Chinese Body to Rule on Hong Kong Democracy

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Amid U.S. concerns and protests by pro-democracy campaigners, a top lawmaking body in China is meeting to rule on whether and how the people of Hong Kong should select their future leaders.

The move has sparked concerns and protests in the semi-autonomous territory, where a growing democracy movement had hoped voters would be able to directly elect their chief executive and lawmakers in the 2007-8 electoral cycle.

The standing committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) is expected to deliver by Tuesday its interpretation of two clauses in Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

The former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, under an agreement promising significant autonomy and no threat to Hong Kong's capitalist way of life for 50 years.

The "one country, two systems" formula sought to allay concerns that the vibrant, prosperous territory would be swallowed up by the communist mainland.

In the years since, Hong Kong's chief executive has been selected by an 800-member electoral college loyal to Beijing, and fewer than half of the lawmakers in the territory's Legislative Council (LegCo) have been democratically elected.

The Basic Law provides for unspecified changes - if they are needed - to the way the chief executive position and LegCo seats can be filled after 2007 and 2008 respectively, and democrats had hoped the authorities would allow universal franchise at that time.

The central government in Beijing has in recent weeks made it clear, however, that it does not envisage democratization happening that quickly, culminating in the announcement that the NPC standing committee would review and interpret the clauses.

The Basic Law provides for the NPC committee to be the deciding authority in constitutional questions relating to Hong Kong.

At the weekend, the official Xinhua news agency stated that the committee's interpretations would be "fair, reasonable, in line with the law and consistent with the pace of constitutional development in Hong Kong."

Democracy campaigners have been staging demonstrations since the committee's session began late last week. An overnight sit-in Friday at Hong Kong government offices ended in scuffles with police.

Also on Friday, the U.S. State Department voiced concern that China had decided to issue an interpretation on an important matter in the Basic Law "before the Hong Kong people have fully aired the issues."

The concern came in a statement accompanying the release of a report to Congress, mandated by the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act.

Spokesman Adam Ereli said that a fully autonomous and open society, governed by the rule of law, was essential for Hong Kong's stability and prosperity.

He said the U.S. strongly supported "the Hong Kong people's desire for democracy, electoral reform and universal suffrage."

"It is important that the people of Hong Kong be permitted to determine the pace and scope of constitutional developments."

He expressed concern that the standing committee's interpretation of the Basic Law may affect the international community's confidence in Hong Kong.

Coming as it did at a sensitive time, the statement drew a strong response in Beijing and in Hong Kong itself.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted by Xinhua as reiterating Beijing's "sovereign right over Hong Kong," and saying that the U.S. remarks were "unacceptable."

Hong Kong's constitutional affairs secretary Stephen Lam responded by saying the territory's constitutional development was an "internal" matter for China.

Hong Kong's government, headed by chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, has supported China's decision to rule on the Basic Law.

Tung's popularity levels continue to be low. The latest regular survey by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong found 63 percent of respondents did not support him as chief executive, while 18 percent did.

Martin Lee, Hong Kong's best-known pro-democracy lawmaker, said the "one country, two systems" formula was under threat.

Echoing other critics, he attributed China's decision to give an official interpretation of the two Basic Law clauses to fears that pro-Beijing lawmakers will lose control of the LegCo in elections scheduled for September 12.

For the first time, a full half of the legislature's 60 seats will be elected through universal suffrage, raising the possibility that democrats may win a majority.

In the last LegCo election, only 24 seats were directly elected. The remainder are filled by interest groups known as "functional constituencies."

See earlier story:
Hong Kong Democrats Fume as Beijing Moves to Slow Reform (March 29, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow