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Wednesday, June 10, 2015, 08:52

Political rights increased after handover: Experts

By Kahon Chan

The opposition’s advocacy of ‘genuine universal suffrage’ tries to cast Hong Kong’s state of democracy in a negative light, but political experts argue that many have overlooked just how much progress the city has made regarding political rights since 1997, Kahon Chan reports.

Political rights increased after handover: Experts
Chief Executive L eung Chun-ying (second from right) and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen (right) open a ballot box for vote counting during the 2012 Legislative Council election at the central counting station at the AsiaWorld-Expo. (Provided to CHINA DAILY)

Lau Nai-keung is nowadays widely known for advising the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) as a member in the Hong Kong SAR Basic Law Committee. He is also a vocal critic of the opposition camp.

But back in 1983, he led an unlikely group of political moderates to form the Meeting Point, which later became the Democratic Party. Noteworthy members included Transport and Housing Secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, and Tik Chi-yuen, a vocal supporter of the current reform plans.

Lau split with the group over electoral reform in 1993 — which created considerable political uncertainty in Hong Kong in the years leading up to 1997.

Under the reign of the last British governor, Chris Patten, each voter was given two ballots in the 1995 Legislative Council election — one in geographical constituencies and the other in one of the nine functional constituencies. A lot of voters did not sign up for the latter.

Patten’s plan violated agreements between London and Beijing for a seamless transition of the local councils. The legislature elected in 1995 consequently discontinued after July 1, 1997. It was replaced by a provisional legislative body. A LegCo election was held 11 months after reunification.

Lau explained that he rejected the 1993 reforms not only because they created unrest during the final years of the colonial rule, but also because the expansion of functional constituencies led to unfair representation in the legislature.

The colonial LegCo only gained much of its current-day powers and privileges in 1985 — a year after the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed. All members were appointed before 1991.

Executive Councilor and legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee recalled that until the electoral reform in 1991, the saying in LegCo was that “the ayes always have it”. The former civil servant knows only too well what triggered the transition to representative government under colonial rule.

When district boards were created in 1982, Ip was the first principal assistant secretary for City and New Territories Administration. She reported directly to then chief secretary David Akers-Jones. Election of the boards in 1982 offered most residents the first opportunity to participate in a direct election.

The district board structure was conceived one year after late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping met then governor Murray MacLehose in 1979.

“Only when the British learned Hong Kong was to be handed back to China did they start the so-called return power to the people,” Ip said.

Hong Kong has come a long way since 1982. Prior to the Chris Patten reform, 32 percent of district board members were appointed by colonial rulers. The ratio of appointed members fell to 20 percent in the first post-handover election in 1999, when the district boards were renamed “councils”.

Some 390 district councilors were directly elected in 1999, 44 more than those formed under Patten’s term. As all appointment seats will be gone from 2015, voters will directly choose 431 out of 458 councilors in the November election. The remaining 27 seats will be reserved for rural leaders.

Ip said democracy had moved in “leaps and bounds” since 1997. Ten LegCo seats were chosen by the 400-strong Election Committee in 1998. But after four elections, now 40 out of 70 seats in the LegCo chamber are chosen by the full, or almost full, electorate.

The major breakthrough came in 2010 when five additional functional seats were assigned to district councilors. Unlike the original seat for councilors, these five new “super seats” are open to all voters not registered to vote in other functional constituencies.

In less than 10 days, LegCo will decide whether Hong Kong people can also vote in the next Chief Executive election in 2017. “(It will be) a significant extension of the franchise,” she stressed. “From 1,200 people to 5 million (eligible voters), that really is a lot!”

Ip says a universal suffrage election of the CE will give the government a greater mandate to deal with pressing issues.

She also criticized the opposition camp for being egotistical and ignorant in refusing to accept the election framework set out by the NPCSC.

Freedom of speech

People’s desires for more open elections may be partly misguided, but veteran political scientist Lau Siu-kai says this also shows the “One Country, Two Systems” policy has dispelled people’s fears of losing their civil rights after 1997. They have since made even more demands.

Lau was already a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong before he joined the administration as a top policy adviser in 2002. He left the Central Policy Unit 10 years later, and became vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies in late 2013.

People now have plenty of avenues through which to express themselves. The free press provides the arena for open dialogue. LegCo rules leave a grey area favorable for filibusters. The people may also seek legal aid and pose court challenges against public institutions.

Meaningful moves to uphold civil rights in the colonial era, like the 1993 electoral reform, were only made after the 1979 meeting between Deng and McLehose. Legal curbs on print media in Hong Kong were abolished in 1987. The Hong Kong Bills of Rights Ordinance began to provide statutory protection of freedom of expression in as late as 1991.

Protection of freedom of speech and press is now enshrined in the national Constitution and the Basic Law. “It was a crime to criticize the Queen in the past. Now you won’t have problem denouncing the president openly,” said Lau Nai-keung.

Regina Ip said this has also resulted in greater public participation in policy making. A recent example was that the Town Planning Board held 45 meetings after receiving over 15,000 representations on the new zoning plans for Northeast New Territories.

The downside of meticulous public engagement exercises is the slow deliberation process which holds up major infrastructure projects and policies. But she said government officials now, compared to their colonial predecessors, listen a lot more to the people.

Two rounds of public consultation were also held before the government put forward the current electoral reform blueprint on April 22. Polls have since shown over half of residents want LegCo to pass the reform package.

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