Postcard from China (2): The Pearl of the Orient

alex payton british consulate hong kongShould the Head of State be elected? Who should be allowed to be a candidate, and who should be allowed to vote?

Hong Kong currently faces these questions in its quest for universal suffrage and a democratic future, and was the recurrent theme during the second part of the trip to China organised by the British Chinese Project, in which I and three other Lib Dem delegates – Merlene Emerson, Sarah Yong and Steven Cheung – took part along with representatives from the other two main political parties and several enthusiastic BC Project staff.

We had barely arrived in Hong Kong when we were whisked into the British Consulate to meet the Consul-General, Caroline Wilson, and Sarah Docherty the Head of Political and Communications Sections. The security at the Consulate is so tight that even Mrs Wilson herself has to surrender her mobile to get in. The British Government is in a highly sensitive position in Hong Kong, illustrated by a recent difficulty over translation of the phrase ‘we support the aim of universal suffrage’ – a word was used to translate the word ‘support’ that in Chinese has the sense of ‘active support’ and so was taken to indicate an intention by the British to interfere. Participation in the reform of Hong Kong politics is thus a diplomatic tightrope, and Mrs Wilson was careful to make clear that the policy of universal suffrage is emanating from Beijing.

After a meeting with Kevin McLaven of the British Council learning about the work they are doing in soft diplomacy to wave the British flag, it was on to the Legislative Council to meet with the President Jasper Tsang who is intended to be effectively equivalent to the Speaker of the House of Commons or Lords, where we engaged in an intriguing political discussion that raised as many questions as it answered.

The government, it seems, is entirely non-political (including the Chief Executive) and consists of employed officials. The Chief Executive alone in the government is currently subject to a limited form of election by a complicated committee consisting of 1200 electors – not that many considering that even my relatively small council ward in the UK consists of over 3000 electors. In broad practical terms it seems as though Humphrey Appleby really is in charge. The Legislative Council’s role is only to pass or deny legislation put forward by the government, by a simple majority (or two-thirds majority for constitutional issues).

In the UK the government agenda is set by politicians, who derive a mandate from having been elected. In Hong Kong one is driven to question how the agenda is set and by what mandate given that, as Mr Tsang said quite forcefully, the civil service running the government often have no real experience of engaging with the citizenry. One delegate also pointed out that lobbying, which is a problem in this country, must be even more difficult to control there when there is no direct accountability to the people.

And if the political parties’ role is restricted to, effectively, the ability collectively to veto what comes through from elsewhere, one wonders how a politician can ever have and put forward a positive agenda for what he or she believes is needed for the country. In a conversation (LD-only) with a former Chinese Lib Dem intern and with a founding member of Lib Dems Abroad, after the formal tour had ended, we talked about protest marches in Hong Kong and how the public have become much more politically engaged in recent years, however in my view mass marches alone cannot in the long term be a practical day-to-day solution.

It is hoped that electing the Chief Executive by universal suffrage will solve some of these difficulties, making the person at the top more universally accountable. Strangely the Chief Executive is still to be a non-political post – but given that he or she will, one presumes, have to campaign on political issues to get elected I am not sure how that is literally going to be possible.

In the meantime elected politicians have little real power, reduced effectively to a lobby group with a collective threat of veto. But then imagine if you were to live in Hong Kong and had an idea of how the country should be run – I suspect you probably wouldn’t join a political party, you would join the “non-political” government. And if that is what the politically interested are indeed doing, then the apparent relative powerlessness of the political parties in Hong Kong has become a vicious circle, and the hard politics would still exist, but it would simply have become mostly hidden from view. One of the merits of a democracy is its transparency, and it is to be hoped (non-actively, of course) that the universal suffrage proposed by Beijing for the Chief Executive will be a key step on the path to a full democracy for Hong Kong.

I am grateful to BC Project for organising our study tour, the Chinese Government for the earlier part of our visit to China, and to the many people who hosted us and were so generous with their time. The whole trip to China was a real eye-opener for someone who has heard of this part of his heritage for so many years, without ever until now having been to visit. China is an economic power-house that has the curious by-line that the majority of the population still lives in less than first-world conditions. It was made clear to us that China intends to continue its economic expansion for the foreseeable future: I very much hope that the UK as a potential trading partner will benefit greatly from that, and let us hope that in China it is the population as a whole who will also see some of the benefits.

* Alex Payton is a Lib Dem councillor in Newbury, was Parliamentary Candidate for Havant in 2010 and is an Executive member of Chinese Liberal Democrats)

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  • Unless, this issue has occurred twice and I have simply not heard of this latest media troublemaking/ political gaff by ourselves (the British) in Chinese, the ‘support’ issue should be view carefully. Not to defend the British political class in their generally woeful approach to relations with China, it was not actually they who translated the word, it was the media translating the words of Hugo Swire. If this is the event I am thinking of, then he basically said ‘London stood ready to provide “support” in any way it could’.

