DHong Kong people returned to the polls in September, in their second election for the Legislative Council since the handover of the former British colony to China in 1997.
The Legislative Council, which was set up via an agreement between Britain and China prior to the hand over, is part of Beijing’s attempt to construct a democratic veneer over what is essentially an authoritarian state.
Beijing TV News announced on the night election results were released, that the election was a sure sign that Hong Kong was moving towards a fully democratic style of government. By portraying Hong Kong as thriving economically and politically after its return to Chinese sovereignty, Beijing hopes to woo Taiwan towards reunification with the motherland.
The legislature’s powerlessness, however, combined with a series of recent scandals, have destroyed any remaining illusions Hong Kongers may have had regarding the competence of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his administration. These realities discouraged the great majority of people from voting in the recent elections.
Only 24 out of 60 seats in the Legislative Council were up for election, the rest being nominated positions. Thirty six seats are reserved automatically for business leaders and other pro-Beijing appointees of the Chief Executive.
Effective power, therefore, resides in the office of the Chief Executive and his cabinet – positions which are not open to election. This effectively means that Hong Kong’s democrats have little real power, beyond questioning government activities in the legislature.
Voter turn out in Hong Kong’s five constituencies dropped from 53.3 per cent in 1998 to just 43.6 per cent.
Clearly disillusioned with the state of Hong Kong’s legislature, which lacks democratic credibility or any real power, people are choosing to abstain from voting.
Mrs Emily Lau, probably Hong Kong’s most popular democratic politician, commented that “Beijing does not trust elected politicians so they design rules to ensure the legislature remains divided. They protect the interests of the very rich and not of ordinary people.”
Another democratic campaigner, Mrs Christine Loh Kung-wai, has announced that she will not stand in elections again. Referring to democracy in Hong Kong as a “dead pool of water” she commented that the “Hong Kong executive sees the legislature as an inconvenience to be overcome rather than as an active partner to build a participatory governance.”
Recent scandals involving the Chief Executive and his administration have also caused disillusionment with the political process in Hong Kong.
In the first case it was revealed that the Chief Executive’s office had been involved in pressuring a prominent academic from concealing his polling research. The polling found widespread disgruntlement with Tung Chee-hwa and his administration of the territory since the 1997 handover.
The second case involved the vice-chairmen of the party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, who was found to have passed on confidential government files to his business associates. The party, founded in 1992, represents the interest of big business leaders and has maintained a strong pro-Beijing line.
While the agreement reached between China and Britain called for the gradual democratisation of Hong Kong, many are now sceptical as to whether this will ever take place.
In the wake of their poor showing at the polls, the party which was once Hong Kong’s foremost critic of the Tung’s administration, the Democratic Party, was thrown into turmoil.
Party chairman Mr Martin Lee Chu-ming, a prominent democratic campaigner since the early 1990s, blamed the people for not turning out to support democrat candidates, for the parties’ poor showing in the polls. He later apologised for this statement.
Democratic Party candidate, Mr Andrew To Kwan-hang, called for Mr Lee’s resignation as party chairman. “When you’re pressing for accountable government … why should our leadership be an exception?” he asked.
Mr To is one of the so-called “Young Turks” within the party, who have called for more radical policies and the replacement of the old leadership with younger people.
In reply, Mr Lee commented that “[e]veryone has to take some responsibility for the huge loss of votes.” The party received 170,000 votes fewer than in 1998.
While the future looks grim for Hong Kong’s democrats, the pro-Beijing parties have done reasonably well. In particular, and despite the recent scandal involving their now former vice-chairmen Gary Cheng Kai-nam, the Democratic Party for the Betterment of Hong Kong, picked up many seats at the expense of the Democratic Party.