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  • Liberal Voices from ChinaThe Hong Kong Example
  • Martin C.M. Lee (bio)

On 24 May 1998, in an event with profound implications for China’s 1.2 billion people, Hong Kong voters went to the polls in torrential rains to elect their first Legislative Council (Legco) under Chinese rule. Confounding low expectations (including my own), 53 percent of registered voters cast ballots—surpassing the previous record set in 1995, the last elections under British rule. Under the circumstances, the turnout was astonishing.

The vote came less than one year after the People’s Republic of China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997. During that year, an unelected provisional legislature installed by Beijing had enacted controversial restrictions on civil liberties and, ominously, established legal immunity for Chinese central government organizations, including the New China News Agency (Xinhua), Beijing’s de facto diplomatic and intelligence arm in Hong Kong.

The provisional legislature also devised rules for the May 1998 voting, under which just 20 of the 60 seats would be decided by democratic elections. Even these 20 seats were subject to a new proportional representation formula expressly designed to disadvantage the democrats who had dominated these seats in previous elections. The remaining 40 seats were filled by undemocratic methods: 30 members were elected by “functional constituencies” (some as small as a few hundred members) representing business and professional groups, and 10 members were chosen by an 800-member Election Committee appointed by Beijing.

Despite this rigged system, prodemocracy candidates won two-thirds [End Page 4] of the popular vote, and one-third of the total seats. Put simply, although China does not have democracy, it now has some elected democrats on Chinese soil representing political parties independent of Communist control. Legco contains a coalition of opposition parties and independent members in a body vested with legislative authority in a society based on the rule of law. Legco has 20 democratic lawmakers—13 members of the Democratic Party plus seven other democrats—all of whom support full democracy for Hong Kong. My colleagues and I have the constitutional right to challenge the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government on its bills, to demand answers from government officials on all aspects of life in Hong Kong, and to approve the budget.

For all these reasons, the 1998 Hong Kong election is arguably among the most significant political developments in communist China’s history. Nevertheless, the road ahead for Hong Kong’s democrats is littered with obstacles. Legco is handicapped by Beijing-imposed constraints. According to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, all the terms of this agreement on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, elected legislature, and independent judiciary were to be codified in a Basic Law. Yet the Basic Law, enacted on 4 April 1990, exactly 10 months after the Tiananmen Square massacre, is inconsistent in many respects with the Joint Declaration. Whereas the Joint Declaration calls for an elected legislature, the Basic Law spells out a gradual plan which fails to guarantee that more than one-half the legislature will ever be elected. Although the Basic Law states that the “ultimate aim” is the democratic election of Legco, it adds that such arrangements will be “specified in light of the actual situation” in Hong Kong and “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.” This provision, along with several others, caused even the 1990 Legco, itself an undemocratic product of the British colonial system, to pass a motion calling for the Basic Law’s amendment on the very day it was promulgated in Beijing.

The Basic Law’s detailed provisions for the operation of Legco are also at odds with the guarantee that Hong Kong would be vested with independent legislative power. Under the Basic Law, members of the legislature may not introduce bills that “relate to public expenditure or the political structure or the operation of the government.” The Beijing-appointed Chief Executive’s written permission is required before bills dealing with government policies may be introduced. Not content with these restrictions, the Chief Executive made a bold effort during the opening days of Legco’s first session to expand executive prerogatives even...

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