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Published: 00:21, September 01, 2021 | Updated: 08:46, September 01, 2021
Electoral culture turning a corner with new rules
By Lau Siu-kai
Published:00:21, September 01, 2021 Updated:08:46, September 01, 2021 By Lau Siu-kai

In less than a year’s time, three important and interlinked elections will be held in Hong Kong. The significance of these elections lies in the fact that they will be conducted in accordance with the revamped electoral arrangements devised by the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee. The new electoral system will forever change the way electoral politics is practiced in Hong Kong, and will spawn a new electoral culture here in the years to come.

The revamped electoral system cannot be understood or evaluated by Western political values inasmuch as its primary purpose is to ensure that the “one country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong is implemented comprehensively and accurately to benefit both Hong Kong and the country. The major objectives of the new electoral system include, among other things: safeguarding national sovereignty and security, providing institutional guarantees to the policy of “patriots governing Hong Kong”, strengthening “executive-led” governance, and forging cordial and cooperative executive-legislative relations.

Under the new electoral system, anti-China and anti-communist opposition forces in Hong Kong will be completely excluded from the upcoming elections. Aspirant politicians from the radical opposition can never pass the stringent political allegiance tests applied by the newly installed vetting mechanism. Accordingly, only patriots will be able to take part in the elections and enter the governing bodies of Hong Kong. 

Since the enactment and implementation of the NPC-drafted National Security Law for Hong Kong in mid-2020 and the rigorous enforcement of the law as well as other local laws by the special administrative region government have paralyzed and fractured the opposition, external hostile forces, with a history of colluding with the opposition, are no longer able to interfere wantonly in Hong Kong affairs. All along, the presence of these internal and external hostile forces in Hong Kong has been a major factor inhibiting the desire of many patriots to take part in elections for fear of being attacked, framed or besmirched by their opponents. The inclusion of the opposition in the Election Committee and the Legislative Council had in the past turned these bodies into platforms of political struggle where anti-China and anti-government rhetoric and actions abounded. The removal of the opposition from the electoral process has greatly alleviated the fears, anxieties and concerns of the patriots, leading many of them to feel that not only will they not incur substantial personal costs in pursuing a political career, but they will also be able to work on those practical and urgent economic and social issues which have afflicted Hong Kong for a long time. 

The social and political representativeness of the patriotic camp have significantly expanded; so has its vitality and strength. Correspondingly, the relative influence of the tycoons and the powerful vested interest groups will decline in the upcoming elections and in society, making it easier for Hong Kong to pursue institutional and policy reforms in the future

In addition, the new electoral arrangements have greatly expanded the opportunities for electoral participation to the patriots in those sectors which have been underrepresented before. They comprise people coming from traditional patriotic associations, local residential bodies, small- and medium-sized businesses, labor organizations, the haigui (people with Chinese mainland backgrounds and having studied or worked overseas) and the younger generation. The social and political representativeness of the patriotic camp have significantly expanded; so has its vitality and strength. Correspondingly, the relative influence of the tycoons and the powerful vested interest groups will decline in the upcoming elections and in society, making it easier for Hong Kong to pursue institutional and policy reforms in the future.

The new electoral system is bound to have a palpable long-term impact on Hong Kong’s electoral culture and by extension Hong Kong’s political culture.

First, as a result of the absence of the opposition in the electoral process, political themes and controversies which used to dominate elections will not recur in the upcoming elections. Anti-China and anti-government appeals will disappear. The issue of political reform (in essence, electoral reform), which had been the perennial electoral issue in all the elections in Hong Kong before and after the SAR’s return to the motherland, will no longer be a practically meaningful issue as the NPC and its Standing Committee have already decided on Hong Kong’s electoral arrangements for the chief executive and the Legislative Council, and they cannot and will not be changed in the foreseeable future. Moreover, the central authorities have repeatedly urged Hong Kong’s officials and politicians to take advantage of the relatively stable conditions in the days ahead to focus on resolving Hong Kong’s deep-seated problems such as land and housing, economic growth, diversification of its industrial structure, poverty, income inequality and mobility opportunities for the young people. It is expected that the platforms of all candidates in the upcoming elections will put forward their views and suggestions on these practical issues. The demise of political issues and the rise of practical issues in the upcoming elections will foster rational debates based on facts and policy studies. If controversial or explosive political issues had divided the community in the past, rational discussion of practical issues should be conducive to problem-solving, consensus-building and social solidarity.

