24 October 2016
Demonstrators are seen through a window of the Legislative Council complex during last year's Occupy Movement. Photo: Bloomberg
Demonstrators are seen through a window of the Legislative Council complex during last year's Occupy Movement. Photo: Bloomberg

What Beijing hopes to gain out of 2017 election in Hong Kong

The 2017 election framework is a vital step in Beijing’s well-thought-out master plan for “electoral authoritarianism”, or the practice of authoritarian governments to hold elections.

But why bother? What can elections do for Beijing? Why does an authoritarian regime insist on a “one person, one vote” system?

What kind of electoral arrangement can bring this about? Studies of many political scholars can shed light on this issue.

It is indeed a fashion for authoritarian regimes across the globe to hold all sorts of elections amid the third wave of democratization since 1990, despite the fact that none of these elections are democratic.

To start with, elections can be a useful vehicle to gauge public sentiment and collect information about various parties and factions.

A competitive election (but not necessarily genuine), like the 2012 chief executive election, can help reveal everything like the bottom line and “secret card” of rival camps, their connections and capability to mobilize, each candidate’s integrity and style, their past feuds and enmities as well as the extent of support from external groups and media organizations.

If Leung Chun-ying were handpicked without having to go through a real fight against his major contender Henry Tang, Beijing might not have been able to know so many things.

Undemocratic elections can be a tool to promote, lure, train and reward political elites. Singapore is a shining example.

Such elections can also win over enemies, offer them a peaceful way to be the opposition, while feeding them the illusion that they can one day be the ruling party.

Internationally, such “democratic elections held in gradual and orderly progress” are also a useful shield against criticisms.

Relatively open and fair elections held within small circles of trusted candidates can be substantially beneficial to political stability just like the effect of a genuine vote in an open society.

The authorities can even claim that they have the people’s popular mandate and are thus justified to use some violence to deter opponents.

And, of course, autocrats are not immortal. There will come a time when they are aging and moving closer to the grave. They know that rather than tightening their grip on power, which in the end will lead to a people’s uprising, it is better for them to find a decent and peaceful way to step down.

Such elections, either undemocratic or partially democratic, will always have room for enhancements.

History have seen this many times like at the end of the Qing dynasty before it was overthrown by the Republic of China, like in Spain after the death of Francisco Franco in 1974 and like the many developments in Taiwan during the 1980-1990s.

But the Communist Party of China is nowhere near its end, and as such, any wish to accept the election bill first for a more democratic one in the future is just too naïve.

Quite the reverse, accepting the election offer will play right into Beijing’s hands, for three reasons.

First, Beijing and its local subordinates have already determined the rules of the game and can kick-start a comprehensive and well-organized system for the election project.

Second, the traditional 6:4 proportion of pro-democracy voters versus core supporters of the pro-establishment camp is changing amid the inflow of “new Hongkongers” who come from the north of the border via numerous policy channels. It’s quite possible that half of the eligible voters will now vote in consonance with Beijing’s will.

And third, Beijing’s financial resources, together with political donations from local businessmen, are enough to drum up a powerful election campaign.

Now is the best time for Beijing to tighten its grip on Hong Kong through an election, a time when the pan-democratic camp is lost in internal strife and the new generation of pro-democracy youngsters is still insignificant in number.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 16.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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