It was hardly a surprise when Beijing’s nominee Donald Tsang was re-elected on Sunday as Hong Kong’s chief executive. The undemocratic election system based on rules laid down by the former colonial masters, Britian, and China’s central government, which regained control of Hong Kong ten years ago, has drawn angry protests from civil rights and pro-democracy groups.
The chief executive – equivalent to prime minister – is chosen by an election committee comprised of just 795 voters drawn mainly from Hong Kong’s capitalist class, plus representatives of middle class professional groups such as lawyers and doctors. This “electorate” makes up just 0.011% of the city-state’s 7 million population.
This time, unlike previous “elections” for the top post, there was a second candidate. As expected, Tsang won a “landslide” receiving 649 votes to the 123 for his opponent Alan Leong, a barrister and member of the capitalist Civic Party. Leong called the process a “rigged, small-circle election”, but his candiditure has drawn heavy fire from the left, for legitimising the phony election process. In this sense, the vote yesterday was a turning point, reflecting a shift towards compromise by the pan-democratic leaders [the broad term for the pro-democracy parties including Alan Leong’s Civic Party]. It raises important questions over the way forward for the struggle for democratic rights in Hong Kong, and also by implication in mainland China.
Tsang, who was knighted for his services under the previous British administration, is Beijing’s man and his re-election was never in doubt. The class composition of Hong Kong’s selection committee could be gauged by the large number of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces, Mercedes and BMWs outside the convention center where the vote was held. A sit-down demonstration by pro-democracy activists forced some of the millionaires to leave their cars and walk the final stretch to the meeting. One of the protesters, legislator Emily Lau, desribed the election as “a shameful day for Hong Kong”. Another legislator, independent socialist Leung Kwok-hung, better known as ‘Long Hair’, stated, “I come here on behalf of the 6.9 million people who have had their constitutional rights taken away from them.”
According to the agreement between the British government and Beijing prior to the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was to move to universal suffrage within a decade. This has not happened, and Beijing is even stalling over which rules should apply for the next round of elections in 2012. Tsang, as part of his election message, has promised a new ‘roadmap for democracy’. But his last attempt in 2005, which merely tinkered with the existing undemocratic system, was defeated following a massive quarter of a million-strong demonstration for universal suffrage.
The vast majority of Hong Kong’s millionaire elite, and the bureaucracy headed by Tsang, are closely allied with mainland China’s nominally ‘communist’ regime in opposing “too hasty” implementation of one-person-one-vote. This is despite a growing clamour from the population. A recent poll shows that 60 percent want universal suffrage now.
Well known Hong Kong tycoons, like casino boss Stanley Ho, are vocal opponents of democracy. Ho, who arrived to cast his vote in a Rolls-Royce with the licence plate “HK 1”, has previously taken out full-page newspaper advertisements warning against universal suffrage. In a comment two weeks ago over rumours that some of the select 795 “electors” might vote blank as a form of protest, thus reducing the scale of Tsang’s victory, Stanley Ho warned there was a way “to know” who had cast blank votes! The vote this year was the first ever by secret ballot and Ho’s comments caused an uproar.
“No democracy, or welfare state!”
This saga exposes the myth that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand. Hong Kong is a capitalist’s dream with one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world, at just 16 percent. But a government report last year warned that, “If universal suffrage was implemented or functional constituencies abolished hastily, Hong Kong might become a welfare state”.
Around one-third of Hong Kong’s workforce are in low-paid service sector jobs, where wages were cut after the 1997 Asian crisis and have not fully recovered despite an economic rebound. Gross domestic product grew by 6.8 percent last year and 7.5 percent in 2005. Against this background the demand for a legal minimum wage has become a key question. Leong and even Donald Tsang have said they favour a minimum wage, although at what level is unclear. The majority of the capitalist class, together with the Beijing regime, fear that full bourgeois democracy and a government that can be removed in an election will open the floodgates over social issues like this.
Another ultimately even more important reason they are resisting one-person-one-vote is the effect this will have on the mainland Chinese population, encouraging them to fight for similar rights. Even this phony election created problems for Beijing. They temporarily blocked signals from CNN not just when Leong appeared but even when Mr. Tsang reiterated his position on “eventual democracy” in Hong Kong. People in Guangdong province across the border can receive television signals from Hong Kong and have expressed envy to Hong Kong television crews over the territory’s limited democratic rights such as freedom of assembly, trade union rights and the right to form political parties.
Pan-democrats move towards compromise
Given the bogus nature of this “election”, was it correct of Leong to stand? In fact, by his participation, Leong gave additional legitimacy to an undemocratic charade, even if he repeatedly condemned the “rigged election”.
’Long Hair’, Leung Kwok-hung told the website, chinaworker.info: “Hong Kong’s pan-democrats represent that wing of the bourgeoisie that has not benefited from the present system.”
The Civic Party’s Leong has already announced he will stand again in the next election for chief executive in 2012, although the method of election is unclear. From this, it becomes clear the pan-democrat leaders are toning down the idea of mass pressure for universal suffrage and adapting instead to the existing system, albeit as a ‘critical’ voice within this system.
“They’ve moved to the middle ground, their aim is to be a loyal opposition,” said Long Hair, who voted ‘blank’ in the selection committee. As one of the 30 elected members of the Legislative Council, he is entitled to a vote in the selection committee. “At first I tried to rip up the ballot paper,” he explained, “but they stopped me.”
Long Hair is very critical of the pan-democratic leaders, “They have already abandoned the demand for a referendum on universal suffrage,” he explained. “Now they have launched a new alliance based on the 120 votes for Leong [in the selection committee]. They used this election to create a platform for themselves, as a negotiating partner.”
Workers’ party needed
Democratic rights have never been achieved anywhere without struggle, and the main agent for democratic change is the working class and the organisations it has created. This was shown in South Africa, for example, where the black working class and independent trade unions were decisive in ending white minority rule.
With the official pan-democratic leaders increasingly adopting the road of compromise, a political vacuum is opening in Hong Kong which more and more clearly shows the need for the trade unions and other grassroots organisations to show a way forward. One of the biggest problems is the absence of a workers’ party, that can give the working class an independent voice in this process.
The Committee for Workers’ International fully supports the struggle for democratic rights in Hong Kong, China and internationally. We reject as insulting the arguments of Tsang and his government that the process must be “gradual”. But this struggle is also linked to the struggle against capitalism that forces workers in Hong Kong and elsewhere into a “race to the bottom” - lower real wages and longer hours. A democratic socialist society in which the economy as well as government are under democratic popular control and management is the only way forward.