Complications arising from allowing migrants to vote in their country of origin: The case of Hong Kong
Picture by the author.
The political participation of migrants is considered an important right as it involves universal values such as social equality and freedom of expression. Nevertheless, complications often arise when it comes to its implementation. Hong Kong’s government lately expressed an intention to allow its permanent residents based in Mainland China to vote in local elections, which has created a heated debate. In this article, I analyse the narratives for and against the proposal and highlight the factors that need to be considered when dealing with the topic of migrants’ political participation in their countries of origin.
I begin by introducing the context of Hong Kong. This city made of many islands was a British colony from 1841 to 1997 and is now one of China’s special administrative regions. Currently the city has a population of about 7.5 million with the majority being Han Chinese. Hong Kong’s quasi-democratic political structure gives its permanent residents living in Hong Kong the right to vote in major elections, for instance, district council and legislative council elections, but not yet in the chief executive election. In order to become a registered voter in Hong Kong, one must be an adult (aged 18 or above) and a permanent resident, and ordinarily reside in the city.
Based on the above definition, migrants who are permanent residents but who live outside of Hong Kong are being excluded from electoral participation. In recent months, the government has proposed to change Hong Kong’s electoral policy by allowing its permanent residents based in Mainland China to vote in local elections. As Hong Kong’s relations with Mainland China are rather tense currently due to the anti-extradition bill mobilisations followed by the outbreak of COVID-19, which is said to have started in Wuhan, China, as well as the introduction of the new national security law, the proposal – unsurprisingly – led to a heated debate in the local society.
Those who are in favour of this legislation underline that the proposal serves as a means to optimise Hong Kong’s electoral system. Although migrants may not always be physically in their countries of origin, in terms of human rights, they are entitled to both freedom of movement and of expression. Living in a globalised world, there will be more permanent residents moving from one place to another for different reasons, for example, to study and to pursue other opportunities. With further development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay project, there will be more of Hong Kong’s permanent residents moving between these cities and/or municipalities in the future. Under the ‘one country’ principle, the rights of Hong Kong’s permanent residents based in the mainland should be prioritised.
Those who oppose the proposal consider that it violates the principle of free and fair elections. On the one hand, the government can hardly justify the reason for allowing only Hong Kong’s permanent residents based in Mainland China, but not other countries or cities, to vote in local elections. This is an especially important point considering that candidates from the pro-democracy camp may not be able to organise electioneering activities in China. It is also likely that Hong Kong’s permanent residents who have frequent contacts with the mainland are more likely to support the pro-establishment camp. On the other hand, the transparency and monitoring of elections are a concern for some politicians. For instance, when electoral fraud happens, an investigation may become more difficult as the election does not only take place in Hong Kong but also in the mainland, while there are certain levels of institutional differences between these two places.
Thus, Hong Kong’s society is severely divided regarding the extension of voting rights to its permanent residents living in Mainland China.
Drawing from the experience of Hong Kong, regardless of one’s stance on the issue, legality, fairness and freedom of election are valid concerns when it comes to the political participation of emigrants. For example, registered voters in Hong Kong should ordinarily reside in the city, but the existing legal framework lacks a concrete definition of what is meant by ‘ordinarily reside’. Even if the government would amend relevant policies and legal provisions, it would inevitably require time for further research and a wider consultation in the local society. Moreover, as the Hong Kong government also proposed adopting the method of mail-in ballots for the convenience of emigrant voters, the lesson of this year’s United States presidential election warns that policymakers will need to devote extra efforts in order to prove that the city does not only have a smooth remote election, but also a free and fair one.
All in all, the proposal to promote the political participation of emigrants in their respective countries of origin may be of good intention and in the interest of migrants. However, it does not seem to be the right moment for Hong Kong to put such changes in place. A recent survey showed that the majority of the public disagree with the proposal. At the same time, both the satisfaction and trust levels toward the government have reached a new low in recent years. In view of the social upheaval in Hong Kong, I suggest that a favourable social environment with harmonious group relations and a considerable level of satisfaction and trust toward the government is a prerequisite to any such legal changes and social progress.
Ka Wang Kelvin Lam
Ka Wang Kelvin Lam is an MPhil student in Sociology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on migration and immigrant incorporation, with regional expertise in East and Southeast Asia. Kelvin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.