Written by Jennifer Eagleton.

2014 sees the 30th anniversary of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the document that sealed the end of British rule in Hong Kong. The city was decolonized, but without independence, becoming a Special Administrative Region of China on 1 July 1997, but with a constitution, the Basic Law, that promised universal suffrage sometime in the future. Ever since the signing of the Joint Declaration and the promulgation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong political discourse has been characterized by a host of metaphors to describe the road to democracy, universal suffrage and the election of the Chief Executive. In the early days there was much talk about a “through-train” (modelled on the non-stop train that connects Hong Kong to Guangzhou on the Mainland) and a “smooth transition” for the arrangements leading up to the transfer of sovereignty.

Constitutional reform discourse in Hong Kong since then has taken the form of a heated political battle between pro-democracy groups and those considered loyal to Beijing or the establishment. It has largely been portrayed by one side as a fight for a fundamental human right and by the other as a potentially hazardous development that, if done too quickly, could undermine Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity. The numerous government reports and public consultation documents issued since 1997 have increasingly narrowed the scope of discussion while increasing the number of factors needed before universal suffrage could be achieved. Metaphors, which can describe something quite comprehensively, economically, and forcefully, are a good way to see how these reports and consultations were described.

After much acrimonious discussion about governance and political reform, the Hong Kong government launched its first consultation for changes in 2007/2008 in 2004. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee exercised its right to interpret the Basic Law and set the procedure for changing the city’s electoral methods. In addition to the Basic Law principles of “the actual situation” and “gradual and orderly progress”, another not in the Basic Law had to be followed, that of “balanced participation” (meaning that different professional sectors should be voted in by trade-based constituencies). Thus the “rules of the game” changed somewhat, causing the “rolling back” of democracy according to some.

A report later that year “added extra ingredients” to the reform process that would “ultimately spoil the ‘taste’ of universal suffrage”. Three principles became nine.  These extra seven were: (1) Reforms must promote a capitalist society. There were worries that if universal suffrage was implemented too hastily or if functional constituencies were abolished, Hong Kong might become a “welfare state” (too much democracy too soon would be like “too much chemotherapy” and so “kill the patient”; businesspeople could become “an oppressed minority people” and prosperity would suffer). (2) Reforms must heed the interests of different sectors of society so that there would be “balanced participation” (you can’t “balance apples and oranges”; this is no “nutritious balanced diet”). (3) Reforms need to consolidate the executive-led system and “must not deviate” from it (the Chief Executive being a “rubber stamp” or “tool” of the north). (4) Reforms must also strictly follow the Basic Law (which is a “sacred text” and “not a marriage certificate, a revised textbook, but rather a book of laughter and forgetting”). (5) No proposed reform should affect the substantive power of appointment of the Chief Executive by the Central Authorities (Beijing “holds all the cards” and “pulls all the strings” in appointing the Chief Executive). And finally, (7) reforms must listen to the Central Authorities on the direction and pace of constitutional development (who were considered “oracles” or “Basic Law almanacs”). These nine principles were said to be “nine knife cuts” to democratic development, while others saw these not as “nine knife cuts”, artificial “barriers” or “checkpoints”, but as means that would ensure a “smooth transition” to a political system that would ensure Hong Kong’s “stability” and “prosperity”.

The discourse has also been largely framed as a dialogue between “timetables” (when universal suffrage should be delivered) and “roadmaps” (what form that this universal suffrage system should take). This is because the first of the Basic Law’s two main principles for constitutional development, the “actual situation”, implies a “roadmap”, and the second, “gradual and orderly progress”, implies a “timetable”. Consensus has to be reached on these two principles before any development can take place.

Discussion about “roadmaps” and “timetables” was the focus of a consultation in 2005 for possible changes in 2007/8. But according to the Hong Kong Government, universal suffrage was a “process”, not a “destination”, so there were numerous journeying or lifecycle metaphors such as “the need to find a husband before getting married”, and the importance of not “skipping a grade” if the student wasn’t ready to advance, while democrats saw the impossibility of “learning to swim on dry land”, that is to say knowing how to “do” democracy perfectly without practicing it. Certain theories of constitutional development were also couched in metaphor; these generally implied that certain “necessary materials” needed to be collected before change could happen. Examples used by government spokespeople were “launching rockets”, “assembling building blocks” and “baking bread and cakes” – that is to say, using good ingredients rather than the bad ones that were currently available.

Government officials, “loyalist” parties, and businesspeople saw the reform proposals in 2005 as a “big step forward” for universal suffrage while democrats largely saw it as “a democratic retreat” or a “trip up the garden path”, that is to say, a rather convoluted route to universal suffrage, as proposed changes more or less simply involved a “numbers game” that did not substantially change the status quo.  However, pan-democrats came together to “pull down” the reform proposals. The government had said if the pro-democracy camp passed the reforms they would be “democracy’s heroes”, rather than “democracy’s cowards” by causing Hong Kong to “mark time”, democratically speaking, for another two years.

In July 2007, the government released a Green Paper on Constitutional Development. This was seen as a “political promissory note” in Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s election manifesto and aimed to provide the “ultimate solution” to the question of universal suffrage by providing a “timetable” and “roadmap” within his term of office.  Briefly put, for the pan-democratic camp, the Green Paper was a fake consultation, a complex, confusing “buffet” of options instead of the promised “set menu” (rather than a selection of fully fleshed out reform plans); it was full of “traps”, “peddling” false definitions of universal suffrage hidden in its profusion of numbers and dates with the “devil being in the details”. The Paper consisted of many open questions with 486 possible combinations of answers, necessitating the public “picking and mixing” combinations, making it difficult for them to find consensus on the issues. The Green Paper was also seen as a “maze”, “a jigsaw”, or a “puzzle” and as a “red” [i.e. “communist”] paper [as opposed to a “green” paper, which it purported to be], more suited to Beijing than Hong Kong.

The Green Paper on Constitutional Development implied that universal suffrage and the development of a capitalist economy are antithetical to one another; that there is a trade-off between democracy and economic growth; that universal suffrage does not necessarily equate with one-person-one-vote; and that universal suffrage would not enable society to be equitably represented in the legislature (i.e., have “balanced participation”). Another important inference was that the pace of democratization also affects the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.

Following this, in December 2007, the NPC Standing Committee decided that the Chief Executive may be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, with a one-person, one-vote system for the Legislative Council to follow. However changes could be made in 2012 – but basically this was “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic”, that is, the proportions of directly elected and functional constituencies would remain the same as before.

The latest consultation, “Let’s Talk and Achieve Universal Suffrage”, released in early December 2013, concerns arrangements for the composition and selection of the Nomination Committee for the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017. It is still early days in the consultation process, but one prominent metaphor so far for the needed “balanced participation” of various sectors of society in the Nominating Committee is the possibility of “sifting” possible Chief Executive candidates in a “sieve” (that is to say pre-selection process), so that only “candidates acceptable to Beijing” would be nominated to stand.

One constant metaphor for all these reports and consultations has been “birdcage”; these documents have included numerous caveats leading inevitably to what some have called “birdcage democracy”. In other words, room has been provided for constitutional development but with restrictions imposed by Hong Kong’s unique situation under “One Country, Two Systems”. Many people remain despondent about the possibility of reaching the consensus needed for constitutional changes and “real” universal suffrage.

Jennifer Eagleton is a committee member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and teaches stylistics and discourse analysis at the Open University of Hong Kong.