Hong Kong: Huge clash looming over universal suffrage

Mass struggle needed to break the undemocratic grip of Beijing-backed capitalist elite

The long drawn out struggle for democracy in Hong Kong entered a new phase on 18 November when the unelected Hong Kong government unveiled its long-awaited public consultation document on electoral ‘reforms’ for the 2012 elections. Presenting the document, Chief Secretary Henry Tang, called the proposals a ‘crucial step’ towards full democracy. This claim is utterly fraudulent. The latest blueprint was rightly dismissed by pan-democratic legislators as just a ‘rehash’ of undemocratic proposals put forward in 2005. The 2005 proposals were defeated in the legislature, where ‘pan-democrats’ can block legislation through their control over more than one third of the seats (23 of 60), following an eruption of popular anger and a massive protest march on 4 December 2005, gathering 250,000 people.

The latest proposals preserve the elitist selection committee that ‘elects’ the Chief Executive, equivalent to Prime Minister, under Hong Kong’s system. Instead of 800 ‘voters’, the committee is to be enlarged to 1200! The Legislative Council (Legco) remains a largely toothless body, with half its seats still ‘elected’ from obscenely elitist ‘functional constituencies’ (see below) comprising bankers, property tycoons, and other so-called ‘trade-based’ groups. The government wants to add ten seats, enlarging the Legco from 60 to 70 lawmakers, but preserving the 50/50 balance, i.e. only half the seats are to be elected through a system of universal adult suffrage. The sum total, 25 years after the first Hong Kong government proposal for a democratic election system, is a ‘reform’ that cannot by the wildest stretch of the imagination be described as democratic. On subsequent elections – in 2017 and 2020 – the government is silent, sticking to its formulation that the next administration chosen by whoever is ‘elected’ Chief Executive in 2012, must decide this in consort with the ‘communist’ central government in Beijing. So, the ‘democracy’ of the future, whenever that may be, will be designed by two governments that are not subject to any democratic controls!

The pan-democratic parties in Hong Kong were quick to denounce the new blueprint as a sham. Socialist legislator, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, was ejected from the chamber after being prevented from putting a question to Tang, and then throwing his placard – depicting a microwave oven – at the Chief Secretary. This sums of the view of many Hong Kong people: the government is merely warming up its old stale offerings (the rejected 2005 package). Joining a throng of demonstrators outside the Legco, Long Hair told chinaworker.info, “I think the government’s proposals are poison warmed up in a microwave – people want democracy not this poison!”

“Freest economy”

Hong Kong has long been a model for neo-liberal economists. For 15 consecutive years, it has been ranked the “world’s freest economy” by the Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. Its popularity with these right wing organs rests on its role as a tax haven for big corporations (16% corporation tax, half the level in the US) and Scrooge-like denial of basic welfare cover for its own citizens. Not surprisingly, therefore, Hong Kong now has the widest income gap of any advanced capitalist society, according to the UN. At least one in ten of the population live in poverty, according to the Labour and Welfare Bureau, although the real figure is probably higher. One in four children lives in a household on or below the poverty line. The wealth gap is symbolised by Hong Kong’s sharply polarised housing market. Last month, a penthouse flat sold for 57 million US dollars, setting a world record for brainless extravagance. At the same time, Hong Kong has no fewer than 100,000 ‘cage dwellers’ – people living in extremely cramped conditions, sometimes literally wire cages only large enough for a mattress and a few possessions.

The struggle over universal suffrage, now set to intensify, is inextricably linked to this growing social divide. It is a struggle for real jobs with real protection, the eradication of low pay, and affordable housing, healthcare and public services. The present mangled electoral system institutionalises the rule of a privileged and ultra neo-liberal elite over society. In other ‘democratic’ capitalist societies big business exerts control over an elected government using its economic power and the brutal discipline of ‘the market’. In this way the capitalists force governments of various political shades to act on their behalf on all major questions. This thinly veiled economic dictatorship exists in Hong Kong too, of course. But the ruling class, backed by a Beijing regime that fears the radicalising effects inside mainland China of Hong Kong’s demands for greater democracy, wants even more limits on popular pressure built into the system, formalised through a voting procedure that gives some capitalists not one, not two, but three votes in elections!

