Hong Kong’s precarious quest for democracy

Author: Peter T.Y. Cheung, University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong has reached a crossroad in its precarious quest for democracy under ‘One Country, Two Systems’.

The 2012 election reform proposal put forward by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government for reforming Hong Kong’s political arrangements was largely similar to the one voted down in 2005. It will not satisfy the demands of pro-democracy political groups who are fighting for a faster pace of democratisation. But this time, some of the pro-democracy advocates have changed their tactics. The resignation of five pro-democracy legislators in late January aimed to capture greater popular attention and turn the ensuing by-elections into a ‘de facto’ referendum on the issue of political reform. Such actions have so far not received a great deal of support from the community, and have simultaneously aggravated the tension between Beijing and the pan-democrats in Hong Kong. The use of slogans like ‘uprising’ in political material produced by these advocates further triggered a strong response from Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.

The controversy over this so-called ‘referendum’ has split the different political parties within the pro-democracy camp, since the Democratic Party does not want to join the resignations championed by the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats. But it has also put the HKSAR government on the spot. The government has no choice but to arrange the by-elections in accordance with the relevant regulations, but at the same time, it does not seem to know how to steer the politics that has erupted. The central government in Beijing seems to have lost some of its patience in the way Donald Tsang’s administration is handling the controversy. The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office issued a strongly worded statement in mid-January, and the conservative camp soon decided to boycott the by-elections. So Donald Tsang faces challenges both from pan-democrats who argue for a more democratic alternative to the current proposal, and from conservative political forces that are close to Beijing.

Whether the ongoing contact between the central government and more moderate democrats such as the Democratic Party will bear fruit remains to be seen. But if 2012 fails to bring about any genuine move towards democracy, this could generate even more disillusion in Hong Kong by reinforcing existing scepticism toward Beijing’s promise of universal suffrage.

2012 is a vital turning point. If Hong Kong cannot move political reform forward for this round of elections, it is unlikely that a more democratic system can emerge by the next elections in 2017 and 2020.

Peter Cheung is Associate Professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.