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China: Hong Kong Political Reform Proposal a Farce

Government Should Scrap Rights-Violating Plan to Control Nominations

(New York) – The political reform proposal unveiled by the Hong Kong government today fails to deliver universal suffrage as promised to Hong Kong people, Human Rights Watch said today. The proposal reiterates the Chinese government’s formulation which allows a nominating committee to screen out candidates it does not like.

Beijing’s August 31, 2014 announcement of this formulation sparked months-long “Umbrella Movement” protests in Hong Kong.

“The right to vote and the right to stand for election are fundamental human rights,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “That the Hong Kong authorities are denying half that equation is a rejection of international law and of the promise of democracy for the citizens there who have fought for it for so long.”

Although the proposal will finally allow all eligible voters in Hong Kong to cast ballots for the territory’s chief executive, it will imposes a stringent screening mechanism that effectively bars candidates the central government in Beijing dislikes from nomination for chief executive. The proposal establishes a “Nomination Committee,” which consists of 1,200 members drawn from four categories of professions. Individuals who wish to become the chief executive must first be recommended by between 120 and 240 of the committee members before they can become initial candidates. Only those initial candidates endorsed by more than half of the committee can become formal candidates, and the proposal stipulates that the Nomination Committee will only endorse two or three candidates. The public will then only be able to cast a ballot on those two or three candidates. The Nomination Committee is identical in structure to the Election Committee that currently selects the chief executive, which is arranged in ways that ensure Beijing supporters always greatly outnumber others, and thus guarantees the central government’s control of the outcome.

A nominating process that screens out candidates based on political opinion, expression, or associations would violate the the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies to Hong Kong. The covenant’s guarantee of universal and equal suffrage means that people not only have the right to vote in elections, but also that they should have the right to stand for elections regardless of their political views. That the Chinese government has labelled pro-democracy legislators and political figures who criticize the Chinese Communist Party’s policies on Hong Kong and human rights as “anti-China” suggests an intent to discriminate against potential candidates for chief executive on the basis of their political opinions.

Political screening of candidates for office in Hong Kong is also incompatible with the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which states that Hong Kong “enjoy[s] a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government.” Any chief executive is bound under the terms of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, and the Hong Kong government has been promised it can otherwise enjoy great autonomy and reflect the preferences of Hong Kong people on most policy matters. Many successful governments around the world have local officials and administrations with views divergent from those at the national level.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law states that after 2007, Hong Kong can move toward the goal of universal suffrage by amending the electoral methods. The Basic Law stipulates a three-step process, which in 2004 was made into a five-step process through a controversial National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) “interpretation” of the law. This five-step process is as follows: first, the chief executive must submit a report to the NPCSC 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. 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.

During the second step, on August 31, 2014, the NPCSC went beyond simply approving the start of the process and laid down a framework for the reforms. The announcement of that decision sparked the Umbrella Movement protests. At the height of the movement, hundreds of thousands occupied major thoroughfares demanding genuine universal suffrage and the framework’s retraction. The demonstrations lasted between September and December 2014.

Ahead of the release of the political reform proposal, the Hong Kong government conducted two rounds of public consultation. Chief Executive CY Leung’s report on the first round of the consultation to the NPCSC, which he submitted on July 15, 2014, said it is “mainstream opinion” in Hong Kong that chief executives must “love China and love Hong Kong;” that the power to nominate chief executive candidates should be vested in a committee like the current structure controlled by Beijing; and that the legislature should not be democratized before the next elections. Although the public consultation was ostensibly open to public input, the results presented to the central Chinese government as “mainstream opinion” failed to reflect different views articulated by large segments of the population, who have consistently expressed strong desires for genuine democracy.

The Hong Kong government’s proposal will now be put to a vote by the semi-democratic Legislative Council before its summer break starts on July 8, 2015. In order for the proposal to pass, the Hong Kong government needs more than a two-thirds majority (47 votes) out of the 70-member Legislative Council. Thus far, a group of 23 democratic legislators has vowed to vote down the proposal.

“In her speech to the Legislative Council today, Secretary Carrie Lam characterized the proposal as a ‘key historical moment,’ but what’s historical is the Hong Kong government’s utter capitulation to Beijing and its betrayal of democratic aspirations in Hong Kong,” said Richardson.

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