An Extraordinary Night in Hong Kong Politics

A candlelight vigil for democracy, Dec. 21

Something extraordinary happened in Hong Kong politics tonight—something on the scale, say, of Patrick Fitzgerald indicting Dick Cheney or the Senate rejecting the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. For the first time in anyone’s memory—and I checked this with fellow reporters who go back 20 years in Hong Kong—the Legislative Council (Legco) rejected a major piece of government-proposed legislation, a Beijing-backed “reform” of Hong Kong’s political system.

I just came back from the plaza in front of the Legislature Building, where about 1,000 supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement gathered for a candlelight vigil. They hunkered on the pavement together, oblivious to the cold, trying to keep their lights aflame in the stiff wind coming in off Victoria Harbor. The 24 pro-democracy legislators (out of a total of 60 elected representatives) streamed out of the building and up onto a makeshift stage. I saw the celebrated legislator and barrister Margaret Ng rush by, a yellow ribbon tied around her coat sleeve and a smile on her face. The Hong Kong democrats have never had a victory like this. Soon the crowd erupted in shouts of “Po Syun!“—”Universal Suffrage!”

A lot of people I know are surprised when I tell them that Hong Kongers don’t have universal suffrage. This is the era of the purple finger, after all, the year when citizens in Liberia, Iraq, and Afghanistan are all heading to the polls. The citizens of Hong Kong rank among the highest-educated and best-off in the world. But under the agreement brokered by the British and Chinese governments before the handover in 1997, only 30 out of 60 legislative seats are chosen in direct one-person-one-vote elections. The other 30 seats, called “functional constituencies,” are picked by professional and trade groups, sometimes by as few as 100 people. And the chief executive of Hong Kong is chosen by a “small circle” of 800 electors, mainly pro-Beijing stalwarts.

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, provides for the system to become more representative and democratic “in a gradual and orderly” manner. But the law is vague about the timing of changes. Many legal scholars here thought it said that universal suffrage could happen in 2007 or ‘08, but last year, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China “reinterpreted” the Basic Law, saying that no, that isn’t what it meant at all.

The government package that got defeated tonight was sold to the public by the new chief executive, Donald “Bowtie” Tsang, as a “big step forward for democracy.” The big step wasn’t much: It involved expanding the small circle of electors from 800 to 1,600 and adding a few new seats to the legislature, equally divided between elected and functional constituencies. But it didn’t touch the question of when Hong Kongers would be able to elect their chief executive at the polls.

When the government unveiled the package in October, it seemed that Hong Kongers would buy it. Everyone knows that Beijing doesn’t want to deal with the issue of full democracy in Hong Kong right now, because if people here have the right to vote in a multiparty election, what will the people in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing start to demand? The government’s emissaries, particularly Stephen Lam, the Teflon-tongued secretary for constitutional affairs (he’s a sort of Asian Scott McClellan) went on and on about how Hong Kong people had to take it slowly, how they were not mature enough yet for full democracy. But the bottom line, the government’s strongest argument for their package, was really more of an apology: This is the best we can do now.

Public opinion was divided at first. But then the 25 democrats in the legislature did an unexpected thing: They stood together and said they’d vote “No” on the proposal. The government, which needed at least a two-thirds majority to get its motion passed, began to lean on the more vulnerable democrats. Every week, the Hong Kong press would do a countdown—the government needed the votes of five democrat defectors to win. Which democrats would do a U-turn and flip sides? Would it be Lau Chin-Shek, the legislator with the shock of prematurely white hair who has gone missing of late on crucial votes? (Beijing recently gave Lau a permit to enter China to visit his 90-year-old mother on the mainland, something most Hong Kong democrats are not permitted.) Or Albert Cheng, the independent democrat who’s a longtime personal friend of Donald Tsang?

The government lobbied fiercely behind the scenes and in public forums, sounding dire threats—if the democrats didn’t cooperate, there would be no progress and the middle class would have to flee Hong Kong, warned one minister. Then the winds shifted dramatically, thanks to some loose talk not from Beijing or Hong Kong government officials but from local Hong Kong tycoons Stanley Ho and Sir Gordon Wu, who both made strident, clumsy speeches supporting the Chinese plan. As my friend, Hong Kong blogger Hemlock said later, “Hong Kong people are not stupid. If Ho and Sir Gordon are in favor of this, then they know there’s no good in it for them.”

Scene from the Dec. 4 march for universal suffrage in Hong Kong

The democrats, for their part, showed a surprising degree of PR savvy. Early on, they created a terrific symbol for their cause—the Chinese characters for “democracy” locked inside a birdcage. They took out full-page ads in local papers, the best one of which showed a sweet 86-year-old man with the caption, “Will I live to see universal suffrage?” And they organized a successful pro-democracy march on Dec. 4 that—as they say in Cantonese, “Yat geui leung dak“—killed two birds with one stone. It attracted about 100,000 people, sending a signal to the government that citizens want the vote and to know when they will get it. And, just as important, it stiffened the resolve of the wavering democrats in the Legco.

Still, the drama and uncertainty surrounding last night’s vote persisted right up to the last minute. The government began to add some tiny but fairly insignificant improvements to its package, hoping to peel off the most vulnerable democrats. And finally, last week, it tried to win back public opinion by releasing some TV promos in support of the proposal featuring Canto-pop star Leon Lai.

The commercials seemed a desperate last measure, but I was still wondering what would happen as I walked downtown to watch today’s Legco meeting. When I got to the press room, a very seasoned Hong Kong colleague was spinning his theory about how the government would pull off a coup by changing some details of the proposal at the last minute.

But in the end, that didn’t happen—and the debate, which was expected to last for two or even three days, was over in a couple of hours. Most of the democratic legislators, disciplined to the end, declined to speak individually on the motion, and so just before 5:30 this afternoon, way ahead of schedule, the votes were cast. Legislator “Long Hair” Leung Kwok Hung put his fist through one of the symbolic democracy cages, breaking its bars. And then the vote was announced: Twenty-four democrats against the motion (Lau Chin Shek, in the end, abstained), motion defeated. Long Hair and the other democrats drummed the desks in a victory beat.

So, the citizens of Hong Kong will have no lukewarm political “reform.” But they won’t have full democracy either. The status quo, for now, remains. And, though the candles were shining outside Legco tonight, Hong Kong’s political cage isn’t really broken yet. “It is a certainty,” Margaret Ng told me, “that without democracy, the rule of law in Hong Kong will go down. Unless we are very lucky, and the more moderate and respectable forces within China force a democratic government here and there. But it depends on who dies first. If we die first, if the light goes out in Hong Kong, then it will be a long time. We are like a flame flickering in the wind.”