    Of course, this phrase is far from politically astute as the translation to active support is probably the correct one, which means you are leaving yourself open to being seen as interfering in Chinese affairs – never a smart thing to allow yourself to be seen as doing in relation China – but it was more the media actively translating the whole sentence in a way that distorted its meaning than the loose translation of one word that was the problem. However, the fact one of our ministers allowed himself to say something that could so easily be translated in such a way shows why I constantly finding myself falling to despair whenever I read about any Tory doing anything in relation to China or one of the regions/countries linked to it.

    As a side note, if I remember correctly, the actual phrase that received most of the media’s attention/criticism was uttered by the U.S. Consul General, Clifford Hart, who said the USA “supports Hong Kong’s progress toward genuine universal suffrage.”

    I feel this issue was/is all part of the much wider issue that, broadly speaking, Hong Kong is at a crossroads with more than two choices ahead of it. Where does Hong Kong go from here? The future of the Mainland, whilst not certain, has a clear direction. Hong Kong on the other hand is much more conflicted with different groups all possessing not just different ideals for the future of Hong Kong, but conflicting ones, as well. This mixed with its economic issues and the general issues people face in terms of living standards has left the identity crisis that has existed in Hong Kong for a long time bare for the world to see. (A friend of mine did some very interesting research into the identity crisis that many in Hong Kong feel they face as to who they are and what their countries place in the world really is.)

    It is also did not help the situation that some, such as Martin Lee, were actively in support of the support (being referred to) being active, whilst others (especially in Beijing) would find the thought anaemic.

    Furthermore, Beijing wants to use Hong Kong as its set-piece for the rest of the ‘Chinese’ world to show that being a part of their ‘unified Chinese’ version is not slavery, but a great thing as you become part of a stronger, unified Chinese family, where you are with them, but still free and autonomous. The only problem is that neither Hong Kong nor Beijing really know just how free that freedom is and what autonomy is the right kind of autonomy.

    As you rightly said, it is a tightrope, but the British are not the only ones on it and our position is much less precarious than most.

  • Alex Payton 22nd Dec '13 - 5:42pm

    Thank you Merlene. You are right about the Basic Law of course, and the appointed Governor back in the day wasn’t hugely democratic either. I was interested by your comment that the system isn’t easily replicated elsewhere, as I have wondered (as one does) whether the London Mayor / London Assembly relationship would make an interesting comparison to that of the Chief Executive / Legislative Council one. (And presumably any other other council that has gone down the route of a directly elected executive mayor). The comparison is not exact of course, in particular the mayor’s is a highly political role, but…

    Thank you Liberal Al, and I think you may be right about the cross-roads. Who is in the driving seat though? With regard to how China sees Hong Kong, the impression I had (an impression formed when we were in Guangzhou earlier in the week rather than in HK itself) was that China viewed Hong Kong previously as the West’s entry point to China, but now sees it as one of China’s entry points to the West. I’m not certain as to whether the ‘support’ incident is the Hugo Swire one btw but I think it probably is.

  • Alex, your comparison with London is an interesting one. As you rightly say, right now the civil service is in almost total control, without any electoral mandate. This has made the problem that the politically active have gone that far, as opposed to standing for the legislature. I do think that electing the Chief Executive do go some way to restoring public confidence as it means they feel they have the ability to ensure the person at the top is keeping his house in order. A feeling the people in Hong Kong are unlikely to possess under the current system, where the legislature’s ability to hold the civil service to account for anything other than proposals is extremely limited.

    Also, thank you for insight on how China sees Hong Kong. I had never viewed it like that before, so it is certainly an interesting thing to learn.

    In relation to who is in the driving seat, that is indeed a question, I myself have pondered over. My cynical side says someone in Beijing, but my more hopeful side likes to think that Hong Kong and China together will shape a future for the continuing prosperity of a place truly close to my heart. Whilst it is clear complete independence for Hong Kong is simply not viable, I think complete assimilation by China is equally unattainable (and from what you say, undesired by both sides). As such – and speaking from a purely personal perspective – I think movement which continues and improves the currents system is most desirable. This maintains Hong Kong’s autonomy, whilst also allowing it to retain its place as China’s gateway (in and out). Furthermore, it suits Beijing by ensuring Hong Kong remains a willing part of China and its own growth and prosperity.

    Of course, this is completely my own opinion and I am sure those with a deeper and / or more personal understanding of the situation would have many things to teach me on the subject.

    One other thing I do hope is that, support aside, the West (I have never liked this term) does not try to interfere.

  • Andrew Colman 23rd Dec '13 - 11:43am

    The fault here lies with the British who should have introduced democracy far (decades) earlier than 1984. Had this been done (eg Democracy introduced in 1945) , then the example of a democratic Hong Kong could have been adopted by the rest of China by now.

    It is never too late however, and it is still possible that a successful democratic Hong Kong could eventually persuade China as a whole to adopt democracy.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Sep '14 - 5:27am

    The universal suffrage in Hong Kong that this article talks about is being attacked. Protesters are looking to the UK to speak out in defence of the 1997 agreement. We need to show our solidarity with the protesters. They should not be left disappointed thinking the world cares more about its trade links with mainland China.

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