Is Hong Kong Getting Any Closer to Real Democracy?

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Dale de la Rey / AFP / Getty Images

Demonstrators on Feb. 11, 2010, calling for the release of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo

When Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was convicted in December of subverting the state after he helped organize a democracy petition, the only protesters gathered outside the Beijing courtroom were foreign diplomats waiting to tell a pack of Western journalists that their governments officially condemned the verdict.

But in Hong Kong, thousands of people took to the streets. They marched on the offices of the central government, carrying placards with Liu's face and shouting slogans calling for democracy in their city of 7 million. During the weeks that followed, a number of Hong Kong politicians called for his release.

In Hong Kong, the everyday laws of the People's Republic do not apply. Since the British handover in 1997, the former colonial entrepôt has been governed as a special administrative region (SAR) of China under the principle of "one country, two systems," and it looks a lot more like a democracy than the mainland. It has a free press, independent bewigged judges (a legacy of the British) and regularly scheduled elections — although there are no direct elections for the SAR's Chief Executive or for half of the legislature, which has seats reserved for "functional constituencies" representing various professions. Hong Kong is no Potemkin village, but it isn't a city on a hill either.

Hong Kong's mini-constitution under China promises eventual democracy for the SAR, but little progress has been made over the past decade, despite mounting pressure from a loose coalition of pro-democratic parties known as the pan-democrats. In November, the Hong Kong government unveiled a package of electoral reforms it pledged would "roll forward democracy." The proposal called for 10 new seats in the 60-seat legislature, divided equally between the elected and the selected seats, and for an extra 400 people to be added to the 800-member committee that nominates and elects the Chief Executive. In other words, the proposal offered bubkes. As one pro-democracy politician put it, "They've given us nothing. Just put us in a dead end."

This isn't the first roadblock on Hong Kong's long march toward democracy. The British routinely co-opted or marginalized opponents to colonial rule until the 1980s, when they finally allowed a certain number of local district councilors to be elected. In the early 1990s, the first legislative elections were held, but after the handover, the Chinese temporarily replaced the whole legislature. Since then, it has postponed democracy twice. In 2004, Beijing decreed that Hong Kong could not have universal suffrage before 2012. In 2007, after the pan-democrats defeated a package of reforms almost identical to the ones proposed in November, Beijing again postponed the date until at least 2017.

Universal suffrage seems to hover constantly on the Hong Kong horizon, which is why, this time, the pan-democrats have to ask themselves whether even some small reform is better than no reform. Should they strike a compromise or make battle? Five legislators chose to do battle: in January, they resigned in the hope of forcing what they call a "de facto referendum" when they run again for their seats in the resulting by-elections. But the plan is rash and has proved unpopular. The other pan-democrats distanced themselves from the plan, while the pro-Beijing parties threatened not to run candidates in the elections, making it likely that the five will be voted back in without being able to score a victory for their cause at the polls.

Most of the pan-democrats are working toward a compromise. Chief Executive Donald Tsang hinted last week that he, too, is looking for a "middle ground," and a member of the cabinet said the final proposal, which will be voted on this summer (and requires two-thirds support to pass), must have "something for everyone." The pan-democrats are willing to trade votes for assurances that the Chief Executive will be elected by universal suffrage (and that the nomination committee will be greatly expanded, if not abolished) by 2017 and that legislature will abolish functional constituencies by 2020. Proving the ability to cooperate with the government may do more to sway Beijing that Hong Kong is ready for democracy than exercising the right to act as a loyal opposition.

Beijing, of course, has the power to postpone democracy indefinitely; the promise it made back in 1997 is vague. Hong Kong's constitution says universal suffrage is the "ultimate goal," but there is no timeline. It's up to the local government to initiate electoral reforms, and it takes its cues largely from Beijing. The central government has continually inserted itself into the process not only by postponing universal suffrage by decree but also by insisting that it must approve any reforms and that the local government can only tinker in limited ways with the current system for now — one reason the current proposals are just token.

There is also concern that Beijing will allow universal suffrage only after Hong Kong passes some sort of antisedition law that could make it illegal to campaign for democracy in the mainland the way Liu Xiaobo did or to call for the independence of Hong Kong, Tibet or the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang. In 2003 an antisedition bill proposed by the local government was defeated after a million people took to the streets in protest. Beijing has not formally made the antisedition law a precondition to democracy, but there have been subtle hints that it may be a factor: in December, Chinese President Hu Jintao praised Macau, China's other SAR, which has passed one.

Stalling on universal suffrage so far hasn't produced a popular backlash, in part because Hong Kongers seem to have faith in a gradualist approach. Although support for democracy hovers around 70%, almost half the elected officials are from pro-Beijing parties that advocate cooperation and incrementalism. Some Hong Kongers even question whether the special administrative region is ready for democracy. A common refrain: If "Long Hair," a Trotskyite pro-democracy legislator known for his long hair and Che T-shirts, can become the second most popular politician in the city, the people aren't ready to pick their own Chief Executive. For some, the skepticism runs deeper. As Tam Yiu-Chung, the pro-Beijing chairman of Hong Kong's largest party, asked reporters in January, "Do you think the people of Hong Kong can decide political change for themselves?"

The same question could be asked about mainland Chinese. If Hong Kong becomes democratic, presumably they'll agitate for change as well. And that could destabilize a country bent on a quiet, stable rise. Yet there's room for a small-scale democratic experiment. China's economic miracle started with a small-scale economic experiment right across the border from Hong Kong, in Shenzhen. And if China hopes to bring democratic Taiwan back into the fold, it will have to prove it can truly sustain "one country, two systems." Hong Kong could be that trial run.