You are here

Congressional Research Service, "Prospects for Democracy in Hong Kong: The 2012 Election Reforms," December 10, 2009

This CRS report was prepared by Michael F. Martin, specialist in Asian Affairs.
December 10, 2009

View reports from other years:
2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008

Support for the democratization of Hong Kong has been an element of U.S. foreign policy for over 17 years. The Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-383) states, “Support for democratization is a fundamental principle of United States foreign policy. As such, it naturally applies to United States policy toward Hong Kong. This will remain equally true after June 30, 1997” (the date of Hong Kong’s reversion to China). The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-8) provides at least $17 million for “the promotion of democracy in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan ...”

The democratization of Hong Kong is also enshrined in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s quasi-constitution that was passed by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) prior to China’s resumption of sovereignty over the ex-British colony on July 1, 1997. The Basic Law stipulates that the “ultimate aim” is the selection of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and the members of its Legislative Council (Legco) by “universal suffrage.” However, it does not designate a specific date by which this goal is to be achieved.

On November 18, 2009, Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen released the government’s long-awaited “consultation document” on possible reforms for the city’s next Chief Executive and Legislative Council (Legco) elections to be held in 2012. The release of the document reopens a period of public consultation on the subject that is to end on February 19, 2010. After that date, Chief Executive Tsang is expected to introduce draft legislation to Legco specifying what changes are to be made in the 2012 elections. Chief Executive Tsang suspended the public consultation process in January 2009 because of a “once in a lifetime economic crisis” precipitated by the ripple effects of the collapse of the U.S. sub-prime mortgage market. At the time, many observers were critical of the suspension, saying it violated a promise made in 2007 during his campaign for re-election as Chief Executive.

The potential 2012 election reforms are important to Hong Kong’s democratization for two reasons. First, they are an indication of the Hong Kong government’s willingness to press for democratic reforms. Second, the Chief Executive and Legco selected in 2012 will have the power to implement universal suffrage for the Chief Executive election in 2017 and the Legco election in 2020, if they so choose.

The document delineates the changes possible for the 2012 elections in light of the December 2007 decision by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPCSC) that precluded the direct election of the Chief Executive and Legco by universal suffrage in 2012. These include: expanding the size of the Election Committee that selects the Chief Executive from 800 to 1,200 people; increasing the number of Legco seats from 60 to 70; and allocating the five new functional constituency seats to the elected members of Hong Kong’s District Councils.  

The document was immediately met by sharp criticism from representatives of Hong Kong’s “pro-democracy” parties. Their comments focused on the failure to provide a path towards universal suffrage for the Chief Executive election in 2017 and the Legco election in 2020. In a press conference, Chief Executive Tsang called the document a step forward for democracy in Hong Kong. He also made a call for unity, saying, “This is a time for seeking consensus, not differences. This is a time to abandon impractical demands.”  

This report will be updated as circumstances warrant.

Click here for a listing of reports released by the Congressional Research Service.

PDF icon Democracy in Hong Kong 2009.pdf186.48 KB