Judging from the draft decision of the National People’s Congress (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Hong Kong’s electoral system, as presented by NPC deputy director Wang Chen on March 5, together with Hong Kong-based reports on the new composition of Legislative Council (LegCo), the central authorities are determined to redesign an executive-led political system led by the patriotic elites governing the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).
The draft decision has several characteristics. First, it delineates the line of thinking on the “perfection” of Hong Kong’s electoral system, including the improvement of the existing Election Committee and its composition. Second, the Election Committee will continue to select the Chief Executive of the HKSAR. Third, the powers of the Election Committee (EC) will be expanded by being empowered to select “a larger proportion of LegCo members,” implying that the number of legislators to be returned from the EC will likely be larger than any other existing sectors, including functional constituencies and geographical constituencies in the LegCo. Third, the EC will directly nominate all LegCo members. Fourth, the EC is expected to play a crucial role in expanding the “balanced” participation and “comprehensive representation.” Fifth, the EC will be able to screen LegCo candidates.
In short, by empowering a newly reformed EC, the central government will achieve its objectives of enhancing the executive-led political system in the HKSAR and allowing more patriotic elites to enter the LegCo, screen LegCo candidates, and playing a politically preponderant role to stabilize the internal operations of the Hong Kong legislature.
The draft decision lays down five principles of the electoral reforms: accurately implement the tenet of “one country, two systems” and “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong;” maintaining and protecting national sovereignty, security and developmental interests; governing Hong Kong in accordance with the law; making the electoral system suitable for Hong Kong circumstances; and elevating the governing capacity of the HKSAR. These five principles will be crucial in the implementation of “patriotic people ruling Hong Kong.”
The draft decision will be implemented by amending the existing appendices 1 and 2 of the Hong Kong Basic Law. This amendment will be the first step to “perfect” the electoral system of the HKSAR. The second step will be composed of two elements: the NPC Standing Committee will have concrete stipulations on the “new democratic electoral system” of the HKSAR; and the HKSAR will amend the local ordinances related to the implementation of the amended appendices 1 and 2 of the Basic Law.
The overall thrust of the NPC’s draft decision to redesign the Hong Kong electoral system aims at, as Premier Li Keqiang pointed out in his speech delivered in his government work report, “resolutely preventing and curbing foreign forces to intervene” in Hong Kong affairs. Li Zhanshu, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, remarked on March 5 that the draft decision is in conformity with the PRC constitution and the Hong Kong Basic Law, and that the amendment and redesigned electoral system “must obtain the support of the citizens of the entire nation, including the Hong Kong and Macau comrades.”
In response to the initiatives made by the NPC to redesign and reform Hong Kong’s electoral system, the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on March 5 that the HKSAR government will amend the local legislation in accordance with the changes in the electoral system, that the idea of patriots governing Hong Kong is natural, that the central government in the past two years helped Hong Kong solve many imminent issues, and that she will lead the government and her governing batch to “implement without fear the vision of protecting the nation’s basic interests and Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”
There were two Hong Kong-based reports on the new composition of the LegCo. According to TVB news, the new 90-member LegCo will be composed of three sectors: 30 members (33.3 percent) from geographical constituencies; 30 members (33.3 percent) from functional constituencies; and 30 members (33.3 percent) from the new Election Committee. However, HK01 reported that the new 90-member LegCo will have 20 members (22.2 percent) elected from geographical constituencies; 30 members (33.3 percent) from functional constituencies; and 40 members (44.4 percent) from the Election Committee. If the draft decision says that the Election Committee will return a “larger proportion” of LegCo members, it looks as if the new composition as reported by HK01 will likely be more accurate.
According to the Hong Kong Apple Daily on March 6, the two possible composition of LegCo as mentioned in TVB news and HK01 will produce a legislature with a smaller proportion of directly elected members in comparison with the current composition of Macau’s Legislative Council. At present, the Macau Legislative Council has 33 members in which 14 of them are directly elected (42.4 percent), 12 of them returned from functional groups (36.4 percent), and 7 appointed by the Chief Executive (21.2 percent).
In other words, if the Hong Kong LegCo will have 90 members in which 40 of them will be returned from the new Election Committee, 20 returned from direct elections, and 30 from functional groups, this set-up will likely be more politically “conservative” than the current Macau legislature.
Furthermore, the election method of legislators to be returned from geographical constituencies in the HKSAR may be changed from the current proportional representation system to “double seats single vote,” meaning that the democrats will find it relatively difficult to grasp more than 10 seats in the 20 directly elected seats, given the approximately 55 percent share of votes by the democrats versus the almost 45 percent share of votes by the pro-government and pro-Beijing forces.
Most importantly, the new Election Committee, according to Hong Kong news reports, will be composed of women federation, overseas Chinese federation, the Hong Kong association of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and other pro-Beijing social interest groups. As such, it can be anticipated that the Election Committee will be composed of almost all patriotic elites, who will be empowered considerably to ensure that the LegCo will be occupied by the patriots.
The most important political significance of the NPC’s redesign of Hong Kong’s legislature is that the central authorities are determined to stop all those localists and radicals from entering the LegCo through direct elections. The October 2016 oath-taking saga in the Hong Kong LegCo was politically unacceptable to the central government, leading to the interpretation of the Basic Law’s Article 104 that requires legislators-elect to take the oath faithfully and respectfully. The 2019 anti-extradition movement, according to Wang Chen in his speech on March 5, was also politically unacceptable, for “foreign forces” intervened in Hong Kong affairs and provided “protective umbrella” for the elements who were “anti-China and causing chaos” in the HKSAR. In short, from the NPC perspective, Hong Kong’s electoral system must be redesigned to prevent all the politically undesirable elements from penetrating into the local polity.
Under the newly reformed electoral system, District Councils and their members will no longer be allowed to return five legislators from the so-called super seats that were previously composed of candidates who were nominated by District Council members and were then directly elected by eligible voters.
The results of the November 2019 District Council elections, which witnessed the victory of many democrats in 17 of the 18 District Councils, would become politically insignificant because there would no longer be 117 district councilors who under the previous system could be elected among all district councilors and who could go into the Election Committee that would elect the Chief Executive.
Another significance is that, if the HKSAR has its own style of democracy, as mentioned by the PRC authorities and patriotic elites, then it is up to the NPC – China’s law-making body – to reform Hong Kong’s political system instead of allowing the people of Hong Kong to redesign their political structures. If “parliamentary sovereignty” is a concept in the British system, it is also practiced in the PRC’s redesign of the Hong Kong electoral system.
The political implications for Hong Kong are far-reaching. First, the objective of achieving universal suffrage, if it is defined in the Western concept of “one person one vote,” will be quite remote. Second, the democrats should perhaps regret that they were hijacked by the radicals in the summer of 2015 to reject the 2015 political reform plan proposed by the HKSAR government and supported by the central authorities, namely allowing Hong Kong people to vote for their Chief Executive after 2 to 3 candidates would be screened out by an Election Committee. Unless the local democrats will learn to be far more realistic than ever before, the path of achieving universal suffrage will be quite difficult in the long run. Third, both the democrats and radicals should reflect on their excessively provocative behavior, including the lack of condemnation on political violence in the 2019 anti-extradition movement, and the unnecessary organization of a so-called primary elections to select candidates among the pan-democratic camp even after the enactment of the national security law in June 2020. All these moves were politically provocative, angering the central authorities to the extent that a “reversal” of the political system of Hong Kong back to the mid-1980s, when the electoral college of the LegCo was prominent, becomes a fait accompli.
The final implication of the new electoral system is that while the patriotic elites will be increasingly politically influential, their internal unity would not be an easy task. Given the fact that the Election Committee will be composed of all pro-Beijing elites, their internal fragmentation and competing interests will likely be a crucial indicator of pluralistic politics within an executive-led polity.
In conclusion, under the Chinese-style “parliamentary sovereignty,” the Hong Kong electoral system is now redesigned by the National People’s Congress with several key objectives: reasserting Hong Kong’s executive-led system, preventing the radicals from entering into the legislature and the Chief Executive Election Committee, eliminating the political ascendancy and influences of the directly elected District Council members, punishing the political opposition that threatened to “usurp” political power in the LegCo, and restabilizing the entire Hong Kong political system in the coming years. The unintended consequences of the new electoral design are whether some voters will see LegCo elections as meaningful, whether the voter turnout will be dampened, and whether some members of the political opposition will be forced by the limited political space to resort to the risky guerrilla-style tactics of protests in the coming year. While the patriotic elites will surely enjoy their political privileges under a patron-clientelist system, their internal unity, fragmentation and rivalry remain to be observed carefully.