Commentary: Hong Kong: The High Price Of Ignoring Democracy

Hong Kong went to the polls on Sept. 10 for the second time since the end of British rule. And once again the opposition Democratic Party took in a plurality of the votes--35%. Yet the Democrats ended up seriously underrepresented in the government because the system is rigged to favor the city's wealthy elite and keep Beijing content.

This might not have mattered in an earlier era--after all, for most of the 150 years that Britain ruled the territory, democracy was a concept almost as alien to Hong Kong as to its mainland overseer today. Yet citizens got enough taste of the forbidden fruit in the final years of British rule to want a second bite. Moreover, they are increasingly disgruntled with the government that has been imposed on them. Opinion polls show 80% of the public displeased with policy. And scandals involving everything from shoddy construction in public housing to government pressure to stifle nay-saying opinion pollsters is adding to the discontent.

Does all this matter? Cynics would say no--that Hong Kong expresses itself best in the free markets of commerce and industry. If the democratic process is lousy but business is good, what's the harm?

HOT-BUTTON ISSUES. But even if you take the view that stability matters more than political freedom, what's happening in Hong Kong is dangerous. The city needs to build a community consensus to move forward on hot-button issues ranging from housing to health-care reform. "People are worried that we are falling behind Singapore, Shanghai, and Taiwan because we don't have the same quality of governance," says Christine Loh, one of several Legco, or Legislative Council, members who quit this year out of frustration. But instead of solving its problems through political dialogue, Hong Kong is torn by squabbles between the government and its people.

The disenchantment starts with millionaire businessman and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, whose approval rating is at an all-time low of 30%, and goes right through the political Establishment. Hong Kong is "a divided sort of place at the moment," says a U.S. official. If it continues without a hint of reform, "the international business community would start wondering what was going on."

With a high-handed and largely unaccountable Tung handing down edicts, it's no surprise that the territory's 7 million people are dispirited. Fewer than 44% of Hong Kong voters turned out on a sunny election day--far fewer than the 53% who braved torrential rain two years ago to vote in the first poll. They know Hong Kong's system of reserving seats for special interests means that a small elite gets the loudest voice in the legislature.

The convoluted system designed to thwart the majority would have made a 19th century English Tory envious. The more than 3 million eligible voters fill 24 Legco seats; just 200,000 notables choose the remaining 36. One of those elite seats is set aside for a transport representative, who is picked by 153 corporate voters, compared with the 620,000 votes represented by a legislative seat from Hong Kong Island. That makes a transport constituency vote worth 4,000 times as much as one from an ordinary Hong Kong Islander. It's little wonder, then, that the Tung administration is waiting until 2005 to clean up the black clouds that stream from the city's notoriously foul taxis and minibuses.

Even if Hong Kong residents were able to elect representatives who reflect their concerns, it wouldn't matter much. Legco is, by modern standards, a powerless parliament. With the Chief Executive holding most of the political cards, the chamber is little more than a soapbox to rail against the government for some and a prestige post for others. The Democrats, led by Martin Lee, saw their showing drop from 43% two years ago to 35% this time--in part because they are seen as ineffectual. But because the Democrats are free to complain--and do so loudly--without responsibility for making policy, "the government will feel even more pressure" now, says City University of Hong Kong professor Joseph Y.S. Cheng.

Tung should open up debate on Hong Kong's political future--something he has steadfastly refused to do. His refusal bolsters the position of democracy advocates such as Loh and Lee, who want the Chief Executive to be elected by popular vote after 2007, as the mini-constitution called the Basic Law allows.

Tung's annual policy address on Oct. 11 is a chance for him to start setting the terms of the debate. The Basic Law promises that universal suffrage will be introduced through "gradual and orderly progress," and that "the ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage." In 1997, when Hong Kong was handed to China, Beijing crowed that its citizens would at last have the opportunity to rule themselves. It's time to make good on those promises. Hong Kong's future as a global city depends on developing a political system that does justice to the wishes of its people.

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