Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong must take this chance to improve its electoral system

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South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Bernard Chan

Bernard Chan says Hong Kong would be crazy not to take this chance to improve its electoral system. Even with the limits imposed by Beijing, it would still be better than what we have now

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has now issued its decision on Hong Kong’s election arrangements for 2016 and 2017. It has disappointed many in the opposition camp who have campaigned for so long for particular political reforms. In particular, they feel angry about the proposed rules on nominating candidates for the chief executive election.

Although they are not happy with it, I believe it would be a mistake to reject it.

Our system, for the past 17 years, has clearly had faults. In particular, the chief executive has had no direct popular mandate. Three chief executives have found themselves facing serious opposition in the Legislative Council simply because of the way they were selected. In order to get support, chief executives have had to rely on groups that represent narrow interests. This has increased opposition. It is a vicious cycle.

I know this is partly connected with how Legco is elected. But if we could make one major change now, it would be to have the chief executive directly elected. I believe it can change the atmosphere and culture of our political system. People should stop and think about this.

First of all, there will be a group of hopefuls – maybe seven, eight or nine – who get enough signatures to compete for the two or three places on the ballot. The exact arrangements are subject to the next round of consultations. But the nominating committee cannot do this behind closed doors. I would expect platforms, public debates and public opinion polls to make this initial selection process pretty transparent and competitive.

Then we will have the actual race between the successful candidates on the ballot. They will be competing for the equal votes of all residents aged over 18 – up to five million people. This is not a “fake” election. It is a real contest.

If the 2012 election was anything to go by, it could be quite interesting. The candidates will have to listen to the people, focus on their concerns and explain what they will do to meet their expectations and win their votes.

This could potentially have a big impact on the dynamics of our political system. The relationship between the chief executive and the people could be very different. There should be less suspicion that the chief executive will work primarily for vested interests or tycoons. The chief executive should be able to face the directly elected members of Legco and say: “I have a mandate from the people.”

This could reduce the influence of relatively small vested interests. It could result in better policymaking, aimed at benefiting society as a whole.

Pro-democrats might respond that I am being naive, too optimistic or misleading. But even so – they must admit that what I describe above is at least some improvement on what we currently have. They cannot seriously say that this sort of election would make things worse.

Although this proposed system may not be perfect, it is important to see things in a national context. From Beijing’s point of view, this proposed reform does involve surrendering some control. That raises the possibility, at least in theory, of risks – whether to national sovereignty or the local economy. To look at it another way: it is hard to imagine the old British colonial administration giving Hong Kong a choice of governor in this way.

I recently read One Man’s View of the World, by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. He notes that China’s history and geography make centralised control part of the political culture. And he says that when democracy develops in the country, it will feature some sort of control over the choice of candidates. Hong Kong’s current experience suggests that he is correct.

Maybe Beijing could have been more flexible about the composition of the nominating committee. The pro-democrats’ strategy of threatening civil disobedience has probably backfired in this respect. The central government’s response to what it sees as a sort of blackmail has been to take a firmer line. An “era of disobedience”, as some pro-democrats have promised, will do nothing at all to help Hong Kong. However, by implementing this reform and showing we can make it work, Beijing may well feel confident about further reform in the longer term. No one has ruled that out.

It would be an even bigger mistake for the pro-democrats to veto this proposal, however much they would prefer something more liberal. All they will be achieving is a delay – maybe five or 10 years – and then we will be back right here with this framework we have before us today. And during that time we will be stuck with the existing system with just 1,200 voters. I cannot believe public opinion wants that.

In short, we are being offered a chance to improve the quality of governance. Even with restrictions on the nomination system, it would bring about significantly more representative government. We need it.

Even if you would prefer more, it would be crazy not to take such an opportunity.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council


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