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Who’s in Charge Of Hong Kong?

5 minute read
Anthony Spaeth | Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the most intriguing political experiments on the planet. For nearly seven years the city of 6.8 million people has been under the reignbut not the reinsof communist China. It is governed by its own people under British-bequeathed laws, and its “one country, two systems” trial has largely succeeded. Life goes on as it did before 1997hectic, laissez-faire, ultra-capitalistic. Very, very few people complain about being citizens of the People’s Republic.

Now, however, China’s leaders have decided to enter the lab and shake the beaker. This week, they are expected to announce a tweak to the Basic Law, the closest thing Hong Kong has to a constitution. Beijing says it’s simply conducting an exercise in “interpretation.” But the move has ignited a furious debate among Hong Kongers over its necessity, and has even sparked unrest. Last Thursday some 3,000 people held a candlelight vigil to protest what they feel is unwarranted Chinese interference, and the following day police forcibly removed 100 demonstrators besieging the main government office building. The fear: that Beijing is on the brink of curtailing the extent to which the territory is master of its own destiny. Here is Time’s guide to Hong Kong’s constitutional face-off.

What’s the issue?
A very basic one: whether Hong Kong people will be allowed to directly elect their Chief Executive and all of their legislators. The Basic Law promises direct elections as an “ultimate aim.” Currently, the Chief Executive is chosen by an 800-member electoral college that is overwhelmingly pro-Beijing, and 60% of the Legislative Council, or Legco, the territory’s law-making body, is appointed or elected from business and social groups that strongly favor the status quo. The Basic Law says that setup can be changed “if there is a need.”

That sounds vague.
It is, and deliberately so. When a joint committee of experts from Hong Kong and China wrote the document in the late 1980s, the clauses on democratic evolution were among the thorniest. The best the negotiators could produce were the vague formulations reproduced above. The Basic Law clearly offered Hong Kong the promise of direct elections. But it left the important questionswhen and howto years that seemed very distant back in 1990: 2007 and 2008.

And now those dates are just around the corner.
Yes. If Hong Kong is to directly elect its top official in 2007 and all of Legco in 2008, the process of altering election laws has to begin soon. More importantly, public pressure is intensifying. Last July, half a million people took to Hong Kong’s streets to protest security legislation proposed by the government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. That bill has since been shelved indefinitely. But almost overnight the movement rallied to a new demand: direct elections. And now Beijing wants to rule on that issue. Its concern is that direct elections will define the debate during the next round of polls for Legco, set for September, and that the democratic camp might end up dominating the legislature. Last month’s messy presidential election in Taiwanwhich, subject to a recount, gave victory to pro-independence incumbent Chen Shui-bianprobably didn’t affect the timing of Beijing’s tinkering with the Basic Law. But it undoubtedly reminded China’s leaders of how troublesome they find democracy.

Has China “interpreted” the Basic Law before?
Yes, but in an utterly different circumstance. After the handover in 1997, thousands of mainlanders with a Hong Kong parent demanded the right of abode in Hong Kong. The territory’s courts ruled in their favor. But the Hong Kong government asked Beijing to reinterpret the law to prevent the migrations, which it did. In that case, Hong Kong surrendered its judicial autonomy to China; Beijing merely obliged. Legal experts and libertarians were appalled but not the general public, because most Hong Kongers don’t want to see more mainlanders coming to the territory.

So what will Beijing say about direct elections?
Hong Kong got an early telegraphing from its own government, which last week announced its conclusions from a three-month study of the issue. The good news for democracy advocates was that the government agrees that the Basic Law allows direct elections as early as 2007, which was uncertain from the way the document is worded.

But there was also bad news for the democrats. Any change of the election procedures must be proposed by the Hong Kong government itself, not by individual legislators. Once introduced, that bill would have to be approved by two-thirds of Legco, signed by the Chief Executive and then the decision would have to be ratified by China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress. Beijing gets the final say. But last week, the Hong Kong government went further, saying the entire process can’t get started until “the need” for constitutional reform is establishedand that would have to be decided in conjunction with Beijing.

What does this mean for one country, two systems?
The Basic Law is the foundation for that experiment; an “interpretation” demonstrates that Beijing has no hesitation in rejigging the rules. Says Martin Lee, founder of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong: “They want to say, ‘Now you know who the boss is: Beijing. We know you don’t like us, but we will do it anyway and you can’t do anything.’ They want to show Hong Kong people that their system is dominant and ours subservient. Democracy is out for the foreseeable future.”

What can Hong Kongers do?
Like all citizens of the People’s Republic of China, they could write their delegates to the National People’s Congress. (Hong Kong has 36.) In contrast with the rest of the nation, Hong Kong people can vote for like-minded legislators in the few elections already allowed, march in the streets, even burn effigies of Chinese leaders. Under the Basic Law and the territory’s own statutesin other words, thanks to the “one country, two systems” formulathose are their rights. Until, that is, someone in Beijing decides to do some more “interpretation.”

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