“Hong Kong Express”
“Delaying action until 2017 also means that Beijing’s current leaders would leave the problem of how to handle Hong Kong to their successors, who will be chosen in 2012, because President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are both expected to retire in early 2013”.
By Donald Greenlees and Keith Bradsher
The New York Times: December 30, 2007
HONG KONG — Chinese officials announced Saturday that Hong Kong would have to wait at least another decade for democratic elections to select its leader, and for more than 12 years to have the right to directly elect the entire legislature.
The decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for the democracy aspirations of Hong Kong residents, and another sign that Beijing’s current leaders have scant appetite for experimenting with greater public participation in political decision-making.
The Basic Law, the mini-Constitution imposed by China on Hong Kong after Britain returned the city to Chinese rule in 1997, raises the prospect of choosing Hong Kong leaders starting in 2007 by the principle of one person, one vote. But having already decided in 2004 to postpone universal suffrage until at least 2012, Beijing’s leaders took the next step on Saturday of postponing action for at least five years after that.
Donald Tsang, the current chief executive who is Hong Kong’s leader, plans to retire in 2012.
That has raised the prospect of a struggle among pro-Beijing political groups at that time over who might succeed him.
Pushing back even the possibility of universal suffrage until 2017 means that whoever succeeds Mr. Tsang would probably be running for re-election and would have all the advantages of an incumbent.
Delaying action until 2017 also means that Beijing’s current leaders would leave the problem of how to handle Hong Kong to their successors, who will be chosen in 2012, because President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are both expected to retire in early 2013.
The Chinese government’s timetable for democratic reform in Hong Kong follows a decision by the Standing Committee of the Chinese Parliament, the National People’s Congress, to reject universal suffrage there in 2012, a timetable that opinion polls suggested is favored by a majority of the people of Hong Kong.
The earliest voters would be entitled to elect the chief executive by popular vote is now 2017. They must wait until 2020 before possibly having the opportunity to vote for the entire 60-seat Legislative Council.
Currently, half of the council is elected by limited franchise from special interest groups; voters choose the other half from geographic constituencies.
The chief executive is chosen by an electoral college of 800 representatives, most of them loyal to Beijing.
Chinese officials also announced Saturday that if universal suffrage is introduced in 2017, only candidates nominated by a committee that would probably resemble the current electoral college would be allowed on the ballot.
In a joint statement, democrats called on the central government to “respect the wishes of Hong Kong people” and reverse the decision.
The United States and Britain also criticized the announcement.
“We believe they should have the opportunity to achieve their aspirations for democracy as soon as possible,” said Dale G. Kreisher, a spokesman for the American consulate.
David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, said, “Today’s announcement by the National People’s Congress that there will not be universal suffrage in the 2012 Hong Kong elections will be a disappointment for all those who want to see Hong Kong move to full democracy as soon as possible.”
But government officials in Hong Kong and Beijing said the decision finally gave Hong Kong the certainty of a timetable for achieving universal suffrage.
“The timetable for universal suffrage has been set,” Mr. Tsang said. “Hong Kong is entering a most important chapter in its constitutional history. We should try to apply fresh thinking to secure implementation of universal suffrage for the chief executive first in 2017, to be followed by that for the Legislative Council in 2020. We must treasure this hard-earned opportunity.”
Mr. Tsang and a senior congress official, Qiao Xiaoyang, justified the decision to wait another decade before introducing universal suffrage on the grounds of preserving stability of a community still divided over how and when to achieve full democracy.
Hong Kong still faces a long process of hard negotiation over how the new electoral system will work, and the proposed timetable could be derailed.
The democratic and pro-Beijing forces are deeply divided over many practical issues, including the rules governing a nominating committee that will select candidates for chief executive and how many of them will be able to run.
The ruling of the Standing Committee only states that direct elections “may be implemented” beginning in 2017.
It requires the existing system to remain in place unless Hong Kong’s legislature can agree by a two-thirds majority on any changes.
New election laws would also have to be approved by the chief executive and the congress.
The chairman of the Democratic Party, Albert Ho, said there was no guarantee democracy would be achieved according to the proposed timetable.
“This could be an empty goal,” he said on local radio.
Michael E. DeGolyer, a political analyst, said achieving progress toward democracy depended largely on the ability of Hong Kong politicians to agree on an electoral system.
He said the congress had simply given the chief executive the authority to propose an electoral system based on universal suffrage.
“It did not say you will present us a plan,” Mr. DeGolyer said. “It said you ‘may’ present us a plan. It might be something that Hong Kong people themselves decide not to do for some reason.”