Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Democracy in Hong Kong must be advanced in stages

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
2016-05-13

Fozia Lone

Fozia Lone says nothing in international law obliges the practice of universal suffrage, and further democratic development in the SAR is not possible without considering Chinese sensitivities and aspirations

Since August 2014, when the National People’s Congress Standing Committee publicised its decision to retain the vetting procedure for civil nomination for the 2017 chief executive election, there has been political pandemonium in Hong Kong, resulting in, among other things, the Occupy Central movement.

Pro-democracy groups condemned the Standing Committee’s decision, claiming that such a selection mechanism was contrary to the international standards of “universal suffrage” and the right to participate in public life, which are enshrined in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They also said it went against the promises stipulated in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Following Occupy, many writers have discussed the issues of political reform, democracy and the future of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong.

However, these discussions have been rather inadequate and, in certain cases, lopsided, as they naively viewed political development in Hong Kong through the prism of Article 26 (the right to vote) of the Basic Law only, forgetting that this document is an incarnation of the “one country, two systems” plan made between China and Britain.

The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, in its first plenary session in 1949, adopted the Common Programme, the country’s de facto constitution for the next few years, and Article 3 stated, “The People’s Republic of China must abolish all the prerogatives of imperialist countries in China”.

Clearly, autonomy under this plan is not a decentralised right but is linked to a parallel duty to remain loyal to the motherland. The “one country, two systems” plan was incorporated in the Joint Declaration, a key part of the handover of Hong Kong, and was then domestically incorporated into the Basic Law (articles 1 and 2). Further, under Article 158, the right to interpret the Basic Law lies with the NPC Standing Committee.

Through Article 39 of the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is enshrined in Hong Kong law. The Basic Law promised steady, incremental promotion of democracy. Article 45 states that the chief executive will be “selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government” and the method for selection “shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress”.

It further promised that the ultimate objective would be to select the chief executive by “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”.

It was through the Basic Law that Hong Kong for the first time enjoyed any form of democracy. Prior to the handover, Hong Kong was ruled by Britain through its designated governors. The central government has, practically, fulfilled its promise and the chief executive elections have been increasingly democratic; the Election Committee has grown to 1,200 members, compared to the 400 members in the first chief executive election.

It must be noted that within international law, “universal suffrage” is not an entitlement. In fact, there is no democratic prerogative under international law that requires China to implement Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights within Hong Kong. “Universal suffrage” is not a binding obligation for attaining internal self-governance; nor does it create a political right.

Since the 1990s, with the end of the cold war, attention has turned increasingly towards domestic governance. Democracy has permeated international law literature during decolonisation and aimed to prevent discrimination. For instance, Article 1 of the international covenant obliges member states to promote the internal right to self-determination of peoples. Article 25 calls for political participation, which is to be prescribed by national governments on the basis of their constitutional law.

In Hong Kong, the procedure for voting rights is determined by the Basic Law and falls within the internal competence of the central government. Hence, international law cannot be used to bully China to implement Article 25 within Hong Kong.

Further, democracy, as a Western political ideology, has not always been a success, as can be seen with the recent Middle East unrest. In Asian countries, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, democracy is unfortunately not a success story, and there are myriad instances of vote-rigging, sectarian violence, corruption, human rights violations and the like.

The ipso facto implementation of Western-style democracy in a culturally and ideologically diverse society ends up creating hybrid demons. South Asia has a history of political assassinations and government being run as a “family business”. Votes can be bought from the poor for meagre meals. In my understanding, this “universal suffrage” is utter nonsense.

China is developing fast and prioritising economic development. Democratic ideas cannot be sustained in underdeveloped states. Western nations, including the US and Britain, were not practising democracies with equal voting rights during their early stages of economic development.

Further democratic developments in Hong Kong are not possible without consideration of Chinese historical sensitivities and economic aspirations.

