VOTE FOR DEMOCRACY
May 25, 1998
Phil Ponce and Hong Kong Democratic Party Chairman Martin Lee discuss Hong Kong's pro-democracy turn in its recent elections.
PHIL PONCE: The elections in Hong Kong this weekend also produced some dramatic results. It was Hong Kong's first election since China regained control of the former British colony last July, and it produced a record turnout of more than 50 percent of the territory's eligible voters. The high turnout--by Hong Kong's standards-was a surprise to political analysts because of torrential rains and because many observers had predicted widespread voter apathy. And when the ballots were counted, pro-democracy supporters were jubilant. Pro-democracy candidates won most of the 20 directly-elected seats in the 60-member legislative council known locally as LEG-CO. Martin Lee, Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy politician, was quick to call both the turnout and the results a victory.
MARTIN LEE, Chairman, Hong Kong Democratic Party: I already said democracy, because that is what we promised the Hong Kong people, and that was something we put at the forefront of our campaign platform.
PHIL PONCE: But even though pro-democracy candidates won most of the popular vote, they will still be in the minority. That's because 40 of the 60 total members are chosen indirectly and tend to favor Chinese and business interests. The outgoing council was created by China last year, immediately after the hand-over, to replace a democratically elected version, which had been in operation the previous two years. The new legislative council takes over in July.
PHIL PONCE: We get two perspectives now on the elections. Kenneth Pang is the commissioner of Hong Kong's Economic & Trade Office in Washington. As such, he's the Hong Kong government's top representative to the United States. Dick Thornburgh was attorney general from 1988 to 1991 under Presidents Reagan and Bush. He's now in private practice and is the chairman of the U.S. Committee for Hong Kong, which monitors political developments in Hong Kong. Gentlemen, welcome both. Mr. Pang, first of all, your reaction to the election.
KENNETH PANG, Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office: Well, I was very delighted. Yesterday's election was Hong Kong's historic day, a record turnout of voters at the polling stations 53 percent, the highest in Hong Kong's history, representing just under 1.5 million people casting their vote. This is a very important step towards the further democratic development in Hong Kong.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Thornburgh, your reaction to the turnout.
DICK THORNBURGH, U.S. Committee for Hong Kong: I think it augers very well for the causes of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Hong Kong. I think it surprised a lot of people. There was a good deal of skepticism about whether the people of Hong Kong were interested in voting, whether their interests transcended making money in that go-go economy, and particularly with the torrential downpours that took place on election day, the 53 percent turnout is a record, is truly extraordinary. I think it's also significant that the pro-democracy forces did so well. Martin Lee's group and his allies getting somewhere around 60 percent of the vote of the electorate, even though that will have a lesser impact in the legislative council, sends a very positive signal, I think, for the interest of the people in Hong Kong in seeing democracy grow in that area.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Pang, were you surprised by how well the pro-democracy candidates did?
KENNETH PANG: Well, I'm not surprised at all, because the government welcomes the return, a successful return of all the legislators representing the interests of Hong Kong people. So it's the people's choice. I'm not surprised at the return of any legislator with any particular affiliation, because Hong Kong is a free and political society.
PHIL PONCE: You talk about it being the people's choice, and yet, of the 60 seats in the council only 20 are directly voted for by the people. How democratic of a system is it, would you say?
KENNETH PANG: Well, the basic law, the constitutional document of Hong Kong, laid down a very clear roadmap for the future democratic development of Hong Kong. And the composition of the legislature at the moment is no different from that in 1995. That is 20 directly elected seats, plus 40 indirectly elected seats. This 40 indirectly elected seats are an interim state to the ultimate objective of universal suffrage. Now, in the basic law of the constitution it-it lays down that the number of directly elected seats will be gradually increased. In the year 2000, it will be increased from 20 to 24. In the year 2004, it will increase to-from 24 to 30. That is half of the number in the legislature. And by the year 2007 it is up to the people of Hong Kong to decide the future mode of election for the legislature after the term 2008.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Thornburgh, do you think that the results of the election this weekend will put extra pressure on the powers that be to speed up the-speed up that transition process that Mr. Pang was describing?
DICK THORNBURGH: I think that's highly likely. I was in touch with Martin Lee's office today, and their sense is that given the high degree of interest and the high level of support for democratic candidates expressed in this election, that they're going to put on the agenda for the legislative council when it meets, an acceleration of that pace, and perhaps through as early a year as 2000. As Mr. Pang points out, the basic law extends that a little further into the next century, but there's a lot of enthusiasm generated out of this year's election results, so it might be possible to accelerate that and also provide for at an early date a democratically- executive elected chief.
PHIL PONCE: How about that, do you agree with that, that it could potentially speed things up?
KENNETH PANG: Well, it is the people's wishes. The government will obviously take into consideration all the views from different parties as to their wishes. It's very clear in the basic law as to the power of reaching that ultimate goal of universal suffrage. And I'm sure the high turnout rate on this occasion indicate people's enthusiastic participation and determination to make Hong Kong-governing Hong Kong people-governing Hong Kong works-and with a high degree of autonomy under this principle of one country, two systems. So I'm sure we are moving in the right direction.
PHIL PONCE: It's called a legislative council. How much power does it really have?
KENNETH PANG: Well, the legislative council is responsible for monitoring the work of the government, and also for examining enacting legislative and also examining and scrutinizing government's public expenditure, so it is a very important body. It works together very closely with the administration and the administration is obviously looking forward to building a close and good relationship with the new legislature, which it has elected.
PHIL PONCE: Is it the legislative council that calls the shots, Mr. Thornburgh?
DICK THORNBURGH: Oh, I think by our standards the legislative council is a weak organ of government. It can't-a member can't introduce a bill of any substance without the permission of the executive branch. But make no mistake about it. This new legislative council is going to be a vast improvement over the rubber stamp appointed council that has held office since the turnover. And I think it's going to provide some healthy scrutiny of the activities of the government and there will be a lot of free and open discussion about what Hong Kong's future is going to be. And that can't help but advance the cause of democracy.
PHIL PONCE: And Mr. Thornburgh, what kind of an impact do you think this election might have throughout China?
DICK THORNBURGH: Well, it's very interesting. You've seen this week the fall of a semi-dictatorial government in Indonesia and the rejuvenation of democracy in Hong Kong. That's got to send a message throughout Asia. As you know, in China, they're beginning experimentation with democratic elections at the local level, and the changes that are going to take place there in the next century I think are going to be monumental if they're watching the enthusiasm that's developed in Hong Kong for democratic government, it's got to send a signal to the leaders in Beijing as well.
PHIL PONCE: Do you think it's sending a signal? It's been said, for example, that Hong Kong might have more of an impact on China than China might have on Hong Kong. Is this a potential example of that?
DICK THORNBURGH: Well, I think Hong Kong represents a free, open, and prolific society. And obviously the world would like to see every nation in the world moving in that direction.
PHIL PONCE: And so do you think that this will, what, be a role model or a possible model for China throughout its territory?
KENNETH PANG: I definitely think this has a very positive impact.
PHIL PONCE: Do you see it that way too?
DICK THORNBURGH: Well, I think it can be, and I hope that the United States gives a strong and vigorous support to these democratic elements, which have had such an impact in Hong Kong, and the president's going to be in Hong Kong, and it presents a remarkable opportunity for him to be a strong advocate of democracy and the rule of law in that area.
PHIL PONCE: This is the first time China allowed multi-party elections under its territory. A pretty big step for China?
DICK THORNBURGH: It is a big step, although interestingly, as Mr. Pang knows, the model for the one-country/two systems was originally devised with respect to Taiwan. And that remains, of course, a bone of contention across the straits, and I think this will have some impact on relationships between the PRC and Taiwan as well. There will be a renewed interest all across this area in the kinds of democratic elections that took place there.
PHIL PONCE: Do you have any information on what kind of an impact, what the official reaction is in Beijing to the election results?
KENNETH PANG: Well, I cannot speak on behalf of China. But on behalf of the Hong Kong government I think the Hong Kong government is extremely encouraged by the huge turnout rate yesterday at the election poll. It is Hong Kong's historic day. Indeed, the mere fact that there's such a high turnout rate we got signifies Hong Kong's ability and capability of organizing free, open, and honest election with the strong support and participation of the Hong Kong people moving towards the ultimate goal of having universal suffrage.
PHIL PONCE: And some political analysts are saying that giving the Hong Kong government its due, the Hong Kong government, itself, pushed very hard for a large turnout. Why?
KENNETH PANG: Well, the Hong Kong government, itself, obviously has done a lot of work, spent a lot of resources on it, but it is ultimately the people's choice, the people's wishes to return a legislature who can represent their interest. I think this has totally been demonstrated by yesterday's high turnout. I think this is a very good example of the people working together with the Hong Kong government, the Hong Kong government are totally committed to making Hong Kong-governing Hong Kong people, governing Hong Kong work, and so are supported by the Hong Kong people.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Pang, Mr. Thornburgh, thank you both for being here.