Democracy in limited doses.  Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg
Democracy in limited doses. Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

(Corrects spelling of Zhang Xiaoming's name in fourth paragraph.)

How many times does China’s ruling Communist Party have to say that it opposes “genuine choice” in Hong Kong elections before the local democracy movement considers a Plan B?

An answer is suddenly pressing. On Monday, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress will convene in Beijing, and among the agenda items will be the contentious issue of whether and how to revise election procedures for the independent-minded city that China deems a semi-autonomous region governed under a “one country, two systems” framework. It’s a process that began in 2007, when the Standing Committee announced that the election of Hong Kong's chief executive (the city's highest-ranking official) in 2017 would feature universal suffrage. So far, so good -- except that last year, a senior Chinese official indicated that a screening process would eliminate candidates who don’t show proper fealty to Beijing.

Hong Kong’s Autonomy

The reaction from Hong Kong’s democracy advocates has been angry, and highly organized, even though few of them actually expected free elections featuring candidates who might be opposed to Chinese policies in Hong Kong or elsewhere. Last year, activists announced Occupy Central (no relationship to the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement), a nonviolent protest that will shut Hong Kong’s business district if China imposes unreasonable requirements to stand for election. Since then, Occupy has held a referendum on various Hong Kong democracy proposals (in which almost 800,000 eligible, Hong Kong voters participated), and a July 1 pro-democracy march of as many as 172,000 people.

Nevertheless, China’s Communist Party has shown no indication that it’s backing down, ensuring that the 2017 election adheres to a script crafted in Beijing. Publicly at least, the party is ratcheting up its stubborn rhetoric, with the most notable salvo being a July white paper that reasserted China’s dominion over Hong Kong. Then last week, during a meeting with representatives of Hong Kong democracy organizations, China’s top representative in the city, Zhang Xiaoming, explained that candidates must be “staunch patriots” and can't advocate an end to “one-party dictatorship,” according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

Such talk shouldn’t surprise Hong Kong’s citizens. Under President Xi Jinping, China has become increasingly aggressive in asserting its claims to disputed territories across south and east Asia. Hong Kong, of course, is sovereign Chinese territory, returned to it by the U.K. with fanfare in 1997. But this has done little to reassure the paranoid, xenophobic leadership in Beijing that foreign anti-China conspirators aren't behind Hong Kong’s democrats.

It is, of course, possible that China is bluffing and will back down and allow an election that meets the lofty standards of Hong Kong’s democrats in 2017. But it's more likely that China is hoping for a face-saving means to keep protestors off the streets (and out of the news). If so, there is an opportunity for compromise.

Under the current election system, a 1,200 member Election Committee nominates and elects the chief executive. That committee is composed of members from four sectors -- business interests, professionals, social organizations, and various agencies and representatives of government (including representatives to China’s top legislature). The commercial, professional and social sectors are responsible for electing their own representatives to the Election Committee, and many do so via weighted corporate block votes. They are a primary reason that Hong Kong has elected business- and China-friendly chief executives over the years.

Nonetheless, so long as China insists on a role in the nominating process, the Election Committee may be the venue with the greatest opportunity for democratic reform. The most promising plan has been proposed by Hong Kong 2020, a political advocacy group started by Anson Chan, the respected former chief secretary of Hong Kong. Under that proposal, membership in the Election Committee (now a nominations committee) would be expanded, corporate votes would be abolished, and the nomination process would require that a potential candidate receive 10 percent of the votes from the nominating committee. Only then would he or she be allowed to stand for election by the general public.

It is far from a perfect solution. The hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens who have protested and participated in the Occupy referendum in recent months would likely be disappointed in the moderate, compromise candidates who emerge from it. Nonetheless, compromise (backed by the threat of protest) may very well be the best hope to avoid a Hong Kong election system devised and imposed by China that suits nobody but members of the Communist Party. It’s worth a try.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.