Suzanne Pepper

With election arrangements now totally revamped — and an entire generation of pro-democracy partisans removed from competitive politicking — Hong Kong’s current Legislative Council election campaign is like no other since universal suffrage was finally allowed here in the 1980s.

The drastic changes date from the central government’s June 30, 2020 imposition of a National Security Law, and a similar decree from Beijing in March this year mandating the revamp. The election will be held on Sunday, December 19 and campaigning is underway.

Legislative Council election 2021
Publicity materials promoting the Legislative Council election scheduled on December 19, 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Remembering times past

Back in the 1980s, colonial officials were reluctantly contemplating a radical step which force of circumstances had finally thrust upon them. Proposals to introduce some form of direct election dated all the way back to the beginning of Hong Kong’s colonial life. Even Singapore had one directly elected legislator, argued reformers in later years.

The most recent campaign, in the 1960s, actually seemed on the verge of success. It was led by that old colonial agitator Elsie Elliott working together with Ma Man-fai. But their campaign came to nothing like all the others before them. Official excuses usually had something to do with the chaos created by China’s 20th century revolutions.

The spillover riots — at the start of Mao Zedong’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution decade — provided a convenient excuse to dismiss the 1960s campaign that was demanding the introduction of universal suffrage elections in some form, however limited.

cultural revolution poster
A Cultural Revolution era poster. Photo: Wikicommons.

Hong Kong’s Chinese population saw it as a haven of peace and tranquility, said colonial officials, who were themselves fearful of opening society to the disruptive consequences of pro- and anti-communist sympathisers “fighting each other at the ballot box.” This argument was still being used by some old-timers in the 1990s.

London finally began to take the matter of universal suffrage elections more seriously after Beijing announced, in the early 1980s, that it aimed to regain Hong Kong come 1997. The date was marked by the expiration of an old lease over what was once a lawless border region north of the growing colonial city.

Today, the northern suburbs between the city and the Chinese border are still known as the New Territories and still home to later generations of Hong Kong’s conservative original inhabitants. They share the space they once had all to themselves with newcomers from the city and new arrivals from across the border, and inevitably successors of those who once dominated border region life on the margins of society.

Back in the 1980s the first step toward universal suffrage elections was taken ever so timidly by introducing a constrained form of one-person, one-vote for a minority of seats in the old colonial Legislative Council. The first direct election in 1991 featured 18 directly elected seats and 21 indirectly elected by occupation-based constituencies, with 17 still appointed plus three officials and the Governor. Pro-democracy candidates swept the directly elected sector, winning a landslide victory.

Another alert was sounded by the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. London did not want to be seen as leaving its last major colony to so uncertain a fate, with its people having not been prepared in any way to govern themselves should the need arise. The activist administration of the last British governor, Christopher Patten, was a belated recognition of something that should have begun long before.

Chris Patten.
Chris Patten. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Hong Kong’s sudden fast-track switch from a wholly appointed to a haphazardly modernising legislature left the public without the usual preparation time needed to gain the experience and establish the traditions and precedents necessary for an effective transition. Hongkongers had to learn by doing, under the watchful eye of a new sovereign who was even more suspicious of direct Western-style universal suffrage elections than British colonial administrators had ever been.

In the 1980s, colonial officials and their conservative Chinese advisers had dithered over the pros and cons. They worried that upstanding Hongkongers — the right sort of people needed for the hitherto wholly appointed colonial legislature — could hardly be expected to change course so drastically and do anything so undignified as standing on street corners begging for votes.

But stand they did and by 2019 some who were not yet born in 1997 were out on the streets demanding a wholly elected government — legislature and Chief Executive — both as their right and as Beijing had promised.

The promise was written into Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law, drafted under Beijing’s supervision and promulgated in 1990, to serve as Hong Kong’s post-1997 constitution. Written in the late 1980s, the new law reflected the popular movement for universal suffrage elections that had picked up in the early 1980s, where the 1960s campaign left off. 

Basic Law children
An exhibition on the Basic Law. Photo: GovHK.

