One Country, Two Systems: Democracy and Unrest in Hong Kong

By Charles Rice and Jing Jin

On August 31, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee announced that any candidate participating in the 2017 elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive position will require support from at least 50 percent of a “broadly representative” nominating committee. Presumably, the committee be composed of Pro-Beijing interests, and will wield de facto power to select Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive. The announcement has spurred a new round of civil unrest across Hong Kong, and comes at the end of a summer which saw hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters take to the streets.

HK Skyline

Hong Kong faces stark questions regarding the place of Democracy in its future

Confidence in “One Country, Two Systems” is Fading

There have been tensions between Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations and Beijing’s urge for political control and censorship since Britain ceded control of the island back to China in 1997. Hong Kong and the Mainland have maintained a fragile political detente known as “one country, two systems,” but confidence in this arrangement is approaching an all-time low. University of Hong Kong polls show that in 2014 nearly 46 percent of respondents were not confident in the “one country, two systems” arrangement. In no period was lack of confidence this high except prior to the end of British rule.

1 2 Confidence
The Sino-British Joint Declaration, which dictated the terms of the hand over, stipulated that Beijing would allow Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs.” Today Hong Kong does enjoy a series of unique privileges and freedoms, including limited ability to elect its own officials. Hong Kong Basic Law, its form of constitution, indicates that the ultimate aim is to elect both the Chief Executive and legislative body by direct universal suffrage. Recent moves by Beijing’s central government, however, have caused many to question whether democracy is really part of Hong Kong’s future under CCP rule.

Democracy in Hong Kong is Not Representative

A review of recent elections for Hong Kong’s unicameral legislative body, the Legislative Council, provides some useful insights into the state of democracy in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. The Legislative Council consists of 70 representatives with 35 seats allocated to geographic constituencies (GC) for direct election, and the remaining 35 seats assigned to functional constituencies which hold indirect elections. For our purposes, the geographic constituency vote will proxy for direct popular vote percentage. Functional constituency seats are elected by appointed committees similar to the proposed Chief Executive nomination committee, and do not constitute direct universal suffrage.

Generally, politicians in Hong Kong fall into one of two major political coalitions: Pro-Democracy or Pro-Beijing. Pro-Democracy candidates have captured a majority of the direct popular vote in each of the last three election periods, but have not held a majority of seats in the Legislative Council during that time. In fact, the Pro-Democracy coalition has captured significantly fewer seats than expected based upon the share of direct vote received in each of these periods, yielding persistently large and negative values for total seat distortion.

HK Election Total

It is possible to significantly outperform expected seat yield through effective electoral strategy. If you win all the “battleground” seats, you can overcome a deficit in votes received. A closer look at election data shows that the observed seat distortion is not due to an effective electoral strategy for Pro-Beijing candidates. There was essentially no distortion in the elections for geographic constituencies, and in fact, Pro-Democracy candidates outperformed the expected geographic constituency seat total in 2008.

HK Election GC

These numbers paint a very clear picture. Pro-Beijing candidates captured a majority of the seats in each period because the functional constituencies remain tightly controlled, and are composed primarily of Mainland loyalists. In the Legislative Council, Beijing is able to install favorable politicians in the face of broad electoral opposition by bypassing direct election all together. China’s Communist Party hasn’t learned how to play the game of democratic politics, it’s effectively circumvented the democratic system while providing the illusion of choice.

Implications for Hong Kong’s Future

Hong Kong has long been viewed as the Mainland’s staging area for economic and political policy reform. The most recent announcement confirming the nomination committee for the Chief Executive position sends a strong signal that Beijing is reining in Hong Kong’s political freedom, and comes against the backdrop of President Xi Jinping’s aggressive campaign to consolidate domestic power. Progress towards democracy in Hong Kong has clearly stalled, if not reversed course. The electoral system, such as it is, is designed to limit democratic input and elect candidates in line with Beijing’s ideology. The new Chief Executive nomination committee only strengthens this control.

Democracy advocates tend to celebrate Hong Kong’s elections as a potential opening for broader Chinese democracy. In light of the new rules guiding the election of the Chief Executive, as well as a series of elections which have stacked the Legislative Council with Pro-Beijing candidates despite majority opposition, this view seems criminally naïve. Whatever electoral rights Hong Kongers feel they are owed, Hong Kong belongs to China, and China is not democratic. For now, it seems certain that the 2017 elections for Chief Executive will go the way of recent Legislative Council elections- Beijing’s way.

All voting information and election results are drawn from, and candidate coalition affiliation assigned based on desk research.  Photo courtesy of Base64 Flickr photostream.

Charles Rice is a Research Assistant with the Project for Prosperity and Development.

Jing Jin is a researcher with the Global Food Security Project at CSIS.

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