COM 06/2016

Hong Kong’s Legislature and the Diffusion of Power

Dr. Tim Summers, Senior Consulting Fellow on the Asia Programme at Chatham House and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Centre for China Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong


Tim Summers argues that the results of September’s Hong Kong elections indicate a growing diffusion of power and influence across Hong Kong politics and society – and not a tighter grip from Beijing. This underlying fragmentation substantially reduces the chances of meaningful progress on political and constitutional reform.

Hong Kongers went to the polls on 4 September to vote in a new legislature – the Legislative Council (LegCo) – in elections which attracted more international interest than any since the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. That interest has since been maintained following the aborted oath-taking by several new legislators, and the subsequent interpretation  of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC).

This interest is not surprising. These were the first elections since the 79-day ‘occupy’ movement of autumn 2014 and the rejection in June 2015 by LegCo of proposals for political reform which would have seen the head of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) and its government (the Chief Executive) elected by popular vote, albeit after candidates were effectively screened by a nomination committee.

Politically and constitutionally, the most significant development since 2014 has been the emergence of advocates of independence or some form of ‘self-determination’ for Hong Kong, the first time that there has been such a fundamental challenge to the constitutional settlement which was set out in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the 1990 Basic Law. (Incidentally, though some argue that this is the product of a misguided strategy towards Hong Kong on the part of Beijing or the Hong Kong Chief Executive, self-determination was latent in positions taken by a minority during the occupy protests and their aftermath, who rejected any role for the central government in selecting the Chief Executive.)

The results of the LegCo elections reflect the new politics, in particular through the election of a number of candidates who support self-determination in some form or advocate revisiting the Basic Law, including the two at the heart of the oath-taking controversy. Analysis of the voting patterns in geographical constituencies suggests that support for self determination or independence is probably around one in nine of those who voted. These votes were at the expense of the traditional opposition, so-called ‘pan-democrats’ and other radicals, who gained two fifths of the votes cast.

Making these calculations is complicated by the fact that voters had two votes, one in geographical constituencies and another in functional constituencies. The vast majority of second votes were cast in five of the functional constituencies, where 42% of voters supported pro- establishment candidates (compared to their 40% in the geographical seats), a proportion consistent with their historical performance. This demonstrates that Hong Kong continues to have a sizeable conservative population.

It is clear is that these elections split the opposition: there are ten parties or political groupings among their 30 seats (out of a total of 70), only two of which have more than two seats (some calculations suggest that only 29 legislators should be counted in this group).

There has been more unity in the pro-establishment camp, which has traditionally been better organized. But there has also been some fragmentation and contestation here, reflected in the varying degrees of criticism of the current Chief Executive, C. Y. Leung, and in controversy before the elections over whether a member of the Liberal Party was asked by someone allegedly ‘close to Beijing’ not to stand.

The big losers in the elections were moderates, those who have sought to some degree to bridge maintaining dialogue with Beijing and pushing to maximise Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy within the constraints of the constitution.

Before looking further at what this means, it is worth noting that the LegCo  polls  were  not just about the relationship between Hong  Kong and Beijing. Indeed, immediately following the elections most attention was paid to the lawmaker with the highest number of votes, Eddie Chu Hoi- dick, who campaigned on environmental issues and highlighted alleged collusion between government and local villagers around a housing project in Hong Kong’s northwest.

I. Diffused politics, not a tighter grip from Beijing

A common narrative has taken hold in much commentary on Hong Kong, to the effect that Beijing (meaning the central Party-state or organs under it) is tightening its grip on Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy has been compromised. This was most recently picked up in a report from the US Congress suggesting that the US administration should consider reviewing its approach to Hong Kong.

However, the results of the Hong Kong elections suggest this analysis is off the mark and something else is going on in Hong Kong politics. Several features of the LegCo elections point to a more diffused and decentred politics, along with greater individual empowerment, not a tighter grip from Beijing. At the same time, there is something of an insecurity spiral between the growing opposition assertiveness and the response to it from some officials in the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong.

