OPINION-A Chinese-Style Election in Hong Kong

If the Chinese style of elections is characterized by political compromise and some degree of competition, these features can be seen in the way in which the candidates for the new 1,500-member Election Committee (EC) have been nominated. 

The nomination period of the candidates running for the 1,500-member EC ended on August 12. The Electoral Affairs Commission said that it received 1,016 nomination forms from candidates who would compete for 967 EC seats. Among the 36 electoral sectors in the 1,500-member EC, 13 sectors are witnessing more candidates than positions, while 23 sectors have seen the equal number of candidates and positions. In other words, 13 of a total number of 36 sectors (almost one-third of the sectors) will have electoral competitions. Among the 23 sectors with the equal number of candidates and positions, it is anticipated that 611 candidates would be automatically elected.

According to the March 2021 electoral system redesigned by the central government, the EC membership increased from previously 1,200 to currently 1,500, who come from five sectors: (1) the business, commercial, financial and monetary sector; (2) the professional sector; (3) the grassroots, labor and religious sector; (4) Legislative Council members and representatives of district organizations; and (5) the Hong Kong members of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and Hong Kong representatives of nation-wide organizations. The EC members can be returned from three methods: (1) the ex-officio members; (2) nominations from the eligible groups and organizations in different sectors; and (3) the election of candidates by eligible voters in various sectors. The EC will be a powerful body because it will not only continue to elect the Chief Executive of the HKSAR, but also produce 40 Legislative Councilors and nominate all Legislative Council candidates.

The 13 sectors that envisage competition among candidates are as follows: (1) business sector with 18 candidates competing for 17 positions; (2) monetary service sector with 17 candidates competing for 16 positions; (3) insurance sector with 21 candidates contesting 17 positions; (4) construction, surveying, planning and scenic sector with 17 candidates contesting 15 positions; (5) education sector with 14 candidates struggling for 13 positions; (6) technology and innovation sector with 15 candidates vying for 14 positions; (7) legal sector with 16 candidates contesting 15 positions; (8) medical and health service sector with 24 candidates striving for 14 positions; (9) social welfare sector with 23 candidates grasping 12 positions; (10) Chinese medicine sector with 16 candidates contending 15 positions; (11) labor sector with 72 candidates struggling for 60 positions; (12) Hong Kong and Kowloon Area Committees with 78 candidates striving for 76 positions; and (13) New Territories Area Committee with 82 candidates competing for 80 positions. Obviously, the competition tends to be more prominent in two sectors: (1) the medical and health service sector and (2) the social welfare sector. All these 13 sectors will undergo elections on September 19.

It is reported that, on the last day of the nomination, seven of the thirteen sectors as mentioned above suddenly witnessed more candidates than positions. These seven sectors include law, Chinese medicine, technology and innovation, business, monetary service, Hong Kong and Kowloon Area Committees, and New Territories Area Committees. Some pro-establishment elites told the mass media that, “without the blessing from authorities,” some candidates would not have sought nominations on the last day, implying that the power elites supported some candidates to be nominated on the last day for the sake of increasing the degree of competitiveness in the EC elections. Two candidates (one from Shatin and the other from Sai Kung) got nominations on the last day to compete for the EC positions allocated for the New Territories Area Committees. 

Area Committees have been replacing many District Councils to become influential district-level bodies in local politics. Their members were appointed by the HKSAR government and tend to be pro-establishment. The inclusion of Area Committees into the sectors of the EC in March 2021 was viewed by some critics as “unrepresentative.” Nevertheless, the fact that the Areas Committees sectors in both Hong Kong/Kowloon and the New Territories witnessed more candidates than positions illustrated the response of the power elites, who are eager to create an image of competitiveness in these sectors. Objectively speaking, many critics have ignored the socio-political significance of the Areas Committees and Fight Crime Committees, which have traditionally been important for the community leaders and activists to assist the government in local governance since the colonial era in the 1980s.

In the legal sector, a candidate named Bai Tao from a law firm doing business in both Hong Kong and the mainland submitted his nomination form on the last day of the nomination, showing that the power elites hoped to inject an ingredient of competition to some sectors of the EC.

In response to the criticism from critics that the EC election would have a relatively “narrow” base of voters, the pro-Beijing media in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) argued that the votes from the related groups and organizations are even “more representative” (Wen Wei Po, August 13, 2021, p. A2). An argument against “unrepresentativeness” is that many groups, such as the commercial and business ones, can represent several thousand members. Another argument for the EC election is that some sectors, such as the food and catering sector, include many organizations (like restaurants in food and catering sector) with different sizes, and therefore group votes are “more representative” and “appropriate” than individual votes. In mainland Chinese elections, groups and organizations are usually more important than individual votes. As such, the Hong Kong EC election is exhibiting more mainland electoral characteristics than ever before.

One interesting hallmark of the candidates running for EC election is that the older generation of business elites stepped down from electoral politics. Prominent businesspeople like Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-kee, Henry Cheng Kar-shun and Lui Che-woo did not participate in the nomination process. They have been replaced by their younger sons and daughters – a sign of gradual generational change in the politics of nomination and election of the EC.

Another interesting phenomenon of the EC nomination is that in some sectors, candidates would face the experience of drawing lots among themselves to decide who would be “elected” to the EC: accounting, Chinese medicine, technology and innovation (New Territories), religion, and the sector of the Hong Kong groups in the mainland. 

The religious sector saw considerable competition: the 60 positions see more candidates, including 40 nominees, running for 10 positions allocated for the Catholic Church. Other religious groups also witnessed competition, including the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Taoist Federation of Associations, the Confucius Academy, the Hong Kong Buddhist Federation of Associations, and the Hong Kong Christian Council each of which has more candidates than the 10 positions allocated to every organization. The groups concerning the Hong Kong people in the mainland envisage more candidates competing for 27 positions – a new phenomenon in the electoral politics of the EC.

In terms of party politics, the pro-Beijing political parties can be regarded as the most active stakeholders. It is reported that the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) has a total number of 110 candidates, the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) has 72 candidates, the Business and Professionals Alliance 18 candidates, the Liberal Party 15 candidates, and the New People Party 15 candidates. 

The Candidates Eligibility Review Committee chaired by Chief Secretary John Lee will hold its meeting soon to decide the eligibility of the candidates. It will announce on August 26 the results of the screening process. Lee said on August 13 that the progress of assessing the eligibility of candidates was satisfactory and that the committee would see whether the candidates sincerely support the Basic Law and whether they are loyal to the HKSAR. The criteria of discussing the candidates’ eligibility include their remarks, action, essays and writings comprehensively. 

The EC will be an important body selecting 40 out of 90 Legislative Council members by the end of 2021. It will also select the new Chief Executive on March 27, 2022. As such, the members of the EC will constitute the most powerful political elites in Hong Kong politics. Its work will ensure that the “patriots” will govern the HKSAR far more effectively than ever before.

In conclusion, the politics of nominating the candidates running for the positions of the 1,500-member Election Committee has opened a new page in the political history of Hong Kong. While political discussions and compromise among some candidates were natural, some degree of electoral competition can be seen. As such, the twin features of political compromise and pluralistic contests are illustrative of the dynamics of selecting the members of the Election Committee in the HKSAR.