The anti-extradition bill protests (aka Anti-ELAB protests) have now gone on for months, and there’s no sign of stopping. Many people are asking: When will this end? How will this end?
But here’s a better question: How did it all begin? And to answer that, kinda, we must inevitably trace back to Hong Kong’s unique and fundamentally ineffectual political system. How does Hong Kong’s political system work, exactly? And why does it often not work? We break everything down to the basics here, to provide a backdrop for explaining the city’s complicated state of affairs. Feel inspired after digesting it all? Read to the end to find out what you can do as an individual to help change the status quo.
A key feature of Hong Kong politics is that there is “liberty without democracy,” as described by its last British colonial governor Chris Patten, before its 1997 Handover to China.
There is no denying that Hongkongers enjoy a great number of freedoms found in most liberal societies, from a free press and freedom of speech to an independent court. This is enshrined in the city’s two most important constitutional documents: the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, which states that Hong Kong is to be governed under the “one country, two systems” principle, enjoying a “high degree of autonomy” and retaining “its political, economic and judicial systems and unique way of life” for at least 50 years (that is, until 2047).
While the documents promise eventual universal suffrage, they start with some big limits. Technically, the way it’s currently set up, only one-sixth of the three branches of the Hong Kong government (executive, legislative, and judicial) are directly elected. This structure, coupled with a lack of effective means of assessing and addressing public sentiment, makes it very difficult for Hong Kong citizens to make a dent in any of the city’s policies.
Hong Kong’s political system is “executive-led”, as outlined by the Basic Law. It means that the executive branch holds an overwhelming sway over the legislative and judicial branches. For example, only the executive branch can propose laws and policies that involve public funding or affect its political structure. A lawmaker can propose bills related to government policies, but only with prior approval from the Chief Executive (aka the CE), the head of the SAR government.
Although lawmakers can’t propose any major bills, they can put forward amendments to the government-proposed bills. Unfortunately, the Legislative Council (or LegCo for short) voting mechanism makes these amendments very difficult to pass.
This creates a very reactive Legislative Council: lawmakers can only question and vote for government-proposed bills, and, ironically, possess very little lawmaking powers. Meanwhile, the much more powerful executive branch consists of the Chief Executive (elected via a small-circle committee of 1,200 handpicked members), the Executive Council (entirely appointed by the CE), and the civil service.
In most democratic government systems, the legislature serves to make laws and to check the power of the executive and judicial branches of government. Hong Kong’s LegCo, however, is designed to mainly check opposition voices.
The biggest and most controversial feature: the Functional Constituencies (功能組別). LegCo has 70 seats in total, half of which are elected by Geographical Constituencies (GC), and the other half by Functional Constituencies (FC). Any citizens over the age of 18 can register as GC voters. GC seats are directly elected by the majority of people.
By contrast, each FC seat represents a professional or special interest group, and it includes institutional votes, individual votes or a mix of both. FC is known to be highly pro-establishment, because it is the government that decides and approves the FC electoral base. The majority of FC elections are also uncontested — meaning there is only one candidate running for office.
This means that even when the opposition camp (aka the pro-democracy camp) receives over 50 percent of GC votes, it still remains a minority in LegCo. The pro-establishment camp can also veto opposition lawmakers’ proposals, thanks to a controversial “split voting system” (分組點票) that requires any motion put forward by a lawmaker to be approved by a majority in both the GC and FC. Because FC lawmakers are mostly pro-establishment, this creates a situation where a popular motion can get blocked even without popular disapproval.
To be fair, it’s not only that the opposition camp has no power in LegCo — even the establishment has very little influence over policies. Despite the establishment’s control of LegCo ever since the Handover, the government has only been able to pass half of its own policies on average. Because the CE belongs to no party and does not answer to LegCo, academics have argued that they have very little incentive to actually listen to lawmakers, even those on their side. Case in point: most pro-establishment lawmakers initially opposed the proposed extradition bill, but the CE paid no heed and went ahead with it. And we all know what happened next.
The rule of law is a core value embraced by both the establishment and the opposition, and Hong Kong’s legal system has mostly proven itself to be efficient and independent of the executive and legislative branches. It’s important to point out, however, that all Hong Kong judges and judicial officers are appointed by the Chief Executive and the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission. The members of JORC are themselves appointed by the Chief Executive.
In most democracies, the appointment of judges also requires the approval of the legislature. Again, here we see a pattern of the executive branch wielding more power over the other branches of government.
Hong Kong has a lot of political parties. That’s mostly because, as mentioned above, LegCo is the only “elected” branch of government and thus the only way that citizens can feel their participation count. There are three main party categories based on political ideology: establishment, pro-democracy, and localist.
The establishment camp (建制派), also known as the pro-Beijing camp, evolved from the pro-Communist “leftists” in Hong Kong and now also includes conservative pro-business elites. The biggest party here is the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB; 民建聯). Fierce supporters of the government’s policies, they also have the most seats in LegCo. Their core values include nationalism, stability, prosperity and pragmatism. Other big establishment parties include Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (工聯會) and the Liberal Party (自由黨), which, despite its name, is conservative and pro-business.
