Hong Kong's residents used to be branded as "apolitical." But that description hardly seems appropriate nowadays. Since turning out to rally in record numbers on the anniversary of the handover to China in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens have taken peacefully to the streets on various occasions to protest government decisions and demand political reform.
But China's government continues to claim that Hong Kong's people are not ready for democracy. In April, China's legislators ruled out universal suffrage in Hong Kong's 2007 election of its chief executive, as well as for its 2008 Legislative Council election. They acknowledged that under the city's special constitution, the Basic Law, these elections could be the first opportunities for the territory to choose its representatives according to the principle of "one person, one vote." But they expressed concern that major reform could undermine political stability and economic development.
Currently, all eyes in China are on Hong Kong's upcoming legislative election on September 12, which will indicate to Hong Kong's government and to China's leaders what people think about the pace and direction of reform. A high turnout in favor of pro-democracy candidates is expected, although this won't guarantee them a majority in the legislature because of Hong Kong's unusual political structure. For this month's election, Hong Kong's 3.2 million registered voters can elect only 30 of the 60 seats.
The pro-democracy camp is likely to win 22 seats of those 30 seats, which are based on five large geographical constituencies. The other 30 seats, however, are chosen through functional constituencies, which represent specific interests, such as banks, insurance companies, stockbrokers, chambers of commerce and transport operators. Only 199,000 voters, some of them representatives from corporations, elect the legislators who fill these seats.
Some of these constituencies have only a few hundred voters and are easily controlled by a small number of vested interests. Indeed, at the close of nominations on August 4, eleven functional candidates were chosen without opposition, including those representing banks and the Chinese chamber of commerce.
The British and Chinese governments in the 1980s designed Hong Kong's awkward political system during their negotiations over the eventual transfer of sovereignty. Its purpose was to ensure that the will of the public could not be fully expressed through the ballot box.
After 1997, Hong Kong's government made doubly sure that legislators' already limited powers to initiate debates, legislation and amendments to laws were further restricted. It imposed rules requiring majority support from members of functional constituencies as well as geographic constituencies to take such steps.
So resistance to change is built into the system. If the government can influence 16 of the 30 functional votes, it can thwart proposals from the directly elected legislators. This has happened with controversial issues concerning political reform and government accountability in recent years.
Yet no one should forget that on July 1 last year, over 500,000 people protested because the government refused to allow more time to discuss proposed national security legislation. Hong Kong's government felt it could ignore public opinion and push the bill through with a large majority of the functional members, plus a handful of directly elected pro-government legislators. It only backed down when the pro-government Liberal Party, which held a number of functional seats, broke ranks as a result of the intense public pressure.