadmap in mind and it naturally entails the District Councils plan.

Only after the consultation exercise ended, did Executive Councilor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung mention in passing (South China Morning Post, Feb. 19, 2010) that the government was planning to propose expanding the District Councils option for use in replacing the FCs, just as the Green Paper had indicated. During the consultation period, pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) supporters also referred in passing to such a future course if the experiment for five new Legislative Councilors indirectly elected by District Councilors proves successful.


Nor does the lack of transparency end there. Equally important are the omissions when citing precedents to legitimize indirect elections. The Green Paper noted only that in international practice or “overseas jurisdictions,” universal suffrage one-person-one-vote systems “can take the form of direct or indirect election” (paragraph 2.24). At public consultation forums, supporters of the government’s 2012 proposals liked to cite various examples in Europe and the United States where Western democratic systems combine both direct and indirect elections.

When speakers were reminded that Hong Kong is part of China not Europe or the U.S., they had no answer. When asked specifically why they never cited Chinese precedents, both democrats and government supporters also had no answer. In fact, for Hong Kong now, there is only one precedent that matters, namely, China’s People’s Congress system, which is the government structure through which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exercises its leadership.

Article 3 of the Chinese Constitution specifics that the: “National People’s Congress and the local people’s congresses at various levels are constituted through elections.” Articles 59 and 97 spell out the arrangements for these elections. National deputies and those to the people’s congresses of provinces and large cities are all elected indirectly by the congresses at the next lower level; deputies to congresses of counties, small cities, city districts, and townships “are elected directly by their constituencies.”

Article 34 grants all Chinese citizens over the age of 18 the right to vote and to contest these elections.

The Hong Kong public knows and fears the mainland system of CCP-led dictatorship but has little knowledge about these electoral mechanisms and governing institutions through which that dictatorship is exercised nationwide. Even some Alliance members do not know that the small grassroots constituencies at the base of China’s People’s Congress pyramid directly elect local congresses and village committees on a one-person-one-vote basis. That CCP branches and leaders vet candidates and dominate the system from top to bottom is known or at least assumed. That 2.3 million Chinese citizens have been directly elected to over 600,000 village committees since 1988 (China Daily, March 2, 2010) is not known. Nor is its significance appreciated as the precedent for Hong Kong’s new District Councils plan.


Clearly, the DAB with its 12,000+ membership and many district-level satellite groups would be the main beneficiary of the government’s District Councils plan. Recently, some democratic politicians have begun openly referring to the DAB as “the communist party” and they debate among themselves the wisdom of “outing” Hong Kong’s underground CCP branch. But its presence is an open secret as are its presumed leading members who overlap with those of the DAB. The latter is, in any case, modeled on the CCP as a mass-based hierarchical organization that is invariably loyal to Beijing’s policy decisions.

Unfortunately for pan-democrats, they cannot compete with the DAB at the District Council level where democratic strength has always been weakest. Even in the 1980s, when the District Councils were called District Boards, democratic activists found themselves at a disadvantage. Constituencies were not drawn district-wide but broken up into 400 small segments with each board member elected by only a few thousand voters form his/her immediate neighborhood. The boards were also concerned only with neighborhood amenities and a division-of-labor developed: conservatives dominated the District Councils while democrats set their sights higher at the Legislative Council level.

No one seems to have appreciated the political potential of this arrangement until the DAB realized how easily it could be exploited by simply building on the existing traditional street associations, charities, and neighborhood recreational facilities. Today these activities are supported by a dense array of well-funded conservative organizations and full-time paid DAB staffers in every district that under-funded and over-worked democrats cannot hope to match.


It follows that the main question everyone should be asking is: what does Beijing mean by universal suffrage? According to Beijing’s December 2007 decision, 2020 is the earliest date that Hong Kong can have a universal suffrage election for Legco. Everyone agrees that one-country-two-systems is a temporary arrangement designed to ease Hong Kong’s transition to full integration within China’s political system by 2047. In 2020, therefore, Hong Kong will be just about half way “home.”

If the District Councils plan proceeds as the government hopes, half of Legco will then be indirectly elected by District Councilors and Hong Kong will be on course to merge with the mainland People’s Congress system. Hong Kong will also have a form of “universal suffrage,” based like the mainland system today on a foundation of one-person-one-vote at the grassroots level. But if China is still governed under the same one-party system, and if the DAB is still organized in its present form, then the imposition of one-party CCP rule in Hong Kong will also be well on its way to realization by 2020.

If Hong Kong is satisfied with that prospect, then so be it. But if Hong Kong does not want to take such a risk with its future, then answers to all these questions should be provided now, while there is still time to chart another course. Above all, the public should not be led blindly into a system the political implications of which have been explained to only a select few “insiders.” The District Councils plan is actually a “People’s Congress plan” and should be known for what it is.