But it was not until 2014-15 that Beijing finally admitted it was willing only to allow elections patterned on its own People’s Congress system. This entails universal suffrage elections at the lowermost local level, for candidates approved by local Communist Party officials, with indirect selection thereafter, from the county level on up to the National People’s Congress. No dissent, no divisions, no adversarial politicking of any sort.

All such considerations are supposed to be built into the local party secretary’s decision before he makes it, assuming he is a good and wise party secretary. The exercise is much like that now at work in Hong Kong, where Beijing’s representatives are standing in as campaign managers.

Hong Kong’s drift into radicalism finally took hold at that time, in 2014-15, resulting in the 2019 season of protest that in turn provoked Beijing’s national security clampdown in 2020.

The revamped system

Under the pre-2020 rules, Hong Kong’s 70-seat Legislative Council (LegCo) had 35 seats directly elected by universal suffrage, plus five also elected by popular vote -although these five candidates had to be chosen from among members of neighbourhood-level District Councils.

The five extra seats were a reluctant concession by Beijing, introduced in time for the 2012 LegCo election. Derided as a token gesture by activists, it nevertheless suggested that Hong Kong was still on course and moving toward the promises of 1997.

Legislative Council
Legislative Council. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Under the new post-2020 rules, the old 70-seat legislature has been expanded to 90 seats, only 20 of which will be directly elected. Thirty will be indirectly elected by the occupation-based Functional Constituencies while 40 are to be elected by the totally safe Election Committee.

Key to the new national security regime rules is a vetting committee that works in consultation with the National Security Unit of Hong Kong’s police force. The aim is to keep everyone on the straight and narrow path that Beijing has decreed is for “patriots” only. 

 This means, as recent practice has shown, that candidates should not just formally accept or endorse but willingly embrace the official definitions Beijing has attached to Hong Kong’s Basic Law and its “one-country, two-systems” construct. Accordingly, Hong Kong still enjoys autonomy but “mistakes” were made in post-1997-implementation. These mistakes are now being corrected.

Platforms and promises

In years past, kerbside stalls, street-corner rallies, and online chat-shows were favourite means of candidate-voter contact and publicity. Televised debates were less informative — too many candidates with not enough time to get their message across and differentiate themselves one from another — especially when tempers flared, and time was tied up over one rhetorical point or another.

DAB election committee members and constituency candidates, from let to right: Lillian Wong, Elizabeth Quat, Horace Cheung, Rock Chen, Nixie Lam and Joseph Chan.
DAB election committee members and constituency candidates, from let to right: Lillian Wong, Elizabeth Quat, Horace Cheung, Rock Chen, Nixie Lam and Joseph Chan. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

The same pattern continues — except that there are fewer candidates for voters to choose from, no rallies, the political stage is restricted to token “non-pro-establishment” hopefuls, and the new political strictures have everybody on their best politically correct behaviour. 

There are altogether 153 validly nominated candidates — 51 for the Election Committee constituency, 67 for the Functional Constituencies, and 35 for the Geographic Constituencies.

Election Committee constituency

If past TV debates have been uninformative, the Election Committee’s presentation was even less so. There are 40 seats in the new 90-seat legislature to be elected by the new Election Committee constituency. Its members have themselves just been elected by a five-sector format that replicates the Functional Constituencies.

The five Election Committee sectors thus included: business industry and finance; the professions; and labour; plus, Hong Kong’s legislators, its National People’s Congress delegates, and a variety of other groups and associations.

With only 51 candidates vying for the 40 Election Committee seats in LegCo, and all being of the same political standard, most of the hopefuls are shoo-ins for success. To select their 40 LegCo representatives, the 1,500 members of the Election Committee will use the bloc voting method. This means that each member must mark their ballots to vote for 40 candidates.

2021 Election Committee election Fung Wah
Chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, Justice Barnabas Fung Wah, chairs an online briefing for the candidates of the 2021 Election Committee Subsector Ordinary Elections on August 26, 2021. Photo: GovHK.