The first relevant feature of the election results is simply the increase (from 27 to 30) in the number of opposition legislators who are – to varying degrees – critical of or hostile to Beijing. Further, a number of vehemently anti-Beijing candidates were elected, including some who accompanied their (aborted) oath-taking on the first day of LegCo with vulgarities and messages to the effect that ‘Hong Kong is not China’. Together with the subsequent turmoil in the council this prompted the NPCSC interpretation.

Further, the clumsy attempt by Beijing and the Hong Kong government to prevent pro-independence candidates from standing for election backfired. Although several individuals were not allowed to run, others were. The attempt itself was probably counterproductive in terms of votes, and certainly damaging in terms of wider public opinion. This is one further example (on top of national security legislation, national education, and the 2014 reform package) of the difficulty Beijing has in influencing Hong Kong society and politics. The initial critical response to the interpretation and the need for it to be implemented through the contested processes which mark Hong Kong’s legal system, further demonstrate how Beijing’s hands are tied.

Beijing’s hands are also tied by politics in the establishment camp, where legislators also need to adopt positions which meet with public support. The fact of elections for LegCo means that they simply cannot just toe any old line from Beijing. This has been a feature of Hong Kong politics since elections for the legislature were introduced after the debates of the 1980s, but this pro-establishment dilemma has become starker since 2014 as the centre of gravity of Hong Kong politics has moved away from Beijing.

So what we have is a more diffused politics – incidentally not dissimilar to that in many other societies as post-financial crisis challenges grow across societies to the assumptions and realities of globalised modernity.  While the opposition claims that Beijing is tightening its grip – the narrative which finds fertile ground in much of the international media, the government complains that it has little room for manoeuvre given opposition in LegCo. And those close to Beijing feel that the anti- Communist Party majority in Hong Kong remains strong, and their influence is weak. Over time, power and influence – which find their primary outlets in the ability to veto more than proactively shape new policy outcomes – have become increasingly diffused across Hong Kong politics and society.

II. Implications for Hong Kong’s political system and policy issues

Two months after the election, what does this mean for Hong Kong’s political system and policy directions?

The operation of LegCo is clearly becoming more fractious. The oath-taking episode suggests that more legislators than in the past are going to use the council for political theatre. Serious policy debate has already suffered.

Debate about the NPCSC interpretation will continue. At the same time the focus of Hong Kong politics is turning to the selection in March of the Chief Executive whose term will begin on 1 July 2017. The process begins in December with elections by sub-sector of members of the 1,200-strong committee which will vote on candidates. So far, only one individual has formally stated his intention to stand. The general assumption has been that the central government would make its preference known (though this should not be taken for granted), and given that the option of a popular vote was rejected, this preference would prevail, but in the face of protests. More confrontational scenarios cannot be ruled out.

What events since the LegCo elections show is that – whoever emerges from this process – Hong Kong society and politics is fundamentally and increasingly polarised and fragmented. Leadership does matter, and the identity and approach of the Chief Executive after next summer could make some difference at least to the mood and style of politics in Hong Kong. But opposition legislators have taken hard positions which are unlikely to be amended in response to any candidate who ends up being acceptable to Beijing. Neither is Beijing likely to offer anything better than before on the constitutional settlement. Hong Kong’s structural political problems will continue.

The final implication of fragmented and diffused politics is therefore that the prospects for political reform look worse than ever. By definition (and constitutional requirement), constitutional reform needs a reasonable consensus. It is hard to see how this will emerge. The  confrontational  response to the interpretation makes clear that opposition legislators do not want to engage in  negotiation with the government; but even if they did, their fragmentation and a marked lack of leadership among these legislators means the prospects for progress are minimal.

Political reform is therefore frozen for the foreseeable future. Governments in the West should consider this carefully when calling for a resumption of the reform process which was abandoned in 2015. Better that they ensure their positions first support a return to the building of consensus in Hong Kong within the Basic Law and the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. As it was when negotiated with the international community’s support in the 1980s and 1990s, this remains the best and only realistic compromise for Hong Kong, which has the ability to square the aspirations of many people in Hong Kong with the reality of Chinese sovereignty. It is that willingness to compromise which Hong Kong politics desperately needs to recover over the coming years.