Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

Unfair Election in Hong Kong

24 May 1998 marked a historical day in Hong Kong - it was the first election in Hong Kong since the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China. The elections attracted global attention, and international observers were present at the invitation of Human Rights Monitor, both to witness the historical event and also to ensure that the elections were free and fair.

The Legislative Council consists of 60 members. 20 members were directly elected from five geographical constituencies. The proportional representational system was utilised for the geographical constituencies. 30 members were elected from functional constituencies where voting was either by individuals or by companies. Functional constituencies are reserved for various business and professional sectors, such as finance and legal sectors, considered by the authorities as having important "functions" warranting an "additional" voice. This system of voting is, however, ridden with problems and inequalities, such as the problem of multiple votes. The remaining 10 members were returned by the Election Committee. The Election Committee consisted of 800 members, who represented 4 sectors, each composed of 200 members and then divided into sub-sectors, almost identical to functional constituencies. However, this form of election is by no means fair nor representative.

Superficially, the appointment of Mr. Justice Woo Kwok Hing, a respected High Court judge to head the Electoral Affairs Commission gives the elections the appearance of a fair outer appearance. However, it became clear that Justice Woo had not paid due respect to international norm and did not welcome the presence of any observers, or at least did not welcome any "monitoring" and banned all international observers from entering the polling stations. Allowing international observers into polling stations is a practice which is common in other jurisdictions such as Cambodia, New Zealand, and the United States. It has to be said, however, that on the whole the poll itself appeared to be well organised and honestly conducted. Votes were cast through secret ballots without interference or intimidation. However, the fact that Justice Woo refused the presence of international observers in the polling stations unnecessarily tarnished Hong Kong's image.

Areas of improvement have been identified, such as the strange but inexplicable reason to ban logos or team names from the ballot papers by the Electoral Affairs Commission. The restrictions in advertising have also been difficult to comprehend. One of the international observers noted that compared with Europe, there was no election atmosphere in Hong Kong at all. It could have been an ordinary day, as far as anyone knew.

Voting by corporations is another area ridden with inequalities which have not been addressed by the Electoral Affairs Commission, as it has no jurisdiction. It is the Chinese authorities and the HKSAR Government that have to be blamed for the restoration of such voting abandoned even by the British colonial government. Research by Human Rights Monitor has revealed that a number of companies have been registered under the same address. This is especially prevalent and obvious under the Real Estate Constituency. Each of these companies would get a vote, however, there is nothing to stop one owner of ten different companies from controlling 10 votes. This system ensures that the more money one has the more votes one could buy. In fall 1995, the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticized the Hong Kong electoral system, especially the functional constituency elections, which has given undue weight to the views of the business community, as contravening the requirements of universal and equal suffrage, equality before the law, and amounting to discrimination based on sex (under-represented in F.C. and E.C. elections), wealth, class, social and other status. The Committee recommended immediate actions by the government to remedy the situation. The comments and recommendations were made when Hong Kong was still under British rule. However, after 1997, not only the size of electorate of the functional constituency has been reduced by 88% (the number of electorates in F.C. in 98 was 138,984, and that in 95 was 1,147,100), but also the system of corporate voting has been revived. The next Legislative Council election is less than two years away. Although the democratic lobby has been calling for universal suffrage to be implemented, it does not seem possible in the near future.

It is clear that the lengths to which the Government has gone to reduce the franchise, and the creation of obstacles to prevent democratic parties from being a majority through its framing of the laws, are in breach of the provision of the Basic Law requiring a gradual progress towards full democracy, and that the Government is clearly opposed to democracy. Indeed, in Tung Chee-hwa's eyes, everything has to be achieved slowly, slowly, and in accordance with the Basic Law (the Government’s interpretation of the Basic Law). In his travel to Europe, Tung repeatedly emphasized that Hong Kong will move towards full democracy, giving leaders of other democracies the deceptive impression that there is real chance of democracy in 2007. But in his recent remark to the press, the economic crisis has convinced him more reluctantly to support the quickening of the pace of democratisation in Hong Kong. The Basic Law states that any amendments made about the method of election after a review to be conducted after 2007 would require the endorsement of a two-third majority of all the Legislative Councillors and the consent of the Chief Executive. If Tung opposes democracy and continue to be in office, we don't see much prospect of democratisation.

It has been suggested that a way forward would be for the pro-democracy parties to convene a constitutional convention to agree on a common programme not merely for the introduction of democracy but for the kind of democratic system which should be introduced. However, the Government does not seem to be open to change, and would rather democratise at their own pace, and to them, there is absolutely no rush to push for universal suffrage.

1998 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor