Hong Kong's Provisional Legislative Council last week enacted a new electoral law to govern elections next May, the first under Chinese sovereignty.
While it is widely recognized that this law won't provide for fully democratic elections, few outside observers seem aware that the undemocratic nature of the election is inherent in the Basic Law, Hong Kong's new constitution, agreed upon by both Britain and China. Worse, the new framework for the 1998 elections doesn't meet the constitution's requirements for progress toward full democratization.
The 1998 elections, like the 1995 elections held under British sovereignty, won't meet international standards for democratic elections. Hong Kong has never been a democracy and did not become one upon reversion to Chinese sovereignty. More important is what the election framework says about the attitudes of China and of Hong Kong's ruling elites toward their commitment to eventual democracy. Unfortunately, there are reasons for concern.
For at least the next decade, all Hong Kong elections will be inherently flawed because of the limitations of the basic law. This fundamental document establishes a complex election process. It establishes that fully democratic elections for a legislature and chief executive are only an "ultimate aim," after a transition of at least 10 years.
Consistent with the system adopted under British rule, only one-third of the 60 Legislative Council seats in 1998 are to be elected by geographical constituencies through direct elections. Two-thirds are to be chosen in indirect elections by functional constituencies of business and professional groups and by a special election committee.
Building on this shaky foundation, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's government has adopted a new election system that, compared to the election system in effect for legislative elections in 1995 under British sovereignty, makes changes hardly reassuring about official commitment to democratization. The new law, for example, dramatically narrows the franchise for the one-half of the legislature chosen by functional groups.
The new law chooses proportional representation and makes other changes that seem calculated to diminish representation of democrats. While democracies around the world use proportional representation to ensure protection of minority views, the Hong Kong government appears to have chosen this system precisely to dilute electoral results for the most popular party.
Despite a specific guarantee in the constitution that up to 12 of the 60 legislative seats can be held by permanent residents who hold foreign passports, the new law prohibits such individuals from running for any of the directly elected seats. This appears targeted at particular individuals in the democratic camp. Moreover, these strict restrictions on the participation of foreign passport holders in the 1998 elections bodes ill for the ultimate aim that all seats will be directly elected.
Equally unfortunate is that the new election law was enacted by the Provisional Legislative Council, appointed indirectly by Bejing and not elected as called for in the constitution.
Elections in Hong Kong next year will fail to meet international standards. But the most fundamental flaws - imposed by the constitution largely inherited from the British - aren't the most important. Of greater concern are the present choices of Hong Kong's new government about the election law. Those choices raise legitimate concerns about its attitudes toward the promise of genuine democratization.
* Eric Bjornlund is senior associate and regional director for Asia at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Washington.