Hong Kong’s 2016 Legislative Council Elections

A record 2.2 million (58%) of Hong Kong's eligible voters voted on September 4, 2016, to select the 70 members of the 6th Legislative Council (Legco). Thirty pro-democracy candidates won seats, including six from new political parties formed following 2014 pro-democracy protests. Although pro-establishment candidates won a majority of the seats, pro-democracy candidates increased their numbers by three, winning enough seats to play a role in possible governance reforms.

The U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 (P.L. 102-383) commits the United States to treat the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) differently from the People's Republic of China (PRC, or China) with respect to the application of U.S. law so long as the HKSAR remains "sufficiently autonomous" to justify such treatment. The act also states, "Support for democratization is a fundamental principle of United States foreign policy. As such, it naturally applies to United States policy toward Hong Kong."

In 1990, China's National People's Congress passed the Basic Law establishing the HKSAR. The Basic Law states "the ultimate aim" is the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive and "all the members of the Legislative Council" by universal suffrage "in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress." The Basic Law also stipulates that any proposal to amend the Basic Law—including amendments that would change the election system for the Chief Executive or Legco—must be approved by at least two-thirds of all Legco members. With 30 (43%) of Legco's 70 seats, the support of some pro-democracy Legco members will be necessary for any proposed changes to the Basic Law to be adopted.

It remains to be seen how the election results will affect Legco's relations with the PRC and HKSAR government. Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying stated he looked forward to "closer collaboration with all Legco members." A PRC spokesperson reportedly said, "We firmly oppose any activity relating to Hong Kong independence in any form, inside or outside the Legislative Council, and firmly support the Hong Kong government to impose punishment in accordance with the law."

Legco's Changing Politics

Legco currently consists of 70 members, half elected by universal suffrage in five "geographical constituencies" and half selected by limited suffrage in 29 "functional constituencies" that consist of representatives of selected professional, economic, or social interest groups Most previous Legco members could be divided into two loose coalitions—"pan democrats" and "pro-establishment" members. "Pan-democrats" support a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong and a more rapid transition to democracy. The "pro-establishment" coalition supports closer coordination with the PRC and HKSAR governments, and prefers a more gradual adoption of universal suffrage. The functional constituencies have generally selected pro-establishment candidates, while the geographical constituencies have elected more pan-democrats.

In June 2015, the pan-democrats voted as a block against reforms that would have allowed the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage, in part because the reforms also granted the PRC government the power to select the candidates (see CRS Insight IN10298, Hong Kong's Legislative Council Votes Down Chief Executive Election Reform).

For the first time several new political parties that formed following the 2014 pro-democracy demonstrations participated in the Legco elections. Most of the new political parties advocate greater autonomy for Hong Kong, including some that support Hong Kong's independence from China. Six candidates from these new political parties were elected in geographical constituencies, and are expected to cooperate with the 24 pan-democrats.

Nomination Controversy

The election was also controversial because Hong Kong's Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) made some last minute changes in the nomination process and disqualified seven candidates, which some observers saw as an attempt to influence the election's outcome.

In an unprecedented action, the EAC requested that all Legco candidates sign a new "Confirmation Form" pledging they "will uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region." The new form the Basic Law's references to the PRC's "inalienable" sovereignty over Hong Kong. Most of the pan-democrats and some of the new party candidates refused to submit the "Confirmation Form," asserting that doing so was not required by Hong Kong law.

After the nomination period was over, the EAC disqualified seven candidates—most of them associated with new political parties advocating greater Hong Kong autonomy or independence—including some that had submitted the Confirmation Form. In addition, the EAC censored text in some candidates' mailings to voters that referred to Hong Kong's independence from China. The disqualification of candidates and censorship of campaign literature were portrayed by some Hong Kong commentators as violations of freedom of speech and/or an attempt to influence the outcome of the elections. The HKSAR government defended the EAC's decision as being in accordance with the Basic Law and Hong Kong election ordnances.

These actions raised concerns among some Hong Kong voters about the EAC's ability to run free and fair elections. On election day, some Hong Kong voters posted warnings on social media urging voters to ensure that their ballots were clearly marked and undamaged expressing fear that the EAC officials could invalidate the ballots. Also, an unusually large number of people volunteered to be ballot counting monitors, reportedly expressing fears that EAC officials could attempt to skew the election results in favor of pro-establishment candidates.

Issues for Congress

While the election of more pro-democracy candidates is significant, Hong Kong's 2016 Legco elections also raise some concerns about the future of Hong Kong. New screening procedures for Legco candidates, such the introduction of the Confirmation Form and the disqualification of candidates, may call into question the HKSAR government's stated commitment to democratization and free and fair elections. The results, however, would appear to indicate that the Hong Kong voters want to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy and support democratic reforms. How the PRC and HKSAR government respond to the Legco elections and interact with the 6th Legco are factors that Congress may consider when overseeing implementation of U.S.-Hong Policy Act, including provisions that grant Hong Kong different treatment from China and/or support democratization in Hong Kong.