Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu (second right) looks on as Electoral Affairs Commission members empty a ballot box in the counting station for the district council election at Queen’s College in Causeway Bay on December 11, 2023. Photo: Dickson Lee
Cheah Cheng Hye
Cheah Cheng Hye

Hong Kong needs full universal suffrage to unlock full potential

  • One way to help Hong Kong endure and thrive in this era of uncertainty is to further reform elections and have universal suffrage in voting for the chief executive
  • Doing so would give the government broader representation, a stronger mandate and the ability to enact measures hindered by entrenched interest groups
Hong Kong’s ability to recover from its difficulties would be much improved if it goes ahead with democratic reform. By introducing a system of one person, one vote for the position of chief executive, Hong Kong would have a government with much broader representation, giving it a stronger mandate to push through changes.

Universal suffrage is already included in Article 45 of the Basic Law that governs Hong Kong, but no one is sure when and how it might be implemented. Hong Kong should delay its implementation no further.

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has been successful in passing the Article 23 national security legislation, which could provide a more stable environment for popular representation in government.

Although the city’s chief executive enjoys significant authority, their ability to exercise power is constrained. They are not elected through universal suffrage, which weakens their ability to speak on behalf of the people.

There was a sizeable push in 2014-15 to introduce a system of one person, one vote for the position of chief executive, with the public having the chance to directly select the chief executive. In the end, though, the proposal was voted down in the Legislative Council.

There was controversy over polling arrangements that critics said would ensure only pro-Beijing candidates could stand for election and the winning candidate would still need to be endorsed by the central government.


How does Hong Kong select its government?

How does Hong Kong select its government?
My view is that half a loaf of bread is better than none. Politics is the art of the possible, and as the sovereign power China could not be expected to agree to a plan without safeguards against the risk of subversion. In any case, a fully Western-style democracy, which some people favoured, would not suit Hong Kong, a fragile society stuck in a delicate transition from more than a century of British colonial rule.
As a result of that failed proposal, Hong Kong is a worse place today than it needed to be. Today, candidates for chief executive are nominated by an Election Committee consisting of 1,500 people who are deemed sufficiently “patriotic” by Beijing and are selected from a cross-section of industry groups and society. Those nominated then go through a secret ballot held by the Election Committee. The chief executive-elect then has to be appointed by the central government.
Hong Kong needs to do better than this. A system of one person, one vote would require candidates to stand before the entire electorate. The city has a population of almost 7.4 million people, of whom 4.3 million are eligible and have registered to vote. Competing for their support would require a candidate to campaign at the street level and listen to the voices of the common people.

Hong Kong must wake up from its blind faith in universal suffrage

Beijing’s support would still be important, so we will probably see conditions attached similar to those in 2014, including the same nominating committee process.

One unknown is how many people will actually vote. Voter apathy has been evident in recent elections in Hong Kong, including polls for district councillors and a minority number of seats in the Legislative Council. The turnout for the former was a record low 27.5 per cent in December and the latter just 30.2 per cent in 2021. If a powerful position such as chief executive is at stake, though, the turnout should improve significantly.


The last days of Hong Kong’s opposition district councillors after election overhaul

The last days of Hong Kong’s opposition district councillors after election overhaul

One key benefit of universal suffrage is that it can break up the long-standing control of Hong Kong by a powerful minority via collaboration between the government, business and professional elites. The prevailing ideology is a civil service mentality that is resistant to reform.

The overall situation appears to be gloomy, as can be seen in the mass migration of hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers to Britain and elsewhere in recent years. In effect, these people voted with their feet.
However, it is not too late for Hong Kong. A directly elected chief executive could finally get things moving by implementing the right measures. For example, they could appoint a commissioner of competitiveness to examine Hong Kong’s competitiveness issues and fight high costs through anti-monopoly legislation to break up entrenched oligopolies.
They could introduce a goods and services tax to diversify fiscal revenue from land sales. After that, the next step would be to implement property sector reforms so that the government is part of the solution for affordable housing for the people – other than the rich, who should be left to the private market.

Debate over chief executive election is missing the point

Meanwhile, the government should study the feasibility of providing a universal basic income in Hong Kong. The city’s per-capita income of more than US$48,000 is higher than in some developed countries, but the income distribution is very uneven.

A directly elected chief executive could be more innovative in enhancing Hong Kong as an international financial centre and push harder for integration with the Greater Bay Area, particularly with Shenzhen and Macau. They should also seek Beijing’s support to allow one or two casinos to be built in Hong Kong.

The city’s monetary reserves – the savings of the people – should be used to benefit Hongkongers and local companies.

Finally, the chief executive should promote local culture and the Cantonese language to foster a sense of identity and community and introduce affirmative action to promote leadership training and positions for local people.

Cheah Cheng Hye is the co-chairman and co-chief investment officer of Value Partners Group, an asset management firm in Hong Kong