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Congressional Research Service, "Prospects for Democracy in Hong Kong: The 2012 Election Reforms," February 1, 2011

This CRS report was prepared by Michael F. Martin, specialist in Asian Affairs.
February 1, 2011

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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 long-awaited “consultation document” on possible reforms for the city’s elections to be held in 2012. The document was immediately met by sharp criticism from representatives of Hong Kong’s “pro-democracy” parties. Five Legco members resigned on January 21, 2010, as a form of protest, forcing a by-election on May 16, 2010. The five incumbents were re-elected.  

On June 7, 2010, Chief Executive Tsang submitted two motions to Legco increasing the size of the Election Committee (EC) for Chief Executive to 1,200 members and adding 10 new seats to Legco—five elected by geographical districts and five elected by “functional constituencies.”  

Initially, the pan-democratic Legco members announced they would vote against the motions. However, a last-minute agreement between the pro-universal suffrage Democratic Party and the Chinese government led to a split among the pan-democrats, a coalition of parties that support a more rapid transition to universal suffrage. Legco passed both motions—one on June 24; the second on June 25—the first significant changes in Hong Kong’s political system since the Handover on July 1, 1997.  

To implement the election changes, Legco will need to pass enabling ordinances detailing how to carry out the election reforms. On December 10, 2010, Chief Executive Tsang submitted two bills to amend Hong Kong’s election laws. The bill governing the election of the Chief Executive specifies how the additional EC members are to be allocated and sets the nomination threshold at 150 EC members. The bill governing the 10 new Legco seats will allow the Electoral Affairs Commission to determine how to allocate the five geographical seats (based on population projections) and establishes a “District Council (second) functional constituency” to elect the other five new Legco members. Under the new law, every Hong Kong voter will be able to vote for at least one functional constituency member of Legco.  

The 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. This report will be updated as circumstances warrant.

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