By Patipat Kittichokwattana
It has widely known that Hong Kong uprising was ignited by dubious intention of government’s extradition bill. And it has also known that one of a key reason behind previous demonstrations is the call for direct popular election or universal suffrage. Direct election of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council are major demand underlying several demonstrations. Hence, it’s interesting to elaborate on the development of this phenomenon.
Hong Kong was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 after the First Opium War. Later, Hong Kong colony was extended by the lease that started from 1 July 1898 for a period of 99 years. Although Britain is the cornerstone of democracy but, in my opinion, they almost fail to establish democracy. More than a century, the colonial government seems rather flaw in providing equality, freedom of association and free press, people participation, and mechanism of representation.
In the early years of British occupation, there were frequently strikes and riots due to unjust laws. The 1861 and 1863 strikes, for example, was originated by the registration law that force Chinese lower-class workers to pay registration fees while white middle class and elite were exempted. Enactment of housing law that affected higher rental rate triggered the 1872 and 1888 strikes. To curb people unrest, colonial government proposed the Peace Preservation Ordinance that allowed for press censorship and shutting down labor union.
The colonial government slowly granted political participation. They showed doubtful attempts to establish representation system. In 1856, for example, Hong Kong governor proposed to increase membership of Legislative Council to 13 members which 5 of them would be elected from Chinese residents. London rejected on the basis that Chinese residents had not comply with British principles. In 1896, another attempt to allow membership of the Sanitary Board be elected by Chinese resident. It was finally rejected because popular election was seen as a threat to Britain.
Municipal Council reform that grant more political participation was introduced in 1946. The council members would comprise of one third elected by non-Chinese, one third by Chinese institutions, and one third by Chinese individuals. Unfortunately, it was rejected because, at that moment, London’s fear of becoming a political battleground between Kuomintang and Communist parties. Later, the proposal was revised in 1949 but then shelved again in 1951 because of the Korean War. By 1952, however, Hong Kong achieved a little step in popular election when two seats of Urban Council were directly elected. It was increased to four seats in the following year.
Focusing on the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LegCo) that plays important role in enact, amend, or repeal laws. It was first established in 1843 as an advisory council to the governor. In the beginning, it had two types of members. The first half was official member who were government officials including governor as a president of the council. Another half was unofficial member who were appointed by governor from businessmen and social elites.
Surprisingly, 142 years passed by, the first ever election of legislative council was held in 1985. It probably was the impact of 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration stipulated that Hong Kong would be transferred from Britain to the China in 1997. It evoked colonial government to start democratic development particularly in representative democracy. Nevertheless, it was an indirect election. The geographical constituencies and functional constituencies members were indirectly elected by electoral colleges. In addition, there were still official members and governor appointed members in the council.
The first direct election of legislative council was held in 1991. The geographical constituencies members were directly elected whereas the functional constituencies members were indirectly elected by the electorates of business and professional sectors. However, there were still official members and governor appointed members in the council. Noticeably, the 1988 Tiananmen Square protest was significantly sparked the fear of Beijing domination. It triggered the democratic movement which resulted in gaining a landslide election of pro-democracy coalition.
The 1997 Hong Kong handover marked the end of British colony and began the special administrative region within Chinese sovereignty. China grants the “one country, two systems” principle but decisively insists that Hong Kong is a part of China. Though Sino-British Joint Declaration and Basic Law stipulated the ultimate aim of election method is universal suffrage but, without doubt, people demand for universal suffrage under Chinese sovereignly is impossible to be achieved. It is questionable whether British adequately concerns about democratic development since the day of British colony.
[Photo Credit: www.washingtonpost.com]
Patipat Kittichokwattana, PhD Candidate, College of Law, Government and International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia