Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity
Irecently filled out my mail-in ballot for Tuesday’s election and am relieved that neither Hong Kong’s C.Y. Leung nor supporters of Toronto’s Rob Ford have a say in whether or not I get to vote. Also, after more than 30 days of demonstration, Hong Kong’s Occupy / Democracy / Umbrella Movement (I’ll call it the Umbrella Movement) is still going strong. The fervor of its supporters and the dismissive and condescending rhetoric of its opponents make me appreciate how lucky we in the U.S. are to have our form of governance, warts and all.
Who Should be Allowed to Vote?
Ford, the crack-smoking alcoholic recent ex-mayor of Toronto, denigrates absentee voting. When one of his opponents in the just completed mayoral election, Hong Kong born Olivia Chow, encouraged Toronto absentee voters living in Hong Kong to vote for her, his backers went ballistic. The furor triggered a debate on CBC radio in Toronto, with a segment on the question: “Should Canadian citizens who don’t actually live here be allowed to vote in our municipal election?”
So far no one in the U.S. has suggested that I, nor any other U.S. citizen living out of the country for an extended stay, should forfeit voting rights. Americans accept, and for the most part believe, that every adult citizen of our nation has the right to vote. And Americans also accept that sometimes means people are elected who end up making imperfect decisions and a lot of the population unhappy.
But C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, thinks that only a select number of Hong Kongers should be allowed to pick the candidates for his job. In an October 20 interview, when asked why he believes candidates should be selected by a 1,200 person committee Leung said, “You have to take care of all the sectors in Hong Kong as much as you can, and if it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month [approximately HK’s median monthly wage]. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies.” In later statements, he said he regretted, but did not retract, his answer. Leung made it clear that he does not support one-person one-vote because he is convinced that poor voters do not vote wisely.
The median 2013 individual (not household) wage in the U.S. is not that much different from Hong Kong. $2,336 per month ($28,031 per year) in the U.S. $1,819 per month ($21,828 per year) in Hong Kong. Social Security payments, which many U.S. retirees rely on as their primary income are significantly less. The average monthly Social Security payment for those 65 years and older is $430.55 per month ($5,166 per year). My mom’s monthly Social Security income is less than $1,800 per month. So I suspect that Mr. Leung would think she can’t be trusted to vote responsibly.
The top 1% of individual U.S. wage earners make just over $20,833 per month (just over $250,000 per year) or more. I can’t find similar data for Hong Kong, but it’s not clear that Mr. Leung would even think that all of Hong Kong’s top 1 percent should vote either. The 1,200 member Chief Executive Election Committee is made up of only .02 percent of Hong Kong’s 7,188,000 population.
When is Universal Suffrage Not Universal Suffrage?
Attitudes like Mr. Leung’s, supported by current laws, are what the Umbrella Movement is fighting against. In a nutshell, its goal is to have Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and Legislative Council members chosen by the full population. Wrapped up with this is the desire for Leung to resign. To understand today’s situation, some background is necessary. Hong Kong’s Basic Law is similar to a constitution for the “city-state”. It was agreed upon by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and adopted before Hong Kong switched from British to PRC control in 1997. For initial Chief Executive elections the Basic Law set forth that “The Chief Executive shall be elected by a broadly representative Election Committee… appointed by the Central People’s Government.” Committee membership was set at 800 and apportioned between various “sectors” with business, financial, professional, and government interests dominating. For the Fourth Chief Executive election the PRC’s Standing Committee of the People’s Congress amended the Basic Law to increase Election Committee membership to 1,200.
On December 29, 2007 the Standing Committee adopted a decision that “appropriate amendments may be made… that the election of the fifth Chief Executive… in the year 2017 may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage…”
In preparation for the 2017 election and amid public excitement and high expectations about universal suffrage, Hong Kong’s authorities began a consultation process nominally to gather diverse public input about how universal suffrage should be implemented. This input was to be included in the Chief Executive’s report on electoral reform to be considered by the Standing Committee. However many Hong Kongers believe that the consultation did not honestly solicit, and C.Y. Leung did not honestly report, the wishes of the Hong Kong population. Whatever the case, the Standing Committee’s Adopted Decision of August 31, 2014 was that “selection of the Chief Executive… may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage” but only for candidates selected by a nominating committee “made in accordance with… the Election Committee for the Fourth Chief Executive.” In other words, a 1,200-person committee appointed by the Central People’s Government as described earlier.