Second, a prominent feature of the elections in the past was the acrimony, animosity and confrontation between the patriots and the opposition. The opposition, particularly its print and web media, deployed a lot of illicit, immoral and occasionally violent tactics against the patriotic candidates. Clashes between the patriots and the opposition oftentimes flared up frequently and openly, engendering conflicts and division within the community. Consequently, Hong Kong’s elections were oftentimes sources and generators of political instability. Under the new electoral system, with the patriotic elites as the primary participants, electoral contests will be conducted in a much more “gentlemanly”, courteous, and subdued manner. The candidates and their supporters will abstain from improper behavior, will avoid doing things that will damage their prestige and relations, will not behave in such a way as to undermine the credibility and reputation of the patriotic camp, will refrain from mobilizing the masses against their rivals, will adopt a long-term perspective about their political interests, and will make sure that they will be respected and trusted by the central government. These behavioral features are already evident in the nomination process for the Election Committee elections. They will also be fully displayed in the Election Committee elections and the election of the chief executive, both of which in essence represent typical “classical” elite politics.

Even in the Legislative Council elections, by and large, gentlemanly contests will still be the norm. More fierce competition will take place in the professional sectors of the functional constituencies elections, where opposition candidates are to be found and the voters are individuals. Nevertheless, the candidate vetting process will ensure that only those opposition figures who are moderate in their political positions and behavior will be allowed to become candidates. These people are unlikely to use the electoral process to sow discord in the community. Electoral contests in the direct elections of the Legislative Council are potentially more susceptible to heated conflict. Nevertheless, again, the candidate vetting will function to weed out those who are anti-China and anti-communist, and only the moderate opposition figures will be permitted to join the electoral contest. These opposition candidates will not appeal to the radical voters for support, knowing that they will not be their favorites. On the other hand, the radical voters who used to support the anti-China and anti-communist politicians will likely do everything to boycott and bad-mouth the elections as a way to ventilate their discontent with the revamped electoral system. 

Is there the possibility that Hong Kong people who are long-standing supporters of the opposition would take radical or even violent actions to disrupt the upcoming elections, again making the elections occasions of political confrontation and division? The chances of these are slight. The disintegration and crumbling of Hong Kong’s opposition have disabled it as a potent political force which can organize and lead large-scale collective protests. Its political appeal and credibility among Hong Kong residents have irrevocably diminished, depriving it of the moral authority needed for effective leadership. What is most important is that both the opposition leaders and their remaining supporters will be deterred from taking actions that might be in contravention of the National Security Law and other local laws related to public order maintenance. Consequently, it is expected that despite the grievances and frustrations of certain sections of Hong Kong communities, the upcoming elections will take place in a relatively peaceful environment and will be conducted in a “friendly” manner.

Electoral contests since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland had been occasions for political confrontation and social turmoil and have been instrumental in the formation of a low-quality political culture where irrationality, vulgarity, animosity and intolerance were the prominent features. The new electoral system and the new electoral culture stemming from it is expected to bring about a high-quality political culture where rationality, pragmatism, mutual respect, compromise and tolerance are the core elements. As this high-grade political culture gradually takes hold in Hong Kong, effective governance and long-term stability in Hong Kong will no longer be political goals out of reach. This will particularly be so when even the supporters of the opposition eventually resign themselves to the new political reality of Hong Kong.

The author is professor emeritus of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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