Hong Kong ranks low in global indices on democracy, political rights and income equality

…and it’s getting worse, not better

Note: This piece was originally commissioned by a newsletter of the “anti-pocketing” campaign of HK pan-democratic political parties calling on HK citizens to oppose the HK government’s fake universal suffrage proposal to the Legislative Council. Thanks to it for permission to republish the piece here. The newsletter appears online at http://antipocketing.hk/content.php?id=44

Overview of global indices, measurements, statements and facts on HK

· Freedom of the World report: HK scores 5 on political rights (with 1 the best, 7 the worst)

· EIU Democracy Index ranks HK 65th, and especially low in three categories: electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; and political participation

· UN Human Rights Committee says China and HK are not in compliance with international law in regard to their plans for fake universal suffrage in HK

· Human Rights Watch calls HK government proposal for fake universal suffrage a “farce” and a “rights abuse” while democracy expert Larry Diamond calls it a “package of lies”

· HK shares the company of Singapore and some Gulf kingdoms in being amongst the few developed societies without democracy

· From 2002 to 2014, HK dropped from 18th to 70th on the World Press Freedom Index

· 2015 Freedom of the Press report put HK on its list of places in the world that suffered the biggest declines in press freedom in 2014

· HK is the most unequal developed city in the world in terms of income distribution

· HK was ranked #1 on both of The Economist’s Crony Capitalism Indices in 2007 and 2014

· 15 families in HK control assets equal to 84% of GDP

· 1 in 3 old people and 1 in 4 children in HK live in poverty

Hong Kong prides itself on global competitiveness. Government advertising heralds it as “Asia’s World City”. Every year, the Hong Kong government celebrates Hong Kong’s ranking as the freest economy in the world (for 21 years running now) by the Heritage Foundation.

But apart from that, how does Hong Kong rank on global indices? The answer is, not very well, and the main reason, time and again, is the lack of democracy and political rights. Unsurprisingly, the government does not celebrate where Hong Kong stands in these rankings: the blame for Hong Kong’s poor “global competitiveness” in these areas falls squarely on the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. The only thing holding us back are our rulers.

There are two main global reports measuring democracy and political rights.

One is Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the World Report, which focuses on political and civil rights. In its latest report in 2015, Hong Kong was rated 3.5 overall (with 1 the best and 7 the worst). This meant that Hong Kong was not amongst the top 100 countries. What brought Hong Kong’s score down was lack of political rights, where it receives a 5 (with 1 the best and 7 the worst), ranking it with places such as Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka and Venezuela. The report also notes that Hong Kong is on a downward trend.

On the other main global report, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 2014, Hong Kong ranked 65th worldwide, near countries such as El Salvador, Malaysia, Moldova and Zambia. The Democracy Index has five indicators, and Hong Kong scores particularly low in three: electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; and political participation.

In October 2014, The UN Human Rights Committee stated clearly that the plans of China and Hong Kong regarding electoral reforms were not in compliance with international law or Hong Kong’s international legal obligations on universal suffrage according to Basic Law article 39. It reported, “The main concerns of Committee members were focused on the right to stand for elections without unreasonable restrictions.” In March 2014, the Committee made recommendations to China and Hong Kong to ensure full universal suffrage, including full rights to run and be elected to office, but in October, it concluded China’s performance was “not satisfactory”. “It appears from [China’s] response that no action has been taken to implement our recommendations,” said committee member Cornelis Flinterman. Another member said, “The committee doesn’t want candidates filtered. The problem is that Beijing wants to vet candidates.”

When the Hong Kong government finally tabled its proposal for electoral reform in the Legislative Council in April, Human Rights Watch unequivocally labeled the proposals a “farce” and a “rights abuse”. Democracy expert and academic, Larry Diamond called it a “package of lies,” saying the Chinese central government had ruled out any hope of political reform and the only way to make elections more democratic was to abolish the screening process.[6]

In summary, according to international norms, standards and law, Hong Kong’s electoral arrangements are unsatisfactory, and the Hong Kong government’s proposal for what it calls universal suffrage would not make them satisfactory. Hong Kong continues to be amongst the few affluent, developed societies in the world (along with Singapore and some Gulf kingdoms) that deny its citizens genuine democracy.

What has up to now ensured that Hong Kong does not fare even worse in the Freedom in the World report and Democracy Index is high scores for civil liberties, but there is consensus that these too are weakening. In terms of the amount of global attention it has received, the one area of greatest concern is freedom of the press. Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom of the Press index puts Hong Kong on its list of places in the world that suffered the biggest press freedom declines in 2014. In Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2014, Hong Kong fell to a new low, ranked 70th in the world, dropping an astounding 52 places from 18th in 2002. The only other places in the world that have dropped so far so fast have either suffered war or been taken over by dictators.