18 November protest by LSD supporters outside Hong Kong’s Legco

Functional Constituencies:

To prevent the Legco becoming a more powerful check on the government, or demanding greater powers for itself, it has been diluted, with half its members chosen from ‘functional constituencies’ based on small, elite, circles. In some ‘functional constituencies’ only companies, not individuals, are eligible to vote! This is the case in the ‘Commercial functional constituency’, in which there are just 1,040 ‘voters’ – the companies belonging to the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. Similarly, the 715 companies that make up the Federation of Hong Kong Industries get to choose one legislator. The smallest and most exclusive ‘functional constituency’ has just 140 voters – all banks!

These capitalist institutions ‘elect’ legislators whose vote is equal to those legislators elected by over 3 million electors in the five geographical constituencies. The bogus legislators from ‘functional constituencies’, who are largely unknown to Hong Kong people, have the power to block bills and sabotage proposals from pan-democrat legislators – who have been returned by around 60% of the popular vote. This is an extreme form of ‘gerrymandering’, as practised in the US and Britain historically. Of course, the pan-democratic parties, including Long Hair’s League of Social Democrats (LSD), demand the ‘functional constituencies’ are abolished. But under the latest government proposals not only do they remain, they will be increased by five!

One person, One vote

One person, one vote, has been a clarion call in all pro-democracy movements historically. In Hong Kong, however, this demand is especially poignant due to the extra voting power enjoyed by a privileged minority. Two hundred thousand people, around 8 % of the electorate, have two votes in elections (one in their geographical constituency and another in a ‘functional constituency’), while 1,800, mostly ranked among the super-rich, have three votes because as company directors or heads of important organisations they enjoy a third – corporate – vote.

“There are tricks which allow businesspeople to control multiple votes,” commented the South China Morning Post recently. These ‘tricks’ are legal under Hong Kong’s present system. This would be like the billionaire Warren Buffet having three votes in a US Congressional election, one as an ordinary voter in his home state, another in a ‘functional constituency’ for financial speculators, and a third on behalf of his mega-corporation Berkshire Hathaway. We know that capitalists like Buffet have much more power over government than US voters, but this power is exercised slightly more discreetly. The realities of class power and politics would be far more transparent, with explosive political results, if half the seats in Congress were chosen directly by Wall Street!

Selection Committee

The head of Hong Kong’s government, the Chief Executive, is not elected by popular vote, nor accountable to the half-elected Legco. This post is ‘elected’ by just 800 luminaries, most of whom are appointed by the ‘communist’ party dictatorship in Beijing, in a selection committee that accounts for just 0.011% of Hong Kong’s population. The five-yearly selection committee’s class composition can be gauged by the large number of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces, Mercedes and BMWs in which the committee’s members are transported. The Chief Executive is also barred from belonging to a political party under the ‘Basic Law’ (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution drawn up jointly by the British and Chinese governments). While this provision in no way affects the performance of a marionette for the Beijing regime, like the incumbent Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, it does prevent an alternative political force, such as a mass workers’ party from running a candidate for the top office, or exercising democratic control over their candidate, if elected.

The latest proposal is for the selection committee to be enlarged to 1200, with the new members drawn from district councils, including a large number who are appointed. Like the other regurgitated proposals, this is an attempt to embellish and preserve an undemocratic institution rather than scrap it to make way for universal suffrage.

Consultation Process

The whole “consultation process” is a sham. The same proposals were overwhelmingly rejected four years ago – how can this be described as “consultation”? The government refuses to give a clear commitment to abolish the many anomalies in today’s system and merely repeats vague assurances that the 2017 elections for Chief Executive and 2020 Legco elections will take place according to the norms of universal suffrage. Why should anyone believe this, when progress towards universal suffrage has to date proceeded at a snail’s pace? This has been a journey full of manoeuvres, foot dragging, and cancelled promises. Ultimately, of course, it is the Chinese dictatorship that calls the shots and its bottom line is that any future ‘democratic’ system in Hong Kong must preserve its ultimate control.

The Chinese regime fears the spread of democratic ‘contagion’ to mainland China. It fears the future prospect of an ‘undesirable’ political force, especially a party based on the grassroots interests of working people and the poor, winning elections in Hong Kong with mass support, and being prepared to stand up to bullying from the central government and the dictates of Hong Kong and global capitalism. Such an event could produce a political tsunami effect across the whole of China. Hence we see a series of complex and arcane ‘reforms’ issued through the ventriloquist’s dummy of the Hong Kong government that basically have the aim of prolonging – with some tinkering here and there – the present undemocratic system.

Where now for pan-democrats?

The pan-democratic parties have enough votes in the legislature to block the new proposal thus denying it legitimacy, as it did in 2005. But in the coming months there will be frenetic attempts by Beijing and the Hong Kong government to win over a handful of ‘moderate’ lawmakers in the pan-democratic camp. If 4 of the 23 pan-democrats change sides, the government can get its ‘reform’ package endorsed, thus winning a symbolic victory. At this stage, there is little evidence of any such split in the pan-democratic camp, but mass pressure upon the legislators through active mobilisation, street demonstrations, and mass meetings across Hong Kong, are now needed to defeat the latest plan and inject new urgency into the demand for elections in 2012 on the basis of universal suffrage and nothing less!

To this end, Long Hair and the League of Social Democrats (LSD), with three seats in the Legco, have launched the tactical idea of resignations to force simultaneous by-elections next year that would be turned into a “referendum on universal suffrage”. This is an attempt to shift the struggle away from the committee rooms and into the mass arena. After years of waiting, and with rising anger over government stonewalling, there is a widespread feeling more must be done to put ‘muscle’ into demands for one-person-one-vote. For Beijing, a Hong Kong-wide ‘referendum’ would be a political and public relations nightmare. It would not be a ‘local problem’ confined to Hong Kong, but possibly the biggest organised challenge to the regime upon Chinese soil since the 1989 Tiananmen protests, gaining massive attention inside mainland China via the internet and other informal media.

At this stage, it is not clear whether a majority of pan-democratic legislators will buy into the resignation plan. For this to fully succeed, five legislators – one in each geographical constituency – should resign at the same time. The Democratic Party, on the right of the pan-democratic bloc, are, so far, against this idea. But this party may now be pressured into adopting a more radical stance by public reactions to the government’s package. The Civic Party, a more radical bourgeois party within the pan-democratic bloc, with five Legco seats, support the LSD’s resignation tactic, but it remains to be seen if they will go ahead if the Democratic Party, with its 12 seats, refuses.

Reject the government package – for full universal suffrage and nothing less!

There are many tactical questions surrounding the resignation issue that need to be weighed up very carefully given the obvious risks involved. But with this proviso, chinaworker.info supports the LSD’s idea of targeted resignations. It is important that any electoral campaign over universal suffrage is linked to mass ‘extra parliamentary’ activity: mass meetings at housing estates and workplaces; the building of ‘universal suffrage’ action committees in workplaces, universities and schools; demonstrations and even a call for strikes and walkouts in conjunction with an eventual ‘democracy referendum’.

A mass campaign along these lines must begin immediately in order to maximise pressure on the government and the ‘waverers’ within the pan-democratic camp. To this end, a mass demonstration against the government’s ‘reforms’ and for full universal suffrage in 2012, should be called at the soonest practical date. Such demonstrations should not be seen just as an exercise in venting anger against the government but as a springboard to further mass action and the building of popular committees as outlined above.

chinaworker.info and the supporters of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) believe the struggle for universal suffrage and full democratic rights is linked to the struggle to sweep away the crisis-ridden capitalist system. Even in ‘democratic’ capitalist states the real power rests with unelected bankers and tycoons. We want to replace this rotten undemocratic system with a new society of democratic socialism. We are fighting for:

  • Elections in 2012 on the basis of one-person-one-vote!
  • Replace the rubber-stamp Legco with a genuine People’s Assembly with powers to tax the super-rich, abolish poverty, implement a decent minimum wage, reverse privatisations, and create real jobs!
  • The right to vote at sixteen years of age – including migrant workers!
  • Abolish the functional constituencies immediately!
  • For elected representatives to be paid only a skilled worker’s salary, plus legitimate running expenses open to public inspection – no privileges for politicians and officials!
  • For a mass campaign based on the creation of action committees in workplaces and colleges, to include mass actions, walkouts and strikes, in order to build irresistible pressure behind these demands. Electoral tactics should flow from such an extra-parliamentary approach.
  • For public ownership under full democratic control of the banks and big companies, and the adoption of democratic socialist policies as the only way to permanently secure democratic rights and eradicate the deep crisis of the capitalist system.

Special financial appeal to all readers of socialistworld.net

Support building alternative socialist media

Socialistworld.net provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. Socialistworld.net also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


November 2009