By: Nury Vittachi

Blogger Nury Vittachi, who once served as the South China Morning Post’s history columnist, laments the sad forgotten history of promises of democracy made to the people of Hong Kong, and reminds us that the community did once have elected representatives—granted by invading Japanese soldiers 

Interviewer: The Hong Kong government is telling us that we should rejoice about what is happening now, since this is the first real attempt at democracy in our history. The British gave us no democracy in 150 years, right?

Nury: No. That makes no sense. Modern democracy didn’t exist 150 years ago. We could not have had it then. The British didn’t have it themselves until the 1940s.

Interviewer: But the point remains that we didn’t get democracy from the British.

Nury: Hong Kong’s tragedy is our short memories. 

Interviewer: Go on.

Nury: Hong Kong has had elections for more than 100 years. In the first public election ever held in Hong Kong, in 1888, 187 voters turned up out of 669 registered voters. The election was for seats for the Sanitary Board. The turnout was 28 percent. In the 1880s and 1890s, there were other attempts to introduce the concept of government elections. But they were largely organized by the business community and were blatantly self-serving.

I: So, no change there!

N: Right. The 1889 proposal from the English traders, for example, was that the vote be granted to the ‘right sort’ of Hong Kong people — namely, male persons of the English ‘race’, which numbered just 800 out of a population of 221,400.  But there were good people in Hong Kong who realized this was wrong. The then colonial secretary, a man named Lord Ripon, threw out the business people’s proposal and said he would like Chinese faces on the Executive Council. 

Ripon was laughed at and replaced. The next time the Hong Kong man in the street was told he would have a voice in governing himself was in 1941. 

I: In 1941? Are you really saying that the Japanese invaders were more democratic than the British or our current leaders?

N: I am. The Japanese invaders announced that the British were gone forever, and local councils were formed to run Hong Kong. But they lost the war and then things changed.

I: That’s amazing. But why did the Brits not want to give Hong Kong democracy?  

N: They did. Straight after the war. There were many people like Lord Ripon, some with power. The first announcement about real elections in Hong Kong came from the post-war governor, Sir Mark Young, in 1946. He wanted to usher in an age of direct elections and ‘a municipal council constituted on a fully representational basis’. Those were his words.

He announced in 1946 that there would be full, genuine, universal suffrage in Hong Kong starting the following year.  Sir Mark, still a sick man after being ill-treated by the Japanese, retired in 1947, and left what was known as the ‘Young Plan’ for democratic elections in Hong Kong in the hands of his successor, Sir Alexander Grantham.

Sir Alexander made the grave mistake of consulting with business leaders and a local Chinese businessman-politician, Sir Man-kam Lo, and then threw Sir Mark’s proposals in the bin. Hong Kong didn’t need elections and business would continue with the British acting as benevolent dictators, he said.

I: So it was the business community that threw it out – nothing changes. 

N: Yes. Some historians believe the late 1940s, when Britain was granting independence to many parts of its empire, was the key opportunity to introduce direct elections to Hong Kong. Later on, China’s growing opposition to the concept made it more difficult.

The subject was next brought up in 1956, when a British Labor Party MP named John Rankin campaigned for votes to be given to the people of Hong Kong. He exposed the glaring weakness in Sir Alexander’s business-led argument. Dictatorships were quite plainly a bad thing ‘however benevolent’, Rankin said. 

The then colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, dismissed Rankin’s plea, replying that he detected ‘no general demand or need for the introduction of an elected element into the Legislative Council’. 

I: What about recent times? 

N: In the early 1980s, the negotiators preparing the Joint Declaration succeeded in getting elections listed as one of the issues on the table.  When the Joint Declaration was issued in 1984, it said: ‘The legislature of the HKSAR shall be constituted by elections.’ The implication was real democratic elections. There are only two types of democracy, real and fake.  

Also in 1984, Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe said the process would start ‘in the years immediately ahead’.  

However, the authorities in Beijing made it known that they did not approve of free, direct elections. The business community, which dominated the Executive Council, agreed, as did the British Foreign Office. The accepted excuse was that direct elections would ‘cause chaos’ in Hong Kong.

The governors of that period, Sir Edward Youde, until 1986, followed by Sir David Wilson, decided to compromise. They moved ahead with elections, but at a snail’s pace. 

A 1985 election saw 24 members of the Legislative Council returned by 25,206 voters, just half of one percent of the population. 

The 1984 promise that democratization would happen ‘in the years immediately ahead’ was broken. In 1991, just 18 seats were released for public election, ‘balanced’ (that was the word used) by 42 appointed seats: basically pro-Beijing business people. Sir David indicated that the Hong Kong public might be politically mature enough to select two further seats by 1995.    

When Chris Patten became governor in 1992, he was outraged by what his predecessors had done. The delays were ludicrous and the “democracy will bring chaos” theory was absurd, he believed. Everything he had seen about Hong Kong as a community led him to believe that it was an unusually intelligent, mature group of people.

He ran roughshod over the objections of the business community, and speeded up the timetable, offering 30 directly elected seats in the 1995 elections, plus he gave all Hong Kong citizens the right to vote for the 30 appointed seats.  

In other words, Hong Kong went directly to a type of full democracy – for the first time in history, all seats in the Legislative Council were occupied by individuals elected by the people of Hong Kong. 

Chaos had been long predicted as the only possible outcome of such a situation.

What happened? Chaos was notably absent, and stock and property markets soared to record levels.

I: But the Chinese government was angry with him, right?

N: True. Yet his stance was valuable, in that it forced them to also treat the Hong Kong people as an intelligent, trustworthy community. Hong Kong has a long history of pro-democracy people succeeding in getting concessions where pro-Beijing people have said it was impossible.

I: How did he force the Beijing authorities to act? 

He got written promises that full democracy would be implemented. In 1993, their representative in Hong Kong, Lu Ping, made a statement: “How Hong Kong develops democracy in the future is a matter entirely within the sphere of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and the central government cannot intervene.” (People’s Daily, March 18, 1993.)

A year later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing made a similar statement. The democratic election of all Legislative Council members by universal suffrage “is a question to be decided by the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) itself and it needs no guarantee by the Chinese Government.”      

I: Then came the handover.

N: Right. Just before the handover, in October 1996, a Xinhua report said new arrangements after the handover would ‘mark a milestone in the development of Hong Kong democracy’. 

But it was a lie. After the 1997 handover, the fully elected Legco was replaced by the provisional legislature, which had zero directly elected members. People like Jasper Tsang, who had been struggling to get votes, could now simply walk into power, and he did. 

For the 1998 May 24 elections, the number of directly elected seats was cut to 20. 

The number of voters for the functional constituencies was cut from two million to 140,000. The 40 seats not filled by direct elections, it was decided, would be given to people chosen by a complex multi-layered system designed to lower the number of seats that pro-democracy candidates could win.

In the late 90s, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said Hong Kong people would not be ready for free, direct elections for another 10 or 15 years. Perhaps 2012 or thereabouts would be the date of universal suffrage, he said, to great dismay.

I: But 2012 has come and gone.

N: Right. Now it’s 2014 and we’ve only got 1,200 decision-making voters, out of seven million people – we have made almost no progress since the Sanitary Board elections of 1888!

I: It’s a rather depressing history.

N: For almost 70 years, Hong Kong people have been told that true democracy will be here ‘tomorrow’. But tomorrow never comes, does it? 

They are people who have been repeatedly promised what most of the rest of the world has had for decades—and who have been denied those rights every time.

If you’re not angry about this, then you have no heart for one of the best, hardest-working, most resolute communities on Earth.