As the Occupy protests continue in Hong Kong, articles, editorials and op-eds in the Western press continue to characterize the conflict as one between those in Hong Kong demanding “real democracy” and Beijing reneging on its promise of “universal suffrage” under “one country two systems.” Western media and leaders – including the New York Times Editorial Board and President Obama, for example – have all but argued that “universal suffrage” in Hong Kong means that Beijing should have no say in determining which candidates are eligible to run for elections … that the system China has proposed is but a “charade” of democracy.
But does this narrative hold any water?
A quick glance at history and Article 45 of the Hong Kong’s Basic Law is revealing.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law has served as the constitutional document of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China since 1997. It was drafted in accordance with Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (The Joint Declaration), signed between the Chinese and British governments on 19 December 1984.
Historically, Hong Kong has never implemented “universal suffrage” for the selection of any of its leaders – not under British rule, and not under PRC rule. While Article 45 of the Basic Law would provide for a road map to “universal suffrage,” the actual timeline was to be set by the PRC central government.
Finally in 2007, per a decision by the PRC’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the 2017 election for Hong Kong Chief Executive election was set to be first time election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong would be conducted under “universal suffrage.” 1
The most recent protests were set off in response to the NPC’s recent promulgation of rules on on how the HKSAR chief would be selected for 2017. Among the issues often cited was the fact that PRC requires that candidates “love the country, and love Hong Kong” — and would “protect the broad stability of Hong Kong now and in the future.” The protesters demand that the PRC scrap any semblance of a “nominating committee,” arguing such a committee represents an unreasonable constraint on “universal suffrage.”
But a reading of Article 45 shows otherwise.
Article 45 reads:
The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.
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.
The specific method for selecting the Chief Executive is prescribed in Annex I: “Method for the Selection of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”.
Article 45 cannot be clearer in stating of a “selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a …nominating committee.”
The “nominating committee” is not a “restriction” invented by the PRC to constrain what “universal suffrage” is in Hong Kong. It is the very essence of what “universal suffrage” means in a “one country two system” framework.
Some protesters have called for a relaxed reading of Article 45 that does away with any nominating committee. But if we are to trivialize the Constitution so readily, why have a Constitution at all?
Constitutions are crucial for democracy. A democracy unconstrained by a Constitution is but mob rule, as America’s founding fathers had noted. And a mobocracy is an unstable unjust system that is always hurling toward either a tyranny of the majority or a tyranny of special interests.
What the protesters are demanding is not “democracy,” but mob rule above “law.” If the protesters can bring forth evidence how the “nominating committee” is not broadly representative of the electorate of Hong Kong, I am always willing to listen. But to protest PRC’s requirement that candidates for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong “love the country, and love Hong Kong” and “protect the broad stability of Hong Kong now and in the future”? Why would anyone protest that?
The protesters’ demands belie their true subversive intent. As China’s central government made clear in a whitepaper recently, “one country, two systems” does not mean the right of Hong Kong to subvert against the nation or the central government, or a right to semi-independence or even outright independence.
Some might still nevertheless question why the PRC persists in its demand for a “nominating committee”? As a matter of Principle, irrespective of what Article 45, does not “universal suffrage” mean that candidates should be selected by the people and the people alone – without interference from powers that be?
But if you look to any of major democracies in the world, the major candidates put in front of the general public have always been “vetted” by the rich and powerful. In the U.S., for example, for any candidates to become viable, they must first get the approval from the wealthy and powerful – by successfully fund raising from and hobnobbing with the established power that be.
There is a reason why all major democracies have been contested by no more than two – sometimes (i.e. maybe at times, but rarely) three – major political parties. It is simply not practical for any citizen to become viable candidates on his own merit. All candidates in major democracies have always been “vetted” and groomed by the established powers that be.
Recently, scholars from Princeton and Northwestern universities showed that America empirically is an oligarchy, not democracy. The Washington Times reported it this way:
In the study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” researchers compared 1,800 different U.S. policies that were put in place by politicians between 1981 and 2002 to the type of policies preferred by the average and wealthy American, or special interest groups.
Researchers then concluded that U.S. policies are formed more by special interest groups than by politicians properly representing the will of the general people, including the lower-income class.
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence,” the study found.
The study also found: “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.”
This should not have come as a surprise.
Scholars like Lawrence Lessig in his recent work “Republic Lost” warns how the American may have lost their “Republic” when they submit to a wealthy elite to pre-screen all their candidates (see, e.g., this TED talk on “Lesterland”). Scholars like Norm Chomsky and Edward Herman in their work “Manufactured Consent” have long described how mass media, controlled by the society elite and powerful, have come to mold and shape the public to form whatever opinion the elite desired without overt government censorship.
OK – so democracy may be suffering a malaise in the West today. But that doesn’t mean that protesters cannot appeal to a gilded age of democracy that China should aspire back to. But was there ever such an age?
Lest one forgets: when the U.S. was founded, only those who owned real property could vote. Native Americans were not only not allowed to vote, but were systematically exterminated. African Americans not only disfranchised from the voting process, but were enslaved. Women did not gain “universal suffrage” until 1920. The Chinese, for example, were legally prohibited from obtaining citizenship until 1943 and could not legally marry whites until 1967.
The U.S. likes to see itself as the beacon on top of the hill – a beacon of freedom to the world. But it was a beacon only to certain select groups of Europeans. It could be a beacon only to certain groups. These were not just blips of history. These were the defining currents of history.
Going back further in history to the enlightenment, one sees that demands for various rights such as “freedom of speech” and “freedom of religion” and for people power were the result of power struggles between church, royals (“state”), aristocracy, and the merchant class. Such rights were irrelevant for the common man then … and irrelevant today. The common man never had much power or freedom, except as pawns for the powerful to fight over, to recruit and to campaign to. 2
Whatever the rhetoric of democracy, democracy had always been for a select few. Today elections are expensive reality tv shows run by those beholden to those with deep pockets to beguile a befuddled and ignorant mass. But things were never never that much better in the past. Democracy was conceived to propping up the then-oligarchy, and it is still being used to prop up today’s oligarchy.
But even if all this is true, one might ask, why cannot China at least grant at least this sort of democracy. Why must it have a “nominating committee” in Hong Kong?
I’d retort, why must China adopt the Western style conception of democracy. Sure, the Chinese government can mix politics and economics in a way that allows it to play – and win – at the West’s democracy charade, but why must it? The Western style of democracy is corrupting and wasteful. If the West had not had the one-time historical windfall of being the first to industrialize and then to colonize the world, its style of government might never have worked.
The true fight in Hong Kong today is not about democracy, but about the power struggle of anti-Chinese and pro-Chinese forces. The issues have been muddled because most people – many Chinese included – are blinded by today’s ideological worship of Western political values.
China is committed to “universal suffrage” for Hong Kong, as provided under the Basic Law. It is however not for appeasing special interests. It should stand by what is good and right for society, and not back down to the demands of a vocal and destructive few – or surrender to images of false gods preached by the West.
- See, e.g., http://www.legco.gov.hk/yr13-14/english/panels/ca/papers/ca1209-cdoc20131204-e.pdf ↩
- See e.g. Fareed Zakaria’s “The Future of Freedom,” Chapter 1, A Brief History of Human Liberty. ↩