How Hong Kong’s version of democracy works
HONG KONGERS head to the polls on September 4th to pick their representatives in what, by China’s standards, is a remarkably democratic institution: the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (Legco). When China took possession of Hong Kong from the British in 1997 it promised the territory a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. In the run-up to these elections, the first since the “umbrella revolution” protests of 2014, local newspapers have been filled with candidates who mistrust those guarantees, and by some who want to renegotiate Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland. Yet it can be taken for granted that a clutch of parties supported by the government in Beijing will continue to dominate Hong Kong’s political system. How does the territory’s democratic process work?
For more than 30 years Hong Kong’s political parties have been split roughly into two camps. On one side are the “pan-democrats”, who argue that only a democratic system can safeguard the civil liberties the territory enjoyed under the British (whom many of the pan-democrats opposed, before the handover). They stand against the “pro-government” or “pro-Beijing” politicians, who regard themselves as patriotic allies of their counterparts in the rest of China. They tend to say that fair elections are less important than smooth relations with the Communist Party in Beijing. The role of Legco is to debate the laws and budgets put forward by the territory’s executive branch. The institution is at least partially democratic. But only 40 of its 70 seats are elected through universal suffrage. The remaining 30 seats belong to so-called “functional constituencies”. Their legislators are chosen by groups representing different classes of professionals, business interests and rural communities. In the term just ending, the pan-democrats held 21 of the 40 seats chosen by popular vote. The functional seats, by contrast, tend to be tilted towards people keen to keep the Communist Party happy: the pro-government parties hold 24 out of 30. The arrangement of functional constituencies and their weighting against the other seats ensures that pro-Beijing parties have held a majority in every Legco since handover.
Since the protests of 2014, which began as a demand for the democratic election of the chief executive, the traditional two-camp distinction has been eroding. A new category has emerged within the pan-democratic side, one that favours greater autonomy. Many of the young activists who led the sit-ins two years ago have turned into politicians. Known as “localists”, this new generation is frustrated with the traditional pan-democrats and infuriated with China’s rulers. Demosisto, a prominent new party, advocates civil disobedience and a referendum to determine Hong Kong’s fate after the 50-year agreement is up. Other parties, such as the Hong Kong National Party, have called for outright independence. This alarms China and so becomes a problem for Hong Kong’s rulers. Despite its relatively moderate stance, Demosisto has been refused a bank account and had its election materials rejected. In July Hong Kong’s electoral-affairs commission required that all prospective candidates for Legco declare that Hong Kong is an “inalienable” part of China. Six who refused, or seemed insincere, were disqualified.
Many Hong Kongers wish their votes would count for something. A growing minority is willing to fight for it. Some of the new parties say they are polling well and could even win seats. Two banned localist candidates are challenging the legality of their exclusion. Despite their split, pan-democrats and localists are plotting together to win enough Legco seats to retain the power to veto government proposals. An electoral majority is beyond their grasp—by design of the system—but the contest is real nonetheless.
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