For their TV presentations on November 26, the candidates were divided into small groups and given a few minutes each to introduce themselves. Since most of the candidates are staunchly pro-government, there was little disagreement as they hastened through their presentations in the few minutes allotted to each.

Two non-Chinese candidates are among the hopefuls, a rarity in post-1997 Hong Kong. Originally hailing from Canada and Britain respectively, Allen Zeman and Mike Rowse see no problem in accepting the new order. Both are now naturalised Chinese citizens. If elected, as seems likely, they will make history in that respect and help reinforce the official claims about the new system being open to all. 

Still, the cost may be somewhat more than officials bargained for since Mike Rowse immediately stepped out of his new role with a statement repeating the widespread belief that Hong Kong’s tough Covid mandates have more to do with politics than science. The politics he was referring to concern Hong Kong’s official effort to dovetail with the mainland’s tough Covid mandates in order to reopen the border and get the economy moving again.

Most noteworthy at a televised presentation last month were the comments by Andrew Fung, who served as information coordinator during the 2012-2017 administration of Chief Executive CY Leung. Fung worries about the lingering British ways of top civil servants. He thinks Sinification can be promoted by sending them out for a six-month stint in China’s Far West, so they can see for themselves what the real China is like.

Andrew Fung I love you China mask
Andrew Fung and his “I love you China” mask. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

He didn’t explain why he thinks the real China is best represented by the three provinces of Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Tibet, all with large non-Han Chinese populations and many outstanding contradictions. Perhaps he is among those who have begun recasting Hong Kong as another of China’s “national minority” problem areas.

 Further in this respect, the Election Committee sector at work will also be an elaborate exercise in the long-established bureaucratic tradition of relying on concurrent positions to reinforce reliability and guarantee compliance.

This is because of the convoluted nature of the arrangements that include much overlap between the five-sector electorate of the Election Committee and the Functional Constituencies, thereby creating the impression that they are all just voting for each other — which in many cases they are.

The Election Committee sector also serves as an escape route from the rigours of actually representing ordinary voters. Five candidates in the Election Committee sector are former legislators, whose terms have just ended. They represented Geographic Constituencies in the past and are now switching to the easy-rider Election Committee path instead.

Functional constituency candidates

The 67 candidates vying for LegCo’s 30 Functional Constituency seats present a similar picture of bland uniformity — at least in their formal government website presentations. These seats evolved from the old habit of appointing chamber-of-commerce representatives to the colonial legislature. The British began their 1980s popular vote reforms by allowing professionals in the legal and education sectors to elect members of their respective professions to represent them in LegCo.

legislative council national emblem national flag bill
Hong Kong lawmakers vote in favour of amendments to the National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance on September 29, 2021. Photo: Legislative Council screenshot.

Post-1997 reformers gave up trying to reform these constituencies and campaigned instead for a council wholly elected by universal suffrage, as promised by the Basic Law. But it was not to be. Instead, their role has been affirmed and reinforced by the multiple roles they play.

Among the special interests and sectors represented by these constituencies are business, industry, banking, agriculture and fisheries, health care, labour, education, lawyers and so on. But for the first time, thanks to the efforts of Hong Kong’s new Beijing-directed “campaign managers,” every functional constituency seat is being contested.

They have also been keen on recruiting social and economic talent as opposed to the familiar pro-Beijing pro-establishment political parties that have become fixtures at election time. The contests nevertheless appear to be mostly formalities — perhaps with a few exceptions.

One such exception is the one functional constituency with an openly declared centrist or non-pro-establishment candidate, namely, Tik Chi-yuen. He also featured in the Election Committee election as the only such candidate to win one of its seats.

Tik Chi-yuen
Tik Chi-yuen. File Photo: GovHK.

There may well be other “closet” centrists if the opinion poll about allowing commemoration of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown is any indication.

 Now running for LegCo’s Social Welfare seat, Tik’s exchange with pro-Beijing candidate Chu Lai-ling at an election forum led to a disagreement over the government’s latest proposal for oath-taking.

