On the eve of a decision by Beijing on rules for elections in Hong Kong, a top Chinese academic presented a series of justifications on Thursday last week for why the territory’s more than 7 million people should temper demands for Western-style democracy, insisting that a “less perfect” version of democracy is better than none at all.
Hong Kong is set to pick its top official, the chief executive, by popular vote starting in 2017. China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), is expected to give guidance in the coming days [Editors’ note: It did so on Sunday.] on how it should implement the elections.
Beijing has taken the position that candidates must be vetted by a nominating committee, which democracy activists and pro-establishment figures alike say will screen out anyone seen as unacceptable by Beijing.
Speaking in Hong Kong, Wang Zhenmin (王振民), dean of the law school at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who advises the central government on Hong Kong issues, said “no democracy in the world” was perfect.
“The overwhelming majority of the people in Hong Kong and the central authorities would like to see universal suffrage in 2017,” he said. “We should not let the people down. More is less, less is more. Less perfect universal suffrage is better than no universal suffrage. Leave some room for future growth.”
Wang, who visited Hong Kong under the auspices of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make its case for the new rules, also assured Hong Kongers that contrary to published reports, the territory’s independent courts would be respected and flourish in coming years, as China itself moved toward a more rules-based system. He said reports that judges would be subject to a political requirement of “loving the country” were the result of mistranslations of a Chinese white paper.
The meat of his presentation focused on the election rules in the former British colony. One person familiar with the deliberations in Beijing, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, said the NPC would almost certainly insist that candidates be vetted by a nominating committee, which would restrict the public from putting forth candidates.
Democrats in the Hong Kong legislature have vowed to block any measure that does not allow for free and fair elections, and a broad coalition of citizens, including religious leaders, students and even some members of the city’s financial community, have vowed to stage large protests that might disrupt business in Asia’s top financial center if the government’s plan limits who can be on the ballot.
Wang acknowledged that there was mistrust over Beijing’s intentions in Hong Kong, which is run separately from the rest of China under an agreement with Britain that paved the way for the return of Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Hong Kongers enjoy civil liberties, including freedoms of assembly, speech and religion, that are not available elsewhere in China. Many fear that such autonomy is being eroded, citing recent pressure on the media and a controversial policy document issued by Beijing earlier this year.
“Since the handover in 1997 we have not made good progress on confidence-building between Hong Kong and the mainland,” Wang said.
He likened the central government in Beijing to a mother, who would never do anything to harm her children.
“The mother always acts in the best interests of her children,” he said. “Her intentions are pure.”
In an unusual theoretical leap for a state that is still at least nominally socialist, Wang suggested one reason to keep control of the nomination process was to protect the interests of its capitalist class.
“We have to take care of every class,” he said. “Every group of people. Every person. Rich or poor. No one should be ignored. No one should be left behind. Especially those whose slice of pie will be shared by others upon the implementation of universal suffrage.”
Many of Hong Kong’s tycoons — at the top of the hierarchy in a territory that has for decades been ranked as one of the most free market economies in the world — have long feared that democracy would lead to the introduction of a European-style welfare state, with much higher taxes on their fortunes to pay for it. Since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, a committee of about 1,200 electors who choose the top leader has been stacked with tycoons, and the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), was drawn from their ranks.
Wang drew on a theoretical shift made more than a decade ago that allowed capitalists into the Chinese Communist Party. The so-called “Three Represents” policy formally ended decades of official hostility toward the business class in a state founded to promote the interests of workers and peasants.
On Thursday, Wang appeared to take that one step further, putting the interests of the wealthy above others’ by advocating that they retain power in Hong Kong disproportionate to their numbers.
“Even if it is a small group of people, a very small group of people,” Wang said. “But they control the destiny of the economy in Hong Kong. If we just ignore their interests, then Hong Kong capitalism will stop. So that’s why on the one hand we realize universal suffrage in Hong Kong, on the other hand we must guarantee the continued development of capitalism in Hong Kong.”
Lawmaker Martin Lee (李柱銘), founder of the Democratic Party, who helped to write the laws that will govern Hong Kong separately from the rest of China until 2047, said the idea that the interests of the rich would not be protected in a democracy went against the experience of advanced industrialized states.
“There’s a Republican Party in the [United] States, there’s a Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, right? I mean you can just form your own party,” Lee said in an interview following Wang’s remarks. “There’s no reason why the law should be bent to protect their interest above the interest of everybody else. We’re talking about equal rights, and they cannot claim to be more equal than the others.”
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