Fishermen, Tycoons Choosing Leaders Fuel Student ProtestsFion Li
In a former fishing village now packed with high-rise apartment blocks, Law King-shing reflects on the quirk of history that made him one of the 1,200-strong elite that chose Hong Kong’s leader.
Law is one of 60 people on Hong Kong’s election committee representing the agricultural and fisheries sector that thrived in the city 40 years ago, but which now makes up less than 1 percent of Hong Kong’s economy. Law, a local politician, is neither a fisherman nor a farmer though his father grew flowers.
“Many of the fishermen here are old and no longer work,” Law, 55, said in his office in the coastal new town of Tsing Yi. “Many of them are illiterate.”
The presence of interest groups such as Law’s on the committee that selected the city’s three leaders since China recovered sovereignty in 1997 is both a problem and a potential solution for those trying to defuse two months of pro-democracy street sit-ins. China’s decision to use a similar panel to vet candidates for the city’s first popular election in 2017 set off the protests, and the campaign to make it more democratic will continue long after police clear the streets of Hong Kong.
The city’s 1990 de-facto constitution, the Basic Law, calls for the chief executive to be elected by “universal suffrage,” though the candidates must be selected by a “broadly representative” nominating committee. Making that panel truly representative is an area where the government and democracy advocates say progress is possible.
“The government is responsible for creating a path for us to negotiate further” on the committee said Joshua Wong, 18, co-founder of the student activist group Scholarism. If they can’t repeal China’s decision “they can restart the political consultation process. This is something they can do at the very least,” he said Nov. 26 before he was arrested as police cleared one of the three sites occupied by protesters.
Wong, who was released on bail yesterday, urged supporters today to avoid the cleared site and go to the two others on Hong Kong island.
In its August decision on the election framework, China said the committee would be based on the existing election commission and all candidates would have to secure the support of more than half its 1,200 members, compared with 1/8th previously. Protest leaders demand that any committee accept candidates chosen by Hong Kong voters.
Pro-democracy groups complain the existing body is opaque and stacked with pro-China loyalists. The four main sectors of the committee -- industrial, commercial and financial services; professions; labor, social, and religious groups; and city and local politicians -- are supposed to reflect Hong Kong society. Each has 300 votes. Adopting the same structure means China, not voters, will control the process and exclude anyone it doesn’t like, they say.
While Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said student demands that ordinary citizens nominate candidates would violate the Basic Law, he’s suggested the composition of the panel may be altered.
“There’s room to configure the nominating committee in a way that the students might find more democratic: something between the election committee that we have at present and civic nomination,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg last month. Leung was selected with 689 votes in 2012.
A detailed look at the current system shows that less than 4 percent of Hong Kong’s 7 million people were eligible to vote for its members in 2011. Of the almost 238,000 voters, including 16,000 groups ranging from Friends of the Art Museum to the Hong Kong Tai Chi Association and the Happy Taxi Operator’s Association, just 65,565 participated.
In Law’s agriculture and fisheries subsector, the 60 uncontested candidates were chosen by 158 voters from trade associations including the Hong Kong branch of the World’s Poultry Science Association and four corporate groups that represent “fish culture” in an area called Sai Kung. Tracking them down isn’t easy, because only six of the 60 provide any contact information on the election committee website.
Beijing officials “never gave any explicit guidance” on whom to vote for in 2012, but “messages circulating in the election committee” made it clear what the preferred outcome was, Law said.
The number of committee members from agriculture and fisheries is double that for accountants, lawyers or architects, while some occupations aren’t represented. “There is absolutely no justification for that,” said Edward Chan, a lawyer and former part-time High Court judge who has served on all three election committees.
A few tycoons are able to influence the selection of committee members across the sectors because the conglomerates they run can cast multiple votes through subsidiaries according to Michael DeGolyer, a Hong Kong Baptist University professor and member for the higher education sector.
More than half the 300 members for the commercial, property, trading and financial industries ran uncontested, including billionaires Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau Kee and Thomas Kwok, representing the real estate sector.
Li and Kwok didn’t respond to requests for comment. Lee declined to comment while Lui Che Woo, Hong Kong’s third-richest man who controls Macau casino operator Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd., said it was too early to comment.
Allan Zeman, who helped transform Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong district into a major bar and restaurant hub and represented the catering subsector on the 2012 committee, suggested reallocating seats from companies to students. The nomination process can still be improved through negotiations, he said.
“We should recognize that it’s a giant leap that Hong Kong people will be able to vote in the chief executive election in 2017,” said Zeman, who gave up his Canadian citizenship to become Chinese.
The government is due to hold another round of public consultation before the end of the year on the implementation of China’s election proposal. Hong Kong cabinet member Regina Ip has said that changes to the committee could include giving some of the 60 seats now reserved for agriculture and fisheries to new groups like the students.
“We’re all hoping for some way forward but there are some very strong vested interests involved,” said Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s former number two official who now heads a pro-democracy group. “Unless the government is willing to take a very strong lead and knock heads together, we won’t make progress.”
Only sweeping changes can make the process truly representative, said Benson Wong, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, who was elected to the higher education group on the panel.
“A limited reform of the selection committee is not helpful to make it more representative,” he said. The new rules requiring 50 percent support for candidates mean even a reformed committee may not be “legitimate and acceptable in the eyes of the Hong Kong people,” he said.
Albert Ho, a former Democratic Party candidate who got 76 votes in the 2012 elections, said there’s no chance a pro-democracy candidate could reach the threshold.
“With the nomination committee mostly filled by pro-Beijing figures, it’s just hopeless for us,” he said.
One committee member, who asked not to be identified, disagreed, saying that democrats are “far stronger campaigners” and will gain more support in the next committee.
For Law, a full-time district councilor for a pro-Beijing political party, it is the commercial and business sectors that are over represented on the election committee.
“Agriculture and fisheries are important - it’s about the food Hong Kong people eat,” he said. “Our sector isn’t just about the industry but also represents the grassroots. We are able to balance the voices from the commercial and business sectors, which have so many seats on the committee.” ’
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