According to the proposal, social workers should be required to take the loyalty oath pledge, swearing allegiance to Hong Kong’s place in the national order. They would then become formally subject to the new national security rules, with potentially dire consequences if they misbehave.

This oath-taking is now mandatory for everyone on the government payroll including top officials, legislators, District Councilors, and civil servants. Tik argued that it should not be required for social workers since they are supposed to work for the benefit of all and might get into trouble if help was given to the wrong sort of people. She argued otherwise. 

He also repeated his old belief that Hong Kong democrats should have accepted Beijing’s 2014-15 offer for mainland-style elections. Unlike most other democrats, he still seems to believe it was not a final offer and might be subject to ongoing negotiations for reform over time.

Legislative Council
Legislative Council. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Tik even cited the government’s promotion campaign slogan from the 2014-15 effort to sell Beijing’s plan. “Pocket it first” had been intended to win public support by suggesting there would be more to come in the fullness of time — although Beijing officials themselves finally admitted this was not the intention as of 2015.

His opponent said this is not the time for more talks on political reform. Livelihood issues are most important. Also in the running for the social welfare seat is non-partisan Yip Cham-kai, who did not take part in the forum.

Geographic consitutencies

If not for these seats, the election might have gone completely unnoticed by the general public, suggesting why the government has just launched a publicity blitz to get out of the vote. And no wonder. 

Instead of a legislature wholly elected by universal suffrage, which has been the goal of Hong Kong’s democracy movement for decades, only 20 such seats are to be filled by one-person, one-vote in the new 90-seat legislature. 

The old design relied on proportional representation to fill multiple seats in five election districts. These have now been increased to 10 double-seat districts, with constituency boundaries drawn to gain maximum political advantage from pro-Beijing residential and voting patterns along Hong Kong Island ‘s northeast shore, and in the New Territories.

labour party legco elections 2016 legislative council
The Labour Party after the 2016 Legislative Council elections. Photo: In-Media.

One-person, one-vote and the two top-scoring candidates in each constituency will be elected. There are a total of 35 candidates competing for the 20 seats.

Still, universal suffrage is what it is, even in so constricted a space. And the new Beijing-directed campaign managers appear to have been forced to bend their own rules, in order to match their boast about a campaign for all voices.

Consequently, the candidate lists have been carefully choreographed to ensure there is one non-pro-establishment centrist candidate in each of the 10 districts. But if there is any atmosphere of contention, it is being created by these 35 candidates since some of them do not appear to have passed the “patriots only” test. Unless, of course, the patriots-only test is not entirely what the public has been led to believe it is.

In some cases, this is clear or at least clearly implied from their self-descriptions on the government website where all the candidates have been given space to introduce themselves. In others, their website summaries are standard, but their street-side handouts and debate presentations are something else again.

 Although he was one of Hong Kong’s earliest devotes of elected representation as an effective means of district management, Frederick Fung has always equivocated between the pressures for political reform and accommodation with the powers that be.

Frederick Fung
Frederick Fung. File photo: CC BY 2.0.

His website statement is true to form, with an emphasis on social policy and housing, but also calling for a fully representative LegCo or one where all voices can be heard and all classes represented. He is contesting in Kowloon West where his opponents are a pro-Beijing candidate, Vincent Cheng, and non-partisan Leung Man-kwong.

Centrist candidate Nelson Wong Sing-chi in New Territories Northeast, running as a non-partisan, holds that the road to democracy must not be abandoned and he is concerned about the plight of pro-democracy partisans who have been arrested and remain in jail.

He thinks using the National Security Law as a weapon to denounce people must be opposed. LegCo should set up a committee on policing and citizens’ rights must be respected. Hong Kong should also continue to strive for universal suffrage political reform. He is running against Dominic Lee (pro-establishment), Chan Hak-kan (pro-Beijing), and another centrist, Allan Wong.

