With the National People’s Congress decision on electoral arrangements for Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has brought its Leninist view of democracy to the city. This view focuses on results. The mainland is presumed to be democratic because it is ruled in the interests of the people. The CCP is uniquely qualified to divine these interests and brooks no organised opposition to its understanding of the peoples’ interests on the mainland.

Carrie Lam and Xi Jinping. File Photo: GovHK.

The CCP is not in power in Hong Kong in the same way that it is on the mainland. Although the party may be recruiting members here, this is a long, laborious process to guarantee loyalty. As we know on the mainland, the CCP sometimes makes mistakes and recruits the disloyal. In Hong Kong, the party rules without committees in all key institutions, at least for the moment. CCP rule is indirect.

Witness party secretary Luo Huining’s formal role as an adviser on implementing the National Security Law. Unlike the mainland the CCP has imposed no internet firewall here, and still allows relatively more autonomy for the media, church-run elite schools, universities and our legal and judicial system. The party is testing these institutions daily.

The NPC’s voting result on a resolution to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system. File Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Colonial Hong Kong was not democratic yet our 1990s colonial institutions propagated democracy as contested elections. This view focused on process, not on results. If citizens could relatively freely contest elections, and elections were held by secret ballot and were relatively “free and fair,” the authorities and the community recognised the results.

In these elections the Hong Kong government tolerated candidates with all sorts of views about Hong Kong-mainland relations. The community elected some of them, in my view, as a sign of protest. Citizens were dissatisfied that our colonial unreformed political institutions disenfranchised them or discounted their votes. For example, we had no universal suffrage and vested interests dominated LegCo.

The CCP is now telling the people of Hong Kong that the party knows best when it comes to the interests of the community. It distrusts the people to recognise their own best interests. “Look at the mess you created,” the party tells us. “We know best.”

People holding up a “five-one” hand sign outside the court on Monday, representing the protest slogan “five demands, not one less,” which is outlawed under the National Security Law. Photo: Joshua Kwan/United Social Press.

The CCP’s changes to our political institutions may make LegCo less colonial. To do that, the party must strip out the special privileges accorded to the business community. Former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, endorsing the changes, pointed out that central authorities would “properly handle the entrenchment of vested interests arising from the proposal.” From the perspective of ordinary citizens, colonial authorities did not “properly handle” the entrenchment of vested interests and neither did the CCP when it drafted the Basic Law. Rather, both authorities empowered vested interests, the tycoons, rural kingpins and big business, allowing them to continue to dominate our political institutions.

The CCP and its allies in HK will dominate the Election Committee and the new LegCo. The party justifies this arrangement on the grounds that it understands the long-term interests of the people. There is some logic to this claim. First, operating within the colonial institutions laid down in the Basic Law, political conflict has dogged Hong Kong, especially since 2014. People turned to the streets when they perceived that political institutions had failed them. The Hong Kong government sparked further conflict, resulting in years of gridlock. Hong Kong thus needs to change.

Second, the CCP thinks beyond Hong Kong, bringing a broader vision both of China and the world. This doesn’t mean that we must agree with this vision, but many find it compelling. Third, although the details are not yet clear, the party’s plans for HK continue to allow autonomous political participation here. Such a policy, built on pragmatism, understands that HK is made up of immigrants from the mainland and their descendants. Hongkongers have their own experience of the CCP, either directly or through stories passed down the generations. This experience is far from uniformly flattering. The CCP knows this and has not called for revolution. The changes may rid us of a colonial legislature.

Fourth, although the party’s policy narrows the scope for political action in LegCo, opposition focused on government policy still appears to be possible. We can expect business interests to scream in these new institutions if authorities make any attempt to increase taxes or touch private property.   

Photo: GovHK.

There are dangers, however, if our political institutions become too zombie-like or one- dimensional, especially now before the CCP is fully entrenched in HK. The CCP expects to balance different interests in society internally, away from public gaze. It does so on the mainland in an opaque process but at present lacks the capacity in Hong Kong to engage in such an exercise. We in Hong Kong need our political institutions to reflect the real interests of society, to operate effectively to prevent instability. They must not continue to be dominated by vested interests. Can we trust the CCP, as Tung urges us, to curb existing vested interests?

Given that we have no influence on these changes to our political system, we should try to make the best of them. In this, we must preserve the right to think and speak freely, organise freely, and advocate freely, all within the scope of the law. It is unsafe for citizens to assume that the authorities will take care of all interests in Hong Kong. After all, they have failed to do so up to now. So speak up, stand up, and make these new institutions work for Hong Kong.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

John Burns

John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.