Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong’s pan-democrats must learn the art of compromise if they are true champions of democracy

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South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
2015-01-13

John Chan

John Chan says the pan-democrats who plan to veto the government’s political reform package because it is imperfect would be ignoring the history of change, where compromises abound

Regardless of how undemocratic the political reform package may seem to the pan-democrats, in deciding to veto any proposal formulated n the basis of Beijing’s August 31 decision, the legislators face two dilemmas.

First, no one can deny that the proposed reform package allowing 5 million eligible voters to cast their vote is a great improvement over the election by 1,200 selected voters. Vetoing such a package means denying 5 million people the right to vote. Pan-democrat lawmakers owe the Hong Kong people a persuasive explanation as to why they should decide to deny this right even before the second consultation process starts.

Second, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision has made it abundantly clear that any Legislative Council election reform can only happen after universal suffrage for the chief executive election is in place. Vetoing the chief executive election reform would mean Legco election reform is frozen, and that means the continued existence of functional constituencies, a system the pan-democrats abhor most. So pan-democrat legislators also owe the people, and their supporters, a persuasive explanation for the inconsistency of their stand.

History shows that the road to democracy is never flat and wide. In the process, compromises abound, often out of strategic need and sometimes on principle.

Take the drafting of the US Constitution. The Americans took 10 years after gaining independence in 1776 to draft it, based on the Articles of Confederation signed by the 13 states that formed the loosely knitted union.

In the Constitutional Convention of 1787 at Philadelphia, a deadlock on the composition of the proposed state legislature prevented the constitution from being drawn up. The more populous states favoured a bicameral legislature with the number of seats allocated to each state proportional to its population. Less-populous states feared this would result in their voices and interests being overwhelmed and thus proposed a single house legislature with equal seats for each state.

A compromise emerged, under which the US Congress would be composed of the House of Representatives, with the number of seats allocated to the states proportional to the population of each state, and a Senate, where each state would have an equal number of seats. This “Great Compromise”, as it is known, led to the US Constitution being drawn up.

There is no political thought or system that is perfect from its inception or remains forever so. There is indeed no political system that could be considered ultimately superior, only ideas that are constantly subject to scrutiny and systems that are repeatedly reformed.

And there must be a prototype for continuing scrutiny and reform.

One of the pan-democrats’ arguments for not wanting to pass the universal suffrage prototype for the chief executive election is that they do not want to give the chief executive elected after a screening of candidates the mandate of millions of votes. In so doing, they can continue to claim the moral high ground by using the lack of a mandate from the people as grounds for their incessant attacks on the government and the chief executive himself. This is a selfish act, without the slightest consideration for the long-term interests of Hong Kong and its people.

The political reality is that it is totally unrealistic to push for scrapping the Standing Committee decision. National security is at the top of Beijing’s agenda and, from its perspective, consideration for national security means it needs to be sure who would, and could, be chief executive. Facing this reality, pan-democrat legislators must take the greater interest of the SAR and its people into consideration when making their decision, and compromise if necessary.

As the drafting of the US Constitution shows, politics can only move forward with compromise. The long struggle for full democracy is not counted by days, months or years. It is an excessively long struggle against conservative forces.

Again in the US, it was 100 years after the abolition of slavery before black Americans finally gained full voting rights.

History has shown that the road towards democracy is often more bumpy than anyone could have imagined. The pan-democrats can never bring democracy to the people of Hong Kong through their unyielding, and often totally unjustified, hostile anti-establishment stance. Certainly, they can never bring the very high degree of autonomy we all dream of by inciting people to alienate themselves from the sovereign state that has the final say on our future.

Claiming we can achieve an ideal system through one single unyielding struggle isn’t telling people the reality. In doing so, pan-democrat legislators are either being naive, or are not being honest with themselves.

A chief executive election with screened candidates is certainly an imperfect, undesirable system. Yet, it is not an end in itself. It serves as the beginning of a long march towards full voting rights. To take the bold step to kick-start the long process, we need a “Great Compromise” in 2015 in Hong Kong. Among the pan-democrat legislators, who has the vision and courage to make it happen?

John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party

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