Allan Wong is a member of Ronny Tong’s Path of Democracy group, with an entirely safe platform. It focuses on the perennial problem of land supply for housing, and the New Territories’ problematic public health and transport services. He likes the idea of a green economy and advocates promoting the conditions for political reform.

New Territories East candidate Allan Wong. Photo: Allan Wong via Facebook

Most surprising of the non-pro-establishment candidates allowed to pass the gate and join the race is Mandy Tam Heung-man, running in Kowloon Central. The contest is also such that she will win one of the two seats, since the competitors are Starry Lee, who heads the main pro-Beijing political party — Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) — plus an unknown non-partisan Yang Wing-kit.

Tam is well-known and has a long history of joining and then leaving some of the most active pro-democracy parties. She was also known to have used the now forbidden slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times.” Such past behaviour has been used against others, retroactively, but was overlooked in her case.

Now running as a non-partisan without party affiliation, her platform statement refers readers to her November 21 Facebook page, which suggests her basic political instincts remain unchanged.

mandy tam kowloon central candidate
Kowloon Central candidate Mandy Tam. Photo: Mandy Tam via Facebook

On confirmation of her candidacy, she posted to acknowledge that some friends and supporters worried she had lost her way. The main pro-democracy parties are sitting this one out and have mostly refused to endorse the centrist candidates or even help them campaign.

She wrote that Hong Kong’s political system had changed, but she had not changed and was confident in her decision to contest the election. Her aim is to monitor the government and strive to fulfil the goal of one-person, one-vote universal suffrage elections for both LegCo and the Chief Executive, as promised by the Basic Law. She hopes the government will promote political reform as soon as possible and do more for people’s livelihoods.

Another surprise entrant on the campaign trail is Jason Poon Chuk-hung, running as a non-partisan in Hong Kong Island East against a full complement of pro-establishment candidates: Edward Leung (DAB), Stanley Ng (Federation of Trade Unions), and Marcus Liu from Regina Ip’s New People’s Party.

With this kind of competition, Jason Poon has little chance of winning unless the word goes out from the campaign managers at mission control to give him a chance, which is unlikely given the content of his platform. He is a known troublemaker as the whistleblower who revealed flaws in a major mass transit extension project some years ago, causing a long delay in its completion.

Hong Kong Island East candidate Jason Poon. Photo: Jason Poon via Facebook

His basic platform statement spells out a series of idealistic perfectly correct proposals, except for one that refers to an old idea with unsettling connotations about “letting a hundred schools of thought contend.” 

But his campaign handouts that have suddenly begun appearing on shopping district street corners are something else again. He lists five general demands and eight proposals. Among the demands is to find ways of solving the contradictions that have torn society apart.

He advocates political reform to achieve the double universal suffrage ideal (for LegCo and the Chief Executive). Plus, he suggests a responsibility system for public officials, intended to force them to focus on major items like planning and expenditure. 

Among the specific points, he calls for holding special elections soon in order to fill the District Council seats won by democrats in the landslide election of November 2019, and then emptied. These seats are now vacant after their occupants were disqualified and removed from office by the new national security rules imposed retroactively, in accordance with the new mandatory loyalty oath routines.

count district council election box november 11 (16) vote voting ballot polling poll
File Photo: May James/HKFP.

As a result, services in the districts are going untended. He even suggests that the disqualified councillors should be allowed to try and regain their seats in the new elections.

Even more provocative is his suggestion that Chief Executive Carrie Lam should invoke Article 48, Section 12, of the Basic Law that allows chief executives to grant pardons and commute the sentences of people convicted of criminal offenses.

She could do this in order to release those now in jail for various offences. Some involved in the primary elections case have been held for almost a year without bail while awaiting trial on national security grounds. These derive from the informal candidate-selection poll that democrats held in July 2020, just after the National Security Law was promulgated.

Poon’s idea about amnesty was denounced at an election forum by fellow candidate Marcus Liu of Regina Ip’s New People’s Party. She made her name as the tough law and order Secretary for Security during Hong Kong’s failed attempt to pass a national security law in 2003, and has since gone into politics.

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.

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Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.