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Democracy in Hong Kong - sometime, never?

By Graham Cooke - posted Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The message from Chief Executive Donald Tsang on Hong Kong's progress towards democracy was decidedly upbeat. Listening to his address to mark the 13th anniversary of the ‘handover' of the former British colony to mainland China, one could almost imagine that its emergence as a free, totally democratic attachment to the Communist giant was at hand.

"Just a week ago the Legislative Council passed one of the most important motions since our reunification with the Mainland," Tsang eulogised.

"These were amendments to the methods for selecting the Chief Executive and for forming the Legislative Council in 2012 to make them more democratic.


"The passage of the political reform package marks a decisive step towards democracy and the goal of universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020. It lays down a milestone in our democratic development … it is the best gift as we celebrate our reunification."

Well, not really. The reform package inches down the democratic path, still leaving the real power in the hands of a clique of pro-Beijing Legislative Council members representing business and professional groups more interested in making money than embracing the principle of free and fair elections. The reforms widen the franchise for selecting this group, but can hardly be seen as more than tinkering round the edges.

That is not likely to change anytime soon, indeed not even by the 2017 and 2020 dates suggested by Tsang. Hong Kong's move towards full democracy has been glacial (perhaps even that term is inappropriate in the era of global warming) and continually postponed.Beijing is using the traditional Chinese tactic of waiting out its pro-democracy opponents in the expectation they will eventually give up and accept the status quo as their current activist leaders give way to a new generation.

Even if universal suffrage does arrive within the next decade Tsang has already qualified it by saying the people "must choose candidates that are acceptable to China". In the longer term, the year 2047 will loom as the date when Hong Kong's status as a Special Administrative Region, and with it all its democratic institutions, will be on the line as the "one-county-two-systems" agreement comes up for review.

Yet the outlook is not all gloom. Hong Kong has retained and maintained its own independent legal system, inherited from the British, which is a huge bonus for its status as an international corporate and financial centre. Companies that despair of finding their way though the bureaucratic and often contradictory maze that makes up Mainland commercial laws are happy to set up headquarters in Hong Kong where by and large the rules and regulations mean what they say.

Hong Kong also enjoys a free and lively press - although some commentators are concerned at what they see as an increasing amount of self-censorship, especially when it comes to criticism of the Mainland institutions and major figures - and an active non-governmental sector that often takes the lead in the push to preserve and expand greater personal freedoms. As an example the Falun Gong movement, outlawed and persecuted by the People's Republic, operates more or less freely in Hong Kong.


It is highly unlikely that Beijing will make any drastic efforts to upset this finely balanced applecart; rather it will take a two-pronged approach in an attempt to bend Hong Kongers to its will over time, frustrating moves towards personal freedom with a mixture of legal and political manoeuvres, at the same time heralding a few inconsequential concessions as significant demonstrations of its commitment to a democratic timetable.

The key figure in this delicate game of smoke and mirrors is Tsang himself. The Chief Executive, a long-serving bureaucrat who was actually knighted in the dying days of the British administration but declines to use the title, succeeded the unpopular and lacklustre Tung Chee Hwa in 2005.

Hong Kong born and the son of an officer in the colony's police force, he has maintained a steady pro-Beijing line while at the same time bringing to the position a touch of flamboyance - with his trademark bow ties he is instantly recognisable - and undeniable competence that made him one of the key figures in the financial and trade sectors on both sides of the handover.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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