It is clear to Umbrella Movement supporters and other Hong Kongers that being allowed to vote only for candidates selected by a PRC appointed committee is not really universal suffrage.
Is the U.S. a Good Example?
But not everyone in Hong Kong agrees with the Umbrella Movement. Some disagree with the concept of democracy or with the version of democracy that they consider the U.S as exemplifying. I’ve personally encountered this. The only unfriendly interaction I’ve had with someone in Hong Kong occurred while I was wearing a yellow ribbon, one of the symbols of the Umbrella Movement. Although I’ve learned since then from an HK Facebook friend that unfriending between yellow ribbon and blue ribbon (anti-Umbrella Movement) supporters is common, my encounter took me completely by surprise.
I was riding the MTR (subway) when suddenly a man began shouting at me. I quickly became too adrenalin jolted to remember exactly what was said. But the gist was, “I hate you. What do you know about Hong Kong?” As people nervously backed away and started videoing with their cell phones he continued, “Where are you from?”. The U.S. “I hate your country. You are a spy. You have no right to interfere in Hong Kong. You do not have democracy in your country.” Yes we do. “No you don’t. Your president is elected by only 500 people.” I really was rattled because I told him that wasn’t true. Splitting hairs it isn’t, but the U.S. President is elected by the 535 (not 500) member Electoral College, as I remembered when I calmed down. Even when flustered I should have recalled that, since in high school I wrote a paper arguing that the Electoral College is an anachronism that should be abolished because even though it casts its votes in proportion to the votes of all voters, the way electors are distributed by state can lead to a President being elected with less than 50% of the popular vote. That’s still true. Luckily, as far as I can tell, the angry man and I do not yet appear on YouTube, at least not when searching in English. If any Chinese friends come across our encounter on the internet please let me know.
The current partisan grid-lock of the U.S. government also comes in for a healthy dose of criticism from practical Hong Kongers. Many of Hong Kong’s elite point to the political turmoil of the U.S. as an argument against universal suffrage. They claim that the disagreement usually associated with democracy is not consistent with the Chinese cultural desire for consensus.
However what some may call consensus might also be considered fear of retaliation if one openly disagrees with the majority or those above you in power. The former head of Hong Kong’s pro-PRC Liberal Party was just expelled from the PRC’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference because he suggested last week that C.Y. Lueng consider resigning as a possible way to resolve the Umbrella Movement impasse. On the other side of the coin, on the University of Hong Kong Campus there are many signs and posters supporting the Umbrella Movement, but not one that I’ve seen questioning it.
Even democracy supporters can point to the U.S.’s less than perfect campaign finance laws and the Supreme Court decisions associated with them as examples not to follow. According to one recent HK commentary, “The [U.S.] top court’s latest decision on election campaign financing offers an object lesson in the corruption of free speech and the promotion of inequality by the rule of law…. It may still be ‘one person one vote’… but the sway of the billionaire who gives $100 million will make the small donation and vote from a poor US citizen rather irrelevant.” I have some U.S. friends that would argue against that, but probably more that wouldn’t.
Americans should be proud of their democratic heritage but realize that current U.S. democracy is not perfect. A couple of weeks ago a Generation-Y democracy-supporting Hong Konger and I were chatting about the Umbrella Movement and differences between Hong Kong and the U.S. In response to my observation that Hong Kong demonstrators seem much more civil and less prone to hostility than might be the case in the U.S, she offered that there are many more guns in the U.S. We mulled that over for a moment, then she added… and zombies. She’s definitely right about the guns. I’m not sure about the zombies. But even in the U.S. it probably would be better if they didn’t vote. However for the rest of us Americans, true universal suffrage is a right that we are privileged to have and need to work not only to preserve but also to make more effective. Toward that goal, Americans be sure to vote this Tuesday and whenever you can. Most people in the world don’t have the same opportunity.
Dante Archangeli moved to Hong Kong from Tucson, Arizona, where he focused on sustainable construction and development. He is an MIT and USC educated project manager, entrepreneur, and builder.