Undeniably, the contemporary Chinese position on Western international law is shaped by Chinese resentment over the two Opium wars, which forced it into accepting Western imperialism in the form of many unequal treaties, including one – the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 – that ceded Hong Kong to Britain.

Today, China, which traditionally was a civilisational state, defines “sovereignty” in a way that allows it to defend its legitimacy and unity against any foreign interference.

Self-government is the prerogative of national governments and therefore responsible nations should refrain from using international law as justification to press China over Hong Kong.

I am hopeful that China will adopt a flexible policy over political reform in Hong Kong that will win the hearts and minds of people.

Dr Fozia Lone is an assistant professor in the School of Law at City University of Hong Kong

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Can Hong Kong please put a roof over our domestic helpers’ heads on their days off?

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
2015-08-28

Yonden Lhatoo

Yonden Lhatoo says the migrant women who toil for our benefit deserve proper facilities in which to rest and recuperate on their days off

Hong Kong’s sweltering heat and haze took their toll on a large gathering of mostly domestic helpers from Indonesia celebrating their country’s national day in Victoria Park on Sunday.

Some 20 women collapsed under the blazing sun, and ambulances had to be called in to take nine of them to hospital for heatstroke.

This was an outdoor event organised by the Indonesian consulate, but it got me thinking about an old problem that nobody in this town could be bothered to fix: the lack of a proper venue where foreign domestic helpers can relax on their days off.

We have 330,000 maids in Hong Kong, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, and the vast majority spend six days a week with very little to no privacy in the cramped confines of their employers’ homes. They get just one day off a week – usually Sunday – and that’s when we see them amassed in Victoria Park, Chater Garden and its surrounding areas in Central, or any available public space outdoors.

They sweat it out in summer and huddle together in winter on footbridges and under flyovers in undignified conditions, relishing the precious hours they get to throw off the yoke of servitude and enjoy the company of friends. And yet, to many passers-by, they’re an eyesore or a nuisance.

I’ve heard people say they “bring down the class” of upmarket venues. There have been shameful campaigns in the past to remove them from public spaces such as Chater Garden and Statue Square. How difficult would it be for our tycoons and celebrities to build a dedicated community centre or two for these women? I’m talking about those who have no qualms about blowing HK$100 million on a wedding in a city where nearly 20 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

But more than our tycoons, many of whom make substantial donations to charity, our super-rich government has a moral responsibility to help.

It could be done without much effort if the bureaucrats in charge had the conscience and political backing as well as public support, although there’s a severe scarcity of such commodities these days.

Money is not the issue: Hong Kong is sitting on piles of cash that our financial secretary is saving up for that mythical rainy day which never comes. At last count, our fiscal reserves stood at more than HK$800 billion.

There’s plenty to spare for our domestic helpers. The government has wasted bigger bucks on white elephants in the past, and continues to pour cash into seemingly bottomless pits like the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou and the gigantic bridge linking Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai.

Just look at all the under-used clubs and sports facilities – catering to an exclusive, well-heeled minority – on prime public land that the government has been renting out to private organisations for peanuts under outdated agreements. Don’t tell me it can’t afford to do the same for a far worthier demographic who would benefit.

Like it or not, this city owes a huge debt of gratitude to the hundreds of thousands of women who leave their homes and loved ones to work as maids here. Yes, we offer them the opportunity to make more money doing menial labour here than they would get in more dignified professions such as teaching in their poverty-stricken home countries, but the benefits we reap make them indispensible. Without them, families’ incomes would be cut in half because both parents can’t go to work if there’s no one at home to look after the children or elderly grandparents.

Sam Tsang [5]I can’t understand Hong Kong sometimes. Our city gleefully embraced the so-called Ice Bucket Challenge that became a rage last year. It was to raise awareness and money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that most people in this town had never even heard of until celebrities began dumping buckets of cold water on their heads. Government officials joined in the fun.

No disrespect to sufferers of the disease and the philanthropists who chipped in, but charity begins at home, and here’s a more immediately worthwhile cause staring us in the face.