The pro-democracy bloc (泛民主派), as its name suggests, is a broad label encompassing parties that support democracy, or direct elections for both the Chief Executive and LegCo. The biggest and oldest pan-dem group is the Democratic Party (民主黨), currently the third-largest party in LegCo. Its dominance of the pan-dem camp has waned over the years, giving way to many other newer groups. The Civic Party, for instance, was founded by a group of barristers and played a big role in criticizing Article 23 and later pushing for universal suffrage (Article 45) in 2007 and 2008. It is now the fourth-largest party in LegCo. Other important pan-dem groups include Labour Party (工黨), HK First (香港本土), People Power (人民力量), Professional Commons (公共專業聯盟), Neo-Democrats (新民主同盟), Demosisto (香港眾志), and the League of Social Democrats (社會民主連線).
The localists group (本土派) emerged from the social and political movement protesting Beijing’s increasing influence on Hong Kong’s affairs, most notably the “831 White Paper” issued by Beijing in 2014, which states that a Chief Executive candidate must “love the country [China] and love Hong Kong”. The group’s ideologies span from self-determination to full independence.
The localists, considered a more radical fringe of the political spectrum, actually scored a big win in the 2016 elections, securing six LegCo seats and receiving close to 20 percent of the vote share, but they were all disqualified in 2018 due to an oath-taking dispute. Notable groups include Hong Kong Indigenous (本土民主前線; whose jailed member Edward Leung Tin-kei is now considered a spiritual leader for the current anti-extradition movement), Youngspiration (青年新政), Land Justice League (土地正義聯盟), Tin Shui Wai New Force (天水圍民生關注平台), and Proletariat Political Institute (普羅政治學苑).
And then there are the DCs. The District Councils are currently the only government body that allows for completely direct elections. Out of the 458 seats, 431 are directly elected, and 27 consist of Rural Committee Chairmen in the New Territories (who follow their own not-quite-as-transparent election process). The pro-Beijing camp currently controls 70 percent of the seats, the pan-dem camp 23 percent, and the localist groups 5 percent.
The District Councils have very little political power: they’re really a consultation body. They have no legal authority, no lawmaking powers, and cannot scrutinize and approve public expenditures. They have no regular funding except for the one-off amount granted under the Signature Project Scheme, which has been widely criticized for fuelling various “vanity projects”, including the famous Sham Tseng goose statue.
That’s why the District Councils have been historically overlooked by both the opposition camp and voters. Nonetheless, it’s an important arena for political parties to build and exert their influence, especially considering that almost 10 percent of the Chief Executive nominating committee comes from the District Councils. Its upcoming November elections is the first since the extradition bill protests and will possibly be the most closely watched in District Council history.
On paper, Hong Kong’s political system is divided into three branches. But looming above all three branches is the Communist Party of China.
As stated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Beijing “shall not interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.” In reality, Beijing had started handing out its own interpretations of the Basic Law as early as 1999 (which it is technically free to do — but whether the conditions allowing for such interpretations have been met, is hotly disputed). In one significant interpretation, Beijing voluntarily added two new rules to Article 45 (which promises that the Chief Executive should eventually be elected by universal suffrage), stating first that the CE needs to report any proposed election method amendments to the The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC); and then that the NPCSC has the power to rule whether the proposed amendment is necessary.
The Beijing factor is especially tricky for the Chief Executive, because it creates an extra boss that they have to answer to. No one captures this better than current CE Carrie Lam, who, in a leaked audio recording obtained by Reuters, said: “…the chief executive… unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution, that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited.”
Register as a voter, for both the GC and the FC. LegCo has very little power, true — but we can’t all be defeatist about it. The lawmakers need as much public backing as they can get. Even if they have limited power, they do have influence and a louder voice in society.
The registration period for the upcoming District Councils election is over, but it’s never too late to sign up. Registering as a GC voter is a piece of cake. Start by double-checking if you’ve already registered here. If not, register as one here.
As for FC voter registration: if you’re a certified public accountant, registered engineer, social worker, architect, landscape architect, surveyor, planner, holder of food business licences for more than 12 months, registered health service provider, authorized insurer for more than 12 months, legal officer, legal adviser, registered medical practitioner, dentist, teacher, or a full-time academic staff member, congratulations! You’re already eligible and can apply here. If not, the barrier for entry is notoriously high. Usually, you’ll have to be a member of an approved industry group for more than 12 months. Check the list here.
Support the media. Support your favorite media organizations by reading and subscribing! Trustworthy media outlets ensure that everyone gets access to essential facts and can make informed judgments based on the reporting.
Join a political group. Have a browse through the list of political parties here, and see which aligns most with your political leanings. Most welcome donations and volunteers for things like handing out flyers.
Protest (responsibly). There’s a reason why Hong Kong is called the City of Protest. With an incapacitated LegCo and little means for the average person to get their voice heard, peaceful demonstrations have been one of the most direct, effective and legal means of bringing attention to a cause. If there’s a rally that aligns with your beliefs, be there! Check out a list of the upcoming rallies and protests here.