Beijing girds for universal suffrage elections

by Frank Ching

In 1994, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, quoted a former colonial official as saying: “The Chinese style is not to rig elections, but they do like to know the result before they’re held.”

Now, as Hong Kong prepares for universal suffrage elections promised by the Chinese government for chief executive in 2017 and for the entire legislature in 2020, there are signs that Beijing has finally honed the art of mobilizing voters to support its candidates, even though it promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 not to interfere in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs.

Last week, barrister Alan Leong, the leader of the Civic Party, which along with other pro-democracy parties was trounced by pro-establishment parties in district elections November 6, declared that the Chinese government was “operating Hong Kong’s election machine through its Liaison Office” and was able to call up as many votes as it needs in any election.

Reports of Chinese intervention in Hong Kong’s electoral processes are of long standing and are widely believed, although they are denied by Beijing.

Indeed, former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee demanded over a decade ago that Beijing shut down its Liaison Office here, charging that it was interfering in elections and turning into a shadow government.

Since then, Beijing has if anything become even more hands-on where Hong Kong is concerned and even took part in negotiations directly last year with the Democratic Party, sidelining the Hong Kong government.

It is an open secret that Chinese officials have a huge network of contacts in Hong Kong-many of them immigrants from the mainland who have obtained permanent residency-and give them “advice” on whom to vote for before an election.

And, although election is by secret ballot, there have been reports of voters under pressure to support a particular candidate have used camera phones to take pictures of their ballot so as to prove that they had voted for the “right” person.

As a result, signs were placed at polling stations to warn voters not to use their mobile phones or cameras inside voting booths.

While the Liaison Office undoubtedly has the ability to mobilize support for candidates, it is probably going too far to say that it can order up any number of votes it wants to, at any time, in any district. Besides, the main pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, has worked hard over the years to win grassroots support.

In 2003 the DABHK suffered a disastrous electoral defeat in the aftermath of a 500,000-person protest against legislation that, it was feared, would erode rights and freedoms.

But, in the absence of such tumultuous political events, Beijing can no doubt influence the outcome of an election not only directly through mobilizing voter support but also indirectly by providing financial and other resources.

Aside from interference by Beijing, there have also been fears in Hong Kong about other interest groups, such as the police or civil servants, who form a big bloc of voters and, when mobilized, may affect the outcome of an election.

But the biggest-and most realistic-fear is that of Chinese intervention.

Almost 15 years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, it is clear that while the policy of “one country, two systems” is on the surface being honored, Beijing is neglecting one vital factor: the need for self-restraint so that tiny Hong Kong can be allowed to be autonomous while next door to a giant.

Actually, the solution to voter manipulation is simple: make voting compulsory, as it already is in some countries, such as Australia and Singapore.

Once every person is required to vote, the influence of bloc voting is eliminated.

But the Hong Kong government may not be willing to legislate compulsory voting, for fear of offending Beijing. And even if it presents such a bill, it is possible that Beijing’s supporters in the legislature will oppose it, as will some democrats who mistakenly believe that it is somehow undemocratic to force people to vote.

However, voting is comparable to other civic duties, such as jury duty. It is not undemocratic to make voting compulsory, on pain of a fine.

And it is actually a win-win for both Hong Kong and Beijing.

For Hong Kong, compulsory voting will solve the issue of bloc voting, whether organized by Beijing or anyone else; for Beijing, it will be able to say, hand on heart, that it is not interfering in Hong Kong’s elections.

Frank.ching@gmail.com

Twitter: @FrankChing1