Lack of genuine democracy and political rights means Hong Kong’s civil liberties will be at increasing risk, and in particular, institutions that enhance and protect those liberties, not only the media but also schools, universities, and the judiciary, all of which have come under attack by Beijing and Hong Kong loyalists. In its June 2014 White Paper on Hong Kong, only the second to be issued since 1997, the Chinese central government referred to judges as administrators, suggesting that rather than being wholly independent, they were duty-bound to be “patriotic” and coordinate with the executive branch. In protest, for only the second time since the handover, hundreds of black-clad lawyers marched in silence. Many Beijing and Hong Kong officials have spoken of the need to better “educate” young people about the Basic Law, and many plans have been hatched having to do with exchanges to the mainland and changes in the curriculum. The pro-Beijing media has attacked academics such as Joseph Cheng (City University political scientist and convenor of the Alliance for True Democracy) and Johannes Chan (former dean of the law school at University of Hong Kong), causing many to fear for the future of academic freedom in Hong Kong. So far, these institutions have been just about able to withstand the pressure, but passage of the fake universal suffrage proposal would most likely weaken resistance, and even if fake universal suffrage is defeated, the pressure will continue to be intense.

Hong Kong is also the most unequal developed city in the world. The Economist recently reported that 15 families in Hong Kong control assets equal to 84% of GDP. Meanwhile, one in three elderly people and one in four children live in poverty. The only developed and democratic society that comes anywhere near Hong Kong in terms of income inequality is the United States. Otherwise, relative income equality is a characteristic shared by most developed and full democracies.

And in both of The Economist’s Crony Capitalism Indices in 2014 and 2007, Hong Kong has come out number 1 in the world, far outranking all other competitors. This is due to the exceedingly close relationship between business elites and government, as well as the lack of real universal suffrage and the fact that the business community is over-represented in the Election Committee for the Chief Executive and in the Functional Constituencies in the Legislative Council.

Severe income inequality in Hong Kong is due to a rigged political system that excludes the majority of Hong Kong people from full participation. None of that would change if the Hong Kong government’s proposals for changes in the next Chief Executive election were implemented.

In fact, it would just become more deeply entrenched because all that the Hong Kong government proposes is that the general public approve one of up to three candidates that the Chinese government has effectively pre-selected. The sorts of problems listed here have occurred under the administration of the three post-handover Chief Executives Hong Kong has had up to now, Tung Chee-hua, Donald Tsang, and Leung Chun-ying. Few HK people would consider a choice between those three very palatable, but that’s essentially what’s being proposed.

Denial of genuine universal suffrage is in itself unfair and an abuse of a basic human right. It also has a negative impact on civil liberties and economic fairness. Overall, it prevents the development of a fair and just society.

The term “liberal democracy” is usually construed to mean that full political and civil rights are enjoyed by all citizens in a given society. Hong Kong, for much of its modern history, has been something of an anomaly in that while most citizens have been excluded from meaningful political participation, civil liberties have been quite well protected by a relatively independent judiciary and bar. In that sense, Hong Kong can be considered as an example of that rare beast, a “liberal autocracy”.

Passage of the Hong Kong government’s fake universal suffrage proposal would cement Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong, a prospect would certainly be to the detriment of democracy as well as civil and political rights. The Basic Law considers universal suffrage as the goal of political development in Hong Kong. Once that is achieved, Beijing would be under no legal obligation to make further improvements. Beijing faced a dilemma: The Basic Law stated clearly that the goal was universal suffrage. For years, its way of dealing with that dilemma was to postpone universal suffrage indefinitely. Then it decided it would settle the matter once and for by redefining “universal suffrage” and selling it to Hong Kong as a fake. We are at that critical historical juncture now.

Implementation of fake universal suffrage could easily move Hong Kong in the direction of “illiberal autocracy”. Beijing and the Hong Kong government pretend that fake universal suffrage can be a step toward greater political liberalism, but there is nothing liberal about Beijing’s rule. Beijing has stated clearly its opposition to “western-style” democracy.

Signs of what a more illiberal society might look like have been so plentiful in the past year that every Hong Kong citizen should be worried and do whatever she can to prevent the passage of fake electoral reform, which is an important element in Beijing’s endgame for Hong Kong. Defeat of the fake universal suffrage proposal would, in itself, bring Hong Kong no closer to democracy, but it is a necessary defense of Hong Kong society. We may not have the power at the moment to bring about the genuine universal suffrage we desire, but we do have the power to resist attempts to further pervert the political system to serve the few, and we do have the power to stand up for Hong Kong.


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