Rule of Law

Umbrella Revolution Brings Hong Kong Aspirations to Worldwide Centre Stage by James Dalley and Winkei Lee

Winkei Lee James Dalley

On 31 August 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) released its Hong Kong electoral reform package.[1] It was the trigger for the latest mass protest in Hong Kong, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demonstrate against the reforms.

Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997, and its people have demanded universal suffrage ever since. The Sino-British Declaration of 1984[2] stipulated that from the date of cessation of British colonial rule in 1997, Hong Kong shall continue with its own economic and political system for at least another 50 years. Known as the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, Hong Kong regulates the city-state under what is known as the Hong Kong Basic Law with considerable autonomy from Beijing.

In 2007, Beijing promised the people of Hong Kong that the Chief Executive would be elected by universal suffrage in 2017 with election of the entire legislature by the same process in 2020. In an effort to honour this promise, the electoral reform package decided on by the NPCSC outlines a framework that allows only those candidates who have been pre-screened by a 1200-person nomination committee to run. The nomination committee is responsible for ‘institutional nomination, implementing the majority will’, and must be satisfied that chosen candidates ‘love China, and love Hong Kong’. This maxim was also used in a White Paper issued by the State Council Information Office on 10 June 2014, in which it described local judges as administrators with an obligation to ‘love China’, a phrase that has become unofficially synonymous with ‘love the communist party’.

What is sometimes overlooked in light of recent protests is that China has upheld the principles it agreed to in the Sino-British Declaration it signed 30 years ago. The electoral reform package is an example of this. While the pre-screening of candidates means the process is not purely democratic, the reforms allow election of the Hong Kong Chief Executive with more participation afforded to the Hong Kong people than was ever enjoyed while under British colonial rule. During colonial rule, Hong Kong citizens were forced to accept the appointment of a colonial Governor by the British Government in London, which it did for nearly a century without protest. In this sense, the electoral reforms are a positive step forward by Beijing in a move that supports a more democratic Hong Kong.

The protestors occupying the streets of Hong Kong have displayed an unwavering energy to vocalise their democratic ideologies through public demonstration. What started as a small protest limited to Hong Kong University students has ballooned into the so-called ‘Umbrella Revolution’, involving Hong Kong citizens from all walks of life. Despite Beijing’s willingness to allow the Hong Kong people more participation in electing a local government Chief Executive than any other region in China, the protests are a sign that the Hong Kong people have given up working within the current legal framework to achieve democratic reform to their political system.

The protestors are making demands on the local Hong Kong Government and Beijing that include the release of three student activists, the resignation of Chief Executive CY Leung, revisions to the 2017 electoral reforms, and complete suffrage including civil nomination in 2017. The demand for universal suffrage without pre-screening of candidates is not something Beijing is likely to deliver. The absence of pre-screening could result in the election of a

Chief Executive or local government that harbours anti-mainland Chinese sentiment and works to undermine the central government.

Upon closer inspection, the protestors are demonstrating about more than just electoral reform. Social inequality in Hong Kong is beginning to fuel anti-mainland Chinese sentiment among Hong Kong citizens. Hong Kong has one of the highest populations of billionaires per capita in the World, with 41 billionaires out of a total population of 7 million according to the Forbes rich list.[3] In recent years, a large number of mainland Chinese have migrated to Hong Kong with their newly acquired wealth, buying up highly sought after real estate. This has further added to the inflation of property prices and the cost of living, exacerbating inequality that is at its highest level since records began in 1971. Wages for graduates in Hong Kong have been in decline for more than a decade, with many young people now unable to afford their own home.[4] The Hong Kong people are in desperate need of a local government that is able to address these increasingly prevalent social problems.

Hong Kong continues to be the only region in China that has universal suffrage embedded in its electoral process, and may well be a testing ground for the implementation of democracy in other regions of China. The current protests are only going to prove to Beijing that implementing democracy in other regions of China could result in similar social unrest as witnessed in Hong Kong. This is counter-productive to reaching democracy in both Hong Kong and mainland China.

The road to democracy in Hong Kong has been a long one, and many are sceptical that it will ever end. Yet the NPCSC in Beijing continues to allow the Hong Kong Basic Law to co-exist under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle. Perhaps this is a sign that Hong Kong should remain hopeful in its quest to implement democratic elections on their own terms.

Winkei Lee is a Masters student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.


[1] Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Decision and explanations of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on Issues Relating to the Selection of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by Universal Suffrage and on the Method for Forming the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the Year 2016 (31 August 2014) Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau <http://www.2017.gov.hk/filemanager/template/en/doc/20140831a.pdf>

[2] Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong, 1984.

[3] Forbes, Hong Kong Billionaires 2014 <http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/#tab:overall_page:1_country:Hong%20Kong>

[4] Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong 2011 Population Census - Thematic Report : Household Income Distribution in Hong Kong http://www.statistics.gov.hk/pub/B11200572012XXXXB0100.pdf

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