Hong Kong Elections: A Brief History

Disagreements over the election of the Legislative Council (LegCo) first arose between Britain and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the early 1990s. Then–Hong Kong Governor Patten cited mounting public pressure as one of the reasons for his unilateral decision to broaden the electorate for Hong Kong’s 1995 elections, which angered the PRC government. Previously, British and Chinese negotiators had been able to agree on a gradual implementation of democratic voting procedures within the framework of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the 1990 Basic Law, and the 1990 Decision of the National People’s Congress (NPC) on the Method for the Formation of the First Government and the First Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

The 1990 Decision laid out the composition of the sixty seats of the first LegCo as, “twenty members returned by geographic constituencies through direct elections, ten members returned by an election committee, and thirty members returned by functional constituencies.” It also put forward the idea of a "through train," which posited a 1995 LegCo serving a full four-year term and straddling 1997, thereby providing a measure of continuity and certainty. The disagreements arose over the electoral laws used to implement these decisions, specifically the size of the electorate and the consultative process to determine electoral procedures.

Following the 1984 Joint Declaration, the British side implemented an electoral reform timetable. The wholly-appointed legislature of 1985 would gradually become, by 1995, a LegCo composed along the "20-10-30" formula. In 1991, when Governor Patten announced his dramatic reforms for 1995, he did not change the "20-10-30" formula. His reforms, however, were radical in other ways. First, they redefined "functional constituencies" to include almost the entire working population of 2.7 million people (e.g., allowing clerks as well as executives to vote for the banking constituency). Second, the reforms allowed all of Hong Kong’s elected District Board members to vote for the ten Election Committee seats, instead of using the detailed election process established by Beijing. Third, geographic constituencies were redefined as twenty single-seat districts rather than nine double-seat constituencies as in 1991. Fourth, the voting age was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen.

The cumulative effect of the reforms was to broaden the electorate extensively, perhaps a move designed to claim domestic political support in light of the 1989 events in Beijing. From Beijing’s perspective, however, the moves were seen as a Trojan Horse in the West’s continuing campaign to undermine Chinese Communism. Perhaps the most fateful decision was Britain’s lack of extensive consultation with China on the issue of reforms for the 1995 election. The PRC was furious when Governor Patten announced the proposals directly to the people of Hong Kong, where they enjoyed widespread popular support. Beijing swiftly moved to denounce the measures as a contravention of the Basic Law. Seventeen subsequent rounds of negotiations led nowhere, and Patten unilaterally implemented his reforms. In turn, China announced the "derailment of the through train" and promised to replace the LegCo on July 1, 1997, with a Provisional Legislative Council, elected by the Selection Committee for the SAR Chief Executive. Once Hong Kong had returned to Chinese sovereignty, the administration announced new electoral rules that were debated and passed on September 28. Most Western media sources have denounced this as a “rollback of democracy.”

In their proper historical framework, the electoral rules for this spring are surprisingly similar to the 1991 elections, and the original plan for the 1995 elections. Britain’s arrogance and China’s intransigence resulted in the contentious implementation of electoral reform in 1995 and the replacement of the LegCo by the Provisional LegCo.

Beijing and Hong Kong have announced that they hope to achieve universal suffrage by the 2007 elections. Thus, Hong Kong’s patience should pay off with increased suffrage in future elections. As for U.S.-China relations, Hong Kong’s development will continue to be an important thread that, like so many other threads in the relationship, could fray and weaken the bonds in U.S.-China relations. But if Western rhetoric is not backed up with pressure, if Beijing adheres to its promises, and if SAR-Beijing ties proceed amicably, then this issue should gradually resolve itself.

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