Should Beijing Deliver Universal Suffrage to Hong Kong?
On 1st July, 1997, it was an extraordinary day in the history of Hong Kong since it was the day China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong. Before 1st July, 1997, Hong Kong was a place under the British Crown Rule. After 156 years of being ruled under the British Empire, Hong Kong had developed own path and is rather detached from the mainland, socially and politically. When Britain returned the island to China, it was an event that caused much strife and anxiety not just in Hong Kong but worldwide. Surprisingly, the communist Chinese government allowed the city to carry on as it always had, granting it almost complete autonomy and not taking any measures to interfere with its capitalist economy; to keep things simpler, and avoid mass insurrection or discontent among the populace, the Chinese government agreed to keep Hong Kong’s old British based system instead of forcing them to adopt the Chinese communist party’s system. As a result, Hong Kong has continued to thrive and has not lost its place as one of the most financially, politically, and legally successful city in the world.
The most powerful characteristic Hong Kong has is it’s ability to stay autonomous from mainland China through a constitutional principle known as “One country, Two Systems”; more specifically, it means that within the People’s Republic of China, the mainland with its one billion people will maintain the socialist system, while Hong Kong will continue under the capitalist system. “One Country, Two System” acts as an crucial role in Hong Kong because it is an everyday reality in Hong Kong. For instance, according to The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, “The National People’s Congress authorizes the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to exercise a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication, in accordance with the provisions of this Law.” (Chapter 1, Article 2). The statement indicates that not only does the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, which are so vital to Hong Kong’s success, are being upheld, the essential rights and freedoms are also being protected, and challenges to them are fully and freely debated. Consequently, collectively as a unit, core values such as human rights, rule of law, honest government, freedom and democracy, tolerance of different stances and views, and respect for press freedom are some of the guiding principles that help to establish the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s success.
For a long time, the Hong Kong people have been advocating for full democracy which means universal suffrage with the right to nominate and elect our own leader, the Chief Executive. According to the Basic Law, we have a legal right to universal suffrage. Nonetheless, in the past 20 years, while the Chinese government has assured Hong Kong multiple times that Beijing will deliver universal suffrage to Hong Kong, they have been pushing back the date for it and keeps saying that Hong Kong was not ready; as a result, we did not get it in the promised dates in 2007 and 2012. The Chinese has set a timeline for it, and they said Hong Kong would eventually get universal suffrage by 2017. Unsurprisingly, on 31st August, 2014, the Chinese stated that universal suffrage would be delivered under some condition. First, the Chief Executive must be someone who is patriotic to China. Secondly, candidates are going to be nominated by the Election Committee, which consists mostly of 1200 pro-Beijing representatives. Lastly, whoever wins the popular election must be appointed by the Chinese government. Ultimately, under the restrictions, it implies that the Chinese government reserve the right to screen out anyone that they dislike. After this was announced by the Chinese officials, people were understandably furious and began a series of protests demanding for “true universal suffrage.” For years, we have always thought universal suffrage means just that, the right to vote in a democratic and open election, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) managed to create something that is completely contrary to it. Hence, university students began boycotting classes and attended gatherings outside the Hong Kong government headquarters in the Admiralty District to protest, later became known as the Umbrella Movement, when the people used a lot of umbrellas so shield themselves from pepper spray in the initial conflict. After 79 days of occupying the streets, nothing changed. To this day, the status quo remains — there is no universal suffrage for our Chief Executive election. Looking back on the Umbrella Movement, as a person who grew up in Hong Kong, I personally think that even though Hong Kong technically belongs to China, based on the constitutional principle “One country, Two system”, Beijing is required to deliver universal suffrage to Hong Kong.
First of all, Beijing should deliver universal suffrage to Hong Kong since it is written in the Basic Law. Despite the government advocating the people of Hong Kong to uphold the core values of the law, the government, ironically, is the one who overturns it. As the ones who create the laws and regulations that bind the people, the government should also be expected to adhere with The Basic Law. According to The Basic Law, “The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures,” (Chapter 4, Article 45). From this statement, it states that the Chief executive should be chosen by universal suffrage upon nomination by people of Hong Kong as an eventual goal. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a collection of common standards for all people and all nations set by the United Nations, the word “universal suffrage” states the fact that all citizens have the rights to vote without restrictions “based on sex, race, religious belief, wealth or social status” (Article 21, p.469). However, even though the sovereignty of Hong Kong has returned to China for 20 years, the Chief Executive is still decided by an Election Committee, which is made up of the 70 members of Hong Kong’s legislative chamber, and a mix of professionals, business and trade elites, of 1,200 members. If only 1200 people who have special backgrounds have the rights to vote for the CE, it would contravene the meaning of universal suffrage and the Basic Law.
