In Hong Kong, Democracy with Certain Characteristics

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On December 19, Hong Kong held the election that was postponed a year and a half ago by China. The election is, in Beijing’s terms, “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics.”

The phrase contradicts itself. It is an insult to Hong Kong.

Democracy matters. Whether you vote may not matter to you, but whether you live in a democracy matters a lot. For a century and a half, Hong Kong was an exception to that. The day-to-day freedom of the Hong Kong people was once guaranteed by Britain, a Western democracy with an electorate thousands of miles away. But for the past 24 and a half years, Hong Kong has been a special administrative area of China.

China promised in 1997 to leave Hong Kong’s political system alone. During the past ten years it has broken that promise more and more. After the giant protests of 2019, China imposed a National Security Law. Under that law, it imprisoned some high-profile supporters of democracy and canceled the legislative elections scheduled for September 2020. These are the elections Hong Kong has now held, and with decisive results. Hong Kong’s opposition parties, which had about 40% of the seats in the old legislature, now have none.

Whether you vote may not matter to you, but whether you live in a democracy matters a lot.

 

When the British left, they bequeathed to Hong Kong a partial democracy. The Legislative Council had 70 seats. Eventually all of them were supposed to be elected by the people, but at the greatest they only amounted to half. Most of the rest were filled by trade groups, such as the organized teachers, medical workers, and several chambers of commerce. Those seats were subject to influence, and most of them went to pro-China candidates.

In the previous elections of 2016, the majority of the 35 elected seats went to the opposition, a group of pro-democracy and localist parties. But in the new system, imposed by China, democracy has shrunk. The new legislature has 90 seats. Chinese authorities indirectly appoint 40 of them through an election committee. Trade groups have 30 seats. Public voters have 20.

To make sure that only “patriots” get elected to those 20, China has required all candidates, including the opposition, to be vetted by its election committee. If a candidate has advocated Hong Kong independence from China, he’s out. Advocating independence is now a crime in Hong Kong. Authorities have enforced the new National Security Law by throwing several opposition figures in prison. Others have fled to Australia or Britain.

As a result of all this, the main opposition, the Democratic Party, fielded no candidates. Its intent was to encourage citizens not to vote at all, but its people could not say so. Under the new law, urging even one person not to vote is now a crime.

Voting itself is not compulsory. To get out the vote, the government made all public transit free on voting day, a Sunday. As a result, the buses, trams, and subways were full of people going to Ocean Park, Hong Kong’s Disneyland, or to hot-pot feasts with relatives. Most people were not going to vote. Voter participation fell to 30%, down by more than half since the lower-level district elections of 2019.

To make sure that only “patriots” get elected to those 20, China has required all candidates, including the opposition, to be vetted by its election committee.

 

I’m not writing this to urge the US government to “do something,” because I’m not sure it ought to do anything. I write because Hong Kong matters to me. I married a woman from Hong Kong, and in 1989, I went with her to live there for almost four years. I knew and worked with Hong Kong people. (I use the politically correct term, “Hong Kong people,” because they are not all Chinese.) The Hong Kong people I knew were not political. They were less ideological than Americans. They were less nationalistic than their Filipino maids. They were a commercial people, honest, hard-working, and practical. I never met any who were socialists.

My political thought then about Hong Kong was that it ought to wake up and determine its own future, with as much independence as it could get. Which might not be a whole lot. The Hong Kong people tried to do that in 2019, but it was too late — way too late. They should have done it in 1980, before the territory’s fate was sealed at the negotiating table by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. What a protest could have accomplished in 1980 I don’t know, but it might have put the Hong Kong people at the negotiating table. And they weren’t represented.

In 1980, Milton Friedman famously declared in his Free to Choose TV series that Hong Kong was the place to go “to see how the free market really works.” It surely was. It was when I was there and has been since then. In the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, 2021, published a year ago, Hong Kong still ranked Number One, with the freest economy in the world. China has not taken away the territory’s economic freedom, and that is a good thing. You can still make money in Hong Kong, but you’re smart to keep your mouth shut.

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