Commentary: By-election moves Hong Kong closer to ‘one country, two rubber-stamp legislatures’

Commentary: By-election moves Hong Kong closer to ‘one country, two rubber-stamp legislatures’

The loss of two seats in the 70-seat Legislative Council has left the pro-democracy camp in a precarious situation, says one observer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong candidate Vincent Cheng celebrates
Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong candidate Vincent Cheng celebrates beside pro-democracy candidate Edward Yiu after winning the Legislative Council by-election in Hong Kong on Mar 12, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)

SINGAPORE: Two important political events related to China took place last Sunday (Mar 11).

The first, widely reported and closely watched by the international media, is the official removal of the presidential term limits by China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC).

Out of a total of close to 3,000 lawmakers, a whooping 99.8 percent of them voted in favour of the constitutional change, befitting the NPC’s role as a rubber-stamp legislature.

The move paves the way for President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, to stay in office for more than two terms.

READ: A commentary on Xi Jinping's unsettling approach to governing modern China.

The second event, whose significance has been eclipsed by that of the first, is the by-election of Hong Kong legislature, the Legislative Council (LegCo).

Hong Kong residents cast their votes for four seats out of the six vacated by Hong Kong democrats after they were ousted from office for modifying the oath during their swearing-in.

Amid an overall lower voter turnout, the democrats managed to recapture only two of the four seats in Sunday’s by-election, securing a lower than usual vote share vis-à-vis that of the pro-establishment and pro-Beijing candidates.

For the uninitiated, this may not seem like a particularly dismal outcome – except that it is.

DOUBLE RUBBER STAMPS?

To put it simply, the LegCo, in both its structure and voting rules, is designed to give lawmakers of the pro-establishment camp the upper hand. 

Now holding slightly more than 40 seats in the 70-seat LegCo, most of the pro-establishment lawmakers were not popularly elected.

Most owed their seats to around 200,000 electors across various sectors, and dominate one of the two groups in the legislature known as the Functional Constituencies (FC).

In contrast, most of the democrats in the legislature’s Geographical Constituencies (GC) won their seats through direct and competitive elections. Before the few democrats were disqualified, the democratic camp had a modest majority in the GC.

Pro-establishment politician Judy Chan (2nd R) of New People's Party standing with team
Pro-establishment politician Judy Chan (second from right) of New People's Party standing with team volunteers as she campaigns in Hong Kong. (Photo: AFP/Anthony WALLACE)

Now that the already dominant pro-Beijing bloc won two additional seats in Sunday’s by-election, the democrats are holding on precariously to their one-third minority veto power for certain bills that need an overall two-thirds majority to pass – including amendments to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional document, and voting procedures in the LegCo.

Pending the fate of the two remaining vacated seats that have yet to be put to the vote, the democrats may also fail to regain their GC majority veto power for other motions that require majority support in both the GC and the FC to gain passage – including bills put forth by LegCo members.

In the worst-case scenario, the Hong Kong legislature may well follow in the footsteps of the NPC and become yet another rubber-stamp parliament.

This is not inconceivable, in view of Xi’s hardline and interventionist approach towards the governance of Hong Kong and his low tolerance for dissent in general.

Now that the presidential term limits have been scrapped, Xi looks set to rule China for an extended period of time.

This does not bode well for the democrats and Hong Kong’s prospects for democratisation, including the hope of a direct election of the city’s political chief through universal suffrage.

The Hong Kong Chief Executive is currently elected by a small circle of about 1,200 voters handpicked by Beijing, whereas the number of registered Hong Kong voters for the GCs totals 3.8 million.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Avery Ng (C) stands next to pictures of Chief Executive Carrie Lam
Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Avery Ng stands next to pictures of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Financial Secretary Paul Chan (top) as he attends a protest outside the Legislative Counci before Chan delivers the 2018 budget speech. (Photo AFP/Anthony WALLACE(

'DQ' DEMOCRATS, BY HOOK OR BY CROOK

It is ironic that political leaders who are not elected by the people may, at whim, eject popularly elected legislators from the parliament.

But that irony is lost on the pro-establishment camp that cares for neither accountability to voters nor fair competition.

They have tried all means to “DQ” - the Hong Kong slang for disqualify - the democrats and stop them from regaining their foothold in the legislature. 

In the latest post-election development, some of them are now pursuing a legal bid to disqualify pro-democracy by-election winner Au Nok-hin.

They said that Au, who defeated his pro-establishment rival by close to 10,000 votes, had burned a prop representing the Basic Law. 

The move is intended to prevent Au from taking the oath of office next Wednesday.

Au was photographed burning the prop last November in an act of protest against Beijing for interpreting the Basic Law, leading to the unseating of four lawmakers.

Even if the pro-establishment camp fails to remove Au from office this time, there is no knowing when or how other democrats in the LegCo or those standing in future elections may be robbed of their political rights.

Au Nok-hin, who stepped in to contest the Hong Kong Island seat after Agnes Chow was disallowed,
Au Nok-hin, who stepped in to contest the Hong Kong Island seat after Agnes Chow was disallowed, campaigning in Hong Kong. (Photo: AFP/Anthony WALLACE)

Hong Kong’s much vaunted rule of law has also been used selectively to the democrats’ detriment.

In the case of Au and other ousted democrats, the Basic Law has been upheld as sacrosanct.

Yet in other instances, democrats have been disqualified in decisions that contravene the Basic Law.

Earlier, for example, the nomination of a popular Umbrella Movement student leader, Chow Ting, as a candidate in the by-election, was deemed “invalid” by the Returning Officer.

Citing the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, a group of electors in the legal profession called the Administration’s decision to deprive Chow of the right to stand for election on the ground of her political views and stance “unreasonable, unlawful and unconstitutional”.

The latest 2018 finding of the public opinion poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong shows that Hong Kong residents’ net confidence in “One Country, Two Systems” is now in the negative.

In light of these recent political developments, it is little wonder why. 

Dr Yew Chiew Ping is head of the Contemporary China Studies Minor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Source: CNA/sl

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