Secondly, if the Beijing government reneges on their promise on “One country, Two systems,” and does not deliver universal suffrage to Hong Kong, not only does China disrespect the rule of law, a law which was originally set by them, it also violates the idea of “One country, Two systems”. For example, in “The Chinese Model of the Rule of Law”, Lin Laifan, Professor of Law at Tsinghua University School of Law, points out the differences of the two sets of ruling systems in China and in Hong Kong, a rule by law and rule of law. Lin indicates that in China, the Communist Party’s use of law to control and regulate society, which is known as rule by law. Rule by law is prudential: one rules by law not because the law is higher than oneself, but because of it is convenient to do so and inconvenient not to do so. In rule by law, the government uses law as the most convenient way to govern (Lin, 658). However, in Hong Kong, the reason why Hong Kong executes “One country, Two systems” is because the rule of law ensures that those in power cannot engage in arbitrary rule, but rather are to obey the laws and the legal system of the nation over which they have control. In rule of law, the law is something the government serves.
In fact, besides universal suffrage, the various interpretations of the Basic Law by the SCNPC is another example to prove that China do not keep their promise on “One country, Two systems.” Since Hong Kong’s return to China 20 years ago, China already has had to have interpretations of the Basic Law made by the SCNPC five times, a supposedly rare phenomenon because the Basic Law is very specific in its content. According to the Basic Law, “The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress shall authorize the courts of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to interpret on their own, in adjudicating cases, the provisions of this Law which are within the limits of the autonomy of the Region.” (Chapter 8, Article 158). Chapter 8, Article 158 refers to the procedure of when a law is needed to be interpreted, following a very rigid structure and chain of command. It states that it needs to be the Court who requests an interpretation of a law for a case before it is sent to the SCNPC. Four out of five times, the SCNPC violates this Article, cutting through chain of command, and creating interpretations to suit China’s rhetoric. The only time the SCNPC adheres to the prescribed procedure is on the third occasion in which the SCNPC interpreted the Basic Law at the request of the Court of Final Appeal when it invoked the mechanism provided by Article 158. The remaining times the SCNPC seized the initiative to interpret the Basic Law to further its own agenda.
Last but not least, from a rational viewpoint, not only is delivering universal suffrage to Hong Kong is the right thing to do, more importantly, let the people of Hong Kong have their say. Logically, people only comply with a law when it makes sense to them, and when enforcement procedures are seen as fair. When people face occurrences that are morally wrong and socially unacceptable, people stand up for what they believe in and that is the reason why umbrella movement happened in Hong Kong because the Chinese government has been trying to increase their control on the Hong Kong political system and the Hong Kong citizens who grew up under British system do not want that. According to the Basic Law, “No department of the Central People’s Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law” (Chapter 2, Article 22). This statement declares the fact that the Chinese government has no authority to interfere; yet, is it really the case that is going on in Hong Kong?
Even though many Chinese, especially the older generation, are actively opposed the umbrella movement and argue that, by challenging the party, the students are only inviting Beijing to withdraw the freedoms that Hong Kong does have, point to the currently harsh political climate in China, conclude that Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution is doomed. Incidents include the interference of judiciary, the deterioration of press freedom, the failure of introducing universal suffrage of the Chief Executive in Hong Kong are some examples that arose not only disappointment but also anger in Hong Kong towards the SAR government under Chinese rule. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.” If a law is unjust, it makes no sense for people to obey the law. In that sense, when the government does not comply the commitments that they made, I do not see a point of why people in Hong Kong fighting for their rights is a wrong thing to do.
All in all, as Gordon Hewart, a politician and judge in the United Kingdom, said, “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done”, the only way to manifest justice is that Beijing government deliver universal suffrage to Hong Kong since it is one of the regulations that is written in the Basic Law. As Promises, kept or not, build or break trust in human relationships. They are necessary because they allow us to feel secure, and to avoid situations or people that do not make us feel secure. If someone keeps a promise, they form a bond with the other person; while if that same person breaks the promise, they break the bond of trust in their relationship and they can be avoided. Promises are so important because they control the balance of who we do or do not allow into our lives, and let us distinguish the people with whom we feel comfortable and secure. Of course, the Chinese government have the rights to not to keep a promise and modify the Basic Law arbitrary since China has the sovereignty of Hong Kong; nevertheless, it would be unjust and immoral since keeping promises is part of the social contract to keep promises and tell the truth. If someone breaks a promise, then other people will eventually trust him/her less, and he/she will get less favorable social interaction. Imagine a culture where nobody could trust anyone else, how would they transact any business? How would they settle even the most minor dispute? Would you even want to live there?
- China. Basic Law: The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, n.d. Print.
- King Jr., Martin Luther. Letter From Birmingham Jail: Why We Can’t Wait. : . Print.
- Laifan, Lin. “The Chinese Model of the Rule of Law.” Frontiers of Law in China, 10.4 (2015): 657.
- “R. V. Plymouth Justices, ‘Ex P.’ Rogers.” The Modern Law Review, 46.1 (1983): 81.
- “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, 280.5 (1998): 469.