Beijing had promised universal suffrage in 2007

Frank Ching

There is no denying that the visit by mainland Basic Law drafter Xiao Weiyun
and legal expert Xia Yong dealt a big setback to the cause of the democratic
camp. Certainly, it seems most unlikely now that Beijing will agree to allow
the chief executive to be elected through universal suffrage in 2007, or to
let the entire Legislative Council to be directly elected in 2008.

Of course, their words carry weight only because it is believed that they
represent the central government. And yet, to what extent do they represent
the central government? Besides, don’t the central government’s views
change from time to time? And aren’t there different groups within the
central government?

Mr. Xiao said the central government has the power “to decide the
development of Hong Kong’s political system” because it has a bearing on
the relationship between the central government and the special
administrative region as well as on the long-term prosperity of Hong Kong.

Most people know that there is a big difference between calling for the
direct election of the chief executive in 2007 and calling for the election
of the entire legislature through universal suffrage in 2008. After all,
Annex I of the Basic Law says that if the Hong Kong Special Administrative
Region wants to change the method for selecting the chief executive, such a
proposal “shall be reported to the Standing Committee of the National
People’s Congress for approval.”

However, Annex II says that if the SAR wants to elect the entire legislature
through universal suffrage, the decision must be reported to the standing
committee of the NPC not for its approval but merely “for the record.”

However, Mr. Xiao said that even changes in the way Legco is to be elected
must also be approved by the central government because such a change would
affect relations between the SAR and the central government as well as Hong
Kong’s economic prosperity. Surprisingly, he also said that the standing
committee could refuse to “record” such a proposal.

This is astounding because it seems at variance with what is stated in the
Basic Law. Besides, it is also contrary to what the Chinese Government told
Hong Kong, Britain and the world in the past, something that Mr. Xiao and
perhaps Chinese government officials have conveniently forgotten.

This is because in 1994, the Chinese government publicly and unambiguously
declared that, after 2007, if Hong Kong wished to choose the entire
legislature through universal suffrage, it does not need central government
approval.

This happened in the aftermath of the Sino-British negotiations of 1993 over
the electoral arrangements for 1994-95. The last British governor, Chris
Patten, oversaw those negotiations, which broke down. But, during the
negotiations, the British side raised a number of issues with the Chinese
side.

On February 28, 1994, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a lengthy statement
giving its account of what had transpired. The statement was carried in full
on two pages of the China Daily the following day. In that statement, China
accused Britain of having insisted on discussing issues which, China felt,
fell within its sovereignty and hence were none of Britain’s business.

The Foreign Ministry statement said that Britain asked if “the Chinese
government would support universal suffrage for the election of the
Legislative Council in 2007, if that was the wish of the Hong Kong SAR.”

The Foreign Ministry declared: “With regard to election of all members of
the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong SAR by universal suffrage after
2007, Article 68 of the Basic Law and paragraph 3 of its Annex II contain
provisions to this effect. It is a question to be decided by the Hong Kong
SAR itself and it needs no guarantee by the Chinese government.”

Obviously, China meant that if the SAR wanted the whole Legislative Council
elected by universal suffrage after 2007, it could do so. The central
government would not object. This is because how Legco is to be elected in
2007 is something “to be decided by the Hong Kong SAR itself.”

None of Mr. Xiao’s points were mentioned, such as the impact on Hong
Kong-central government relations, or the effect on the economy, or the
possibility that the standing committee might refuse to accept a Hong Kong
submission “for the record.”

Hopefully, officials of the Hong Kong SAR also remember these words of the
central government. Certainly, when Chief Secretary Donald Tsang goes to
Beijing as head of the task force to consult the central government, he
should remind the central government of these words and ask whether or not
they still apply.

A major power like China does not give its word lightly. And, once given, it
does not lightly renege on such a public pledge. Mr. Tsang should find out
if the Chinese government today stands by the promise that it made 10 years
ago. And then report back to the people of Hong Kong.

The author is a Hong Kong based commentator.
(The Chinese version of this article appeared in Apple Daily on February 3, 2004)