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Hong Kong Looks Past China for Suffrage
Voting in leaders is the hope of many in the city, and it may have international support
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2005-05-13 09:42 (KST)   
Ask the average person from Hong Kong what the month of June conjures up and apart from the rain, you'll hear 4/6, a reference to a date that resonates deeply in this city of 6.8 million.

On June 4 it will be 16 years since the tanks rolled into the heart of Beijing, setting off the Tiananmen Square massacre. Every year the event is commemorated with a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park, the only such gathering in all of mainland China.

For many in Hong Kong, the recent passage of the anti-succession law aimed at Taiwan and the bullying tactics of the central government in Beijing during last summer's legislative elections as documented by Human Rights Watch, are intimidating reminders of that horrific day. The message is brutally clear: push the authorities too far and before you can say, "Zhao Ziyang", the tanks will be rolling in.

But Beijing has an Achilles' heel: bad publicity. Back in July 2003, concerns about a Beijing-inspired anti-subversion law, Article 23, brought half a million protesters out into the streets of Hong Kong for a peaceful demonstration of "people power."

When the eyes of the world turned to the protests, Beijing blinked and the bill was withdrawn. However, two years later, the central government is still seen to be meddling in local affairs and disrupting the territory's emerging civil society.

The ongoing debate over democratic reforms is one such example. Much is made about Beijing's concerns over the pace of such reforms, but little is said of what seems obvious to even the most casual observer: the will of the Hong Kong people.

In polls conducted by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong and independent think tank, the Civic Exchange, the results (PDF) are consistent: the overwhelming majority of people support universal suffrage and want to directly elect their chief executive, the official representative of Hong Kong.

Yet democratic reforms remain as unlikely as ever. Authorities continue to reiterate the vague commitment of implementing universal suffrage as an "ultimate aim," as referred to in Hong Kong's mini-constitution, The Basic Law.

Michael Degolyer, head of the Transition Project at Hong Kong's Baptist University, states, "Normal societies have citizens with power to elect leaders and amend their constitutions ... Hong Kong is not a normal society."

It's not difficult to imagine how this abnormality could radicalize dissent and escalate tensions once again. The current arrangement between Hong Kong and Beijing, characterized as "one country, two systems," with Hong Kong supposedly enjoying a "high degree of autonomy," as spelled out in the Basic Law, was designed to prevent such confrontations from developing.

In the early 1980s when the concept was being formulated, then premier Deng Xiaoping guaranteed the arrangement would insure "you don't swallow me up nor I you." Its purpose was to maintain the status quo and protect both sides from assimilating each other.

In retrospect, however, this attempt to preserve Hong Kong's economic prosperity at the expense of democratic reforms appears hopelessly naive. The elected majority in the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo), a loosely knit group of 'pan-democrats' including the popular Leung Kwok-hung, known as "Long Hair", or "Cheung Mo" in Cantonese, supported a referendum on universal suffrage last fall.

Without the crucial support of the chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, who resigned in March of this year, the initiative was quashed, but the group remains committed to the implementation of democratic reforms as early as 2007.

However, in April 2004, Beijing delivered a highly controversial interpretation of the Basic Law that ruled out any reforms for 2007. Writing in the Hong Kong Law Journal, Basic Law drafter Albert Chen stated the decision was a "naked exercise of sovereign power" and "suffered from a deficit of legitimacy in Hong Kong." Today under the recently Beijing-appointed chief executive, (Sir) Donald Tsang, calls have continued for a timetable to facilitate full democratic reforms.

While political stasis may suit Beijing's agenda, the people of Hong Kong have greater aspirations. They may have other options as well from the perspective of international law. If Beijing were to act illegitimately, or illegally as they did in Tiananmen Square, what could Hong Kong do? Who or what could defend their human rights?

Hong Kong is not an independent country, but it is unique. The Joint Declaration of 1984, the blueprint for the Basic Law, was made between the governments of China and Britain. It outlined how Hong Kong would retain its autonomy after Beijing took over in 1997, and most significantly, it was registered with the United Nations.

This is unlike an agreement made within a state, and the involvement of the U.N. creates certain obligations that internationalizes the status of Hong Kong, essentially nullifying Beijing's repeated claims that relations with the territory are solely a domestic concern.

Dr. Lyal Sunga, Director of the LLM Programme in Human Rights at the University of Hong Kong, notes that the Joint Declaration "is not a private agreement but an international one. International treaties are usually done between states, not within states, and are thus not registered with the U.N. The implication is that the secretary general could offer to become involved if invited."

He goes on to say that this is a "unique situation in Hong Kong," and points out the rational for registering the Joint Declaration with the U.N. "Both parties acknowledged a need for a neutral third party and accepted possible participation by doing this. If not, they should have simply made it a bilateral treaty, which they didn't."

Hong Kong is also unique in other ways. The Basic Law insures that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the British colonial government ratified in 1976, "shall remain in force and shall be implemented through the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR)."

China has not yet ratified the ICCPR, but as Bella Luk, former Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, states, "Hong Kong submits its own reports directly to the U.N., although it's not a state."

Clearly, Hong Kong is not simply a domestic concern.

If necessary, the people of Hong Kong do have the option of inviting the secretary general of the U.N. to participate in its affairs. If such an invitation were ever extended, it would be a profound embarrassment for Beijing. To prevent this scenario from developing, Chief Executive Tsang and the authorities in Beijing will likely do everything they can, for as long as they can, to hinder the clarity that a timetable would provide.

As the events of Tiananmen Square spelled out, people can only be pushed so far. The question is who will take the first step: the people of Hong Kong or the authorities in Beijing?
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©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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