Document Should Echo Cries for Universal Suffrage
July 14, 2014
Sophie Richardson, China director

(New York) – Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, should present to the central Chinese government a report reflecting strong demands from Hong Kong residents for genuine universal suffrage, Human Rights Watch said today.

The chief executive is to present the report on July 15, in a long-awaited step in the process toward electoral reform in Hong Kong. His report will request that the Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), the executive body of China’s legislature, approve the start of the reform process. It is also supposed to summarize the views of the people of Hong Kong regarding electoral reform collected through a five-month public consultation exercise.

On the same day, the Hong Kong government will release a more detailed summary of the public consultation. The NPCSC will meet in August, and is expected to hand down Beijing’s definitive view on the future of democracy in Hong Kong.

“The chief executive’s report should reflect the desire for greater political rights so clearly articulated by people in Hong Kong in recent weeks,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Failure to accurately reflect the views of Hong Kong’s people will make a mockery of this exercise, and risk further galvanizing public sentiment.”

Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the territory’s quasi-constitution, states that the chief executive will be selected by “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” Until now, membership on the nominating committee has effectively been controlled by Beijing.

Proposals by prodemocracy groups have advocated “public nomination,” a process to require the nominating committee to put forward candidates who receive a certain number of nominations from ordinary voters. In June, nearly 800,000 people in Hong Kong voted in an unofficial referendum organized by the prodemocracy group Occupy Central. The vast majority endorsed proposals that include an element of “public nomination.”

Hong Kong and Beijing officials have repeatedly stated that “public nomination” is against the Basic Law. Beijing officials have also indicated that the committee will continue to be restricted to a small group of people in Hong Kong selected by Chinese authorities. This group acts as a screening mechanism to return “patriotic” chief executives who will not confront the central government.

A nominating process that screens out opposition candidates would violate international human rights standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the British applied to Hong Kong when it was a colony and which continues to apply to the territory.

There is a five-step process to reforming Hong Kong’s electoral methods. First, the chief executive must submit a report to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on whether the city needs to amend its electoral methods. The standing committee then needs to give its approval. Third, the Hong Kong government will announce its chosen reform package – a step it is expected to take later, and then possibly conduct a second round of consultation. Fourth, the proposal will have to be approved by the Hong Kong Legislative Council and then by the chief executive. Finally, the standing committee has to give its final approval.

The first step of presentation of the chief executive’s report to the standing committee comes in the context of increasing tensions over Hong Kong’s autonomy and respect for fundamental human rights. Since early 2014, there have been attacks on a prominent editor, Kevin Lau, and owners of media outlets known to be critical of the central government, and deeply politicized arrests of and threats made to hundreds of organizers of and participants in peaceful demonstrations in early July. In June, the central government issued a white paper on Hong Kong that included statements that appear to contravene the rights and freedoms set out in the Basic Law and the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the international treaty governing the transfer of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997.

Following the presentation of the chief executive’s report, it is expected that during its August session, the standing committee will articulate a framework for Hong Kong’s political reform.

The Occupy Central movement has said it will stage a nonviolent sit-in in Hong Kong’s financial district if the Hong Kong and central governments fail to deliver genuine universal suffrage in the current debates about reform. Benny Tai, one of the three leaders of Occupy Central movement, has said that the sit-in could take place as early as August, after the standing committee session. But Tai also did not rule out the possibility of the nonviolent action beginning after the release of the chief executive’s report if it that document rules out genuine universal suffrage.

“It’s in the interests of Hong Kong and Beijing governments to expand political rights in the territory,” Richardson said. “Curtailing rights is not only anachronistic, but also likely to increase tensions and alienation among the people of Hong Kong, who have waited patiently for years for the realization of the promise that ‘Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong.’” 

More reporting on: