20% becoming 17%

Foreign passport holders may comprise no more than 20% of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council members.  This provision appears in the Basic Law, which was written at a time when much of the city’s middle class were scrambling over one another in an attempt to get overseas residency. In barring people with foreign right of abode from the Legislative Council, the article was asserting China’s sovereignty. In then stipulating that they could in fact have up to a fifth of the seats, the Basic Law got pragmatic and recognized that many existing and potential lawmakers would not qualify for Chinese citizenship because of the country’s refusal to recognize dual nationality. Many voices in those pre-handover times, when the handover was viewed with trepidation, thought that 20% was too low. As it happened, exactly a fifth of directly elected legislators in the 1995 Legco were foreign passport holders. The riveting statistical analysis suggested that voters that year did not discriminate between those with or without overseas residency rights.

The idea was not to reserve seats for non-Chinese in view of their magnificent contribution to our World City, etc, etc, so much as to accommodate a number of ethnic Chinese with foreign passports and a handful of non-Chinese who would have been barred from Chinese citizenship even if they wanted it on grounds of ethnicity.

Since then, things have changed. Fear of life under Communist rule has faded. The Hong Kong passports offered to the city’s Chinese citizens, have become widely accepted for travel purposes. More public figures have ditched foreign citizenship in order to serve on the Executive Council or national bodies. Public tolerance of local office holders with foreign passports has declined, as five (of eight) undersecretaries found out in 2008 when they were appointed and pressured into sacrificing their British, Canadian and American documents. South Asian and white Hongkongers have been granted Chinese citizenship. The 20% clause can be seen as an anomaly; Hong Kong officials discussing constitutional reform imply that they view it that way, which means Beijing does too.

The problem of how to limit one class of people to no more than a fifth of seats was solved by naming 12 of the functional constituencies as open to foreign citizens. They are some but not all of the professional and commercial franchises: legal, but not medical; finance, but not agriculture and fisheries. As functional constituencies go, they are probably more likely than average to elect someone holding a foreign passport. The SCMP today shows just four of these members have right of abode overseas – 6.6%. Only Chinese citizens may run for the other 48 seats, including all the directly elected ones.

The 2012 election, with Legco expanded from 60 to 70 seats, provides an opportunity to reduce the 20% level in practice by not creating two more ‘foreign passport-friendly’ seats. This seems likely to happen. This is not a party issue; Legco’s current foreign passport holders come from both pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps. Voters have increasingly little time for privileged elites in public life. Nationalists (in keeping with the spirit of the Basic Law) see passports as a test of patriotism. Only a few legal and other eccentrics are likely to call for the 20% level to be maintained as some sort of constitutional right to be cherished. It would take a brave debater to argue that Hong Kong (5% non-ethnic Chinese) might benefit from a bit of ethnic diversity in its legislature.

One argument in favour of fans of the full 20% is that opponents of foreigners in Legco are wrong to say – as they sometimes do – that nowhere else in the world allows any non-citizens into its legislature. Indians, Australians, South Africans and other Commonwealth passport holders are constitutionally welcome in the UK Parliament. But this is hardly a convincing precedent for the Big Lychee in 2010.

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11 Responses to 20% becoming 17%

  1. oddsox says:

    I’m not sure why this blog attracts dumb racists. I see it more as a satirical look at local political/cultural/policy issues, not racist as some of the daft posts it attracts. Can’t some people make that distinction? Too subtle for some?

  2. JanMorris says:

    There’s nothing more subtle than racism. Take the locals for example. Why is the last seat on a minibus always next to a foreigner? And why do people hold their noses when an Indian gets on?

  3. Doctor Dual National says:

    Why have the comments here moved into the sphere of racism? As Hemlock says: “The idea [of the 20% limit] was not to reserve seats for non-Chinese in view of their magnificent contribution to our World City, etc, etc …” This is about holding a second passport; not about a different skin hue.

    As to the substance of the blog, the only additional diversity which LegCo needs is quite a lot more lawmaking along the lines of “this law will enhance competition, and/or tilt the playing field away from the tycoons and property developers, and/or re-orient HK’s economic outlook more to the east, west and south instead of perpetually to the north …”

  4. duncan says:

    JanMorris – and long may this continue! I travel on the MTR from Tung Chung and value the empty seat that is always left next to me – it gives me room to fold my newspaper. It is of course a well-known fact that all white guys are drunken perverts (Jehova’s witnesses excepted of course) – but I would really love to know whether there are other reasons.

  5. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Gweilo and gweipo’s usually get sweaty in the HK summer. No one wants to rub up against a dai hon gweilo.

  6. Plod says:

    Is it the fact that we smell of sweat/dairy products, are larger than the average local hence we take up some of the adjacent seat as well, or is it still the fact that a generation of locals in some way feel intimidated by whiteys? The young generation (hotties included) seem to have no qualms about sitting next to me whereas the average si-lai would rather stand.

  7. Maugrim says:

    oddsox, I’m not sure where you get the racial element from as regards Hemlock’s post.

    My tip is that action by HK residents from the sub-continent in particular as regards ‘discrimination’ is going to snowball. Keep an eye out for Government officials at all levels falling over themselves to show that they are inclusive.

  8. Plod says:

    Maugrim – racial issues are becoming the hot topic in Govt circles. Whether it’ll lead anywhere or just end up with the same hot air spouted about other matters of interest in the past, I don’t know.

    At least they are paying attention to it now.

  9. Maugrim says:

    Plod, I’m in two minds, yes. there is real discrimination that gets meeted out to minorities, however, some of the claims made are not always examples of pure discrimination. The funny thing is that Government Departments will start using more English in their correspondance. They always could but were too bloody lazy. Watching some squirm now about their sudden interest in minorities is amusing.

  10. David Webb says:

    The Basic Law also says that the CE must be at least 40 years old and must have lived here at least 20 years. Is it constitutional for local legislation to restrict that to “at least 60 years old” and that s/he must have lived here for at least 30 years? If not, then why is constitutional to lower the limit on people with foreign right of abode in LegCo through local legislation?

    Also, HK is not a sovereign state, it is a city, or at best, a provincial-level entity. Comparisons with national legislatures are unfair. There must be many city, county or provincial level legislative assemblies around the world which allow foreign passport holders as members.

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