South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Simon Young says pan-democrats can “seize the opportunity” by drawing up a list of negotiable demands and seeking talks with the government, to test its commitment to universal suffrage – before they consider a veto
There are growing signs that both the central and Hong Kong governments no longer see universal suffrage in 2017 as a priority. Did they ever? I think they did because it was perceived as a way to confer greater legitimacy on those in power and thereby aid in their ability to govern. However, it seems that after the Occupy protests there is now an indifference if not hesitation in taking this major step in political reform.
If movement towards universal suffrage invites disruptive unlawful protests and interference by foreign governments, then Hong Kong is not ready for universal suffrage, nor is the central government. The signs of this new thinking are telling.
We are told not to get our hopes up with the second round of consultation. At the launch, the chief secretary said that in relation to the constitutional and legal framework, “there is no room for any concessions or compromises to be made in order to win over the support from the pan-democratic members”. The next day, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs “confessed … there is not much room there for us to do anything significant so as to convince the 27 pan-democratic members to change their mind”. On the radio, the secretary for justice described the task as “very close to mission impossible”.
Beyond its flashy cover, the consultation document exudes little enthusiasm for reform. There are few if any new ideas or bridging points for legislators to seize upon. On the design of the nominating committee, instead of progressive suggestions such as abolishing corporate voting, rethinking existing subsectors, or allowing directly elected committee members, the aim is to maintain the status quo because “the wish of each subsector should be respected and widespread support from the relevant subsectors should be obtained, otherwise politically it would be difficult to forge consensus”. Such conservatism ensures a narrow base for the nominating committee, as different views on how to expand it will be ignored on the grounds that a consensus has yet to be forged.
This is what happened to the issue of the political party affiliation of the chief executive. In the first consultation document, we were told this bar might be lifted in the review of local legislation. However, in the second document, the issue has been taken off the table because the government has yet to introduce a law on political parties and “different sectors of the community have yet to arrive at a clear consensus” – again, that familiar expression. One would have thought universal suffrage, if one is serious about it, elevates the status of political parties.
Nor was there any more enthusiasm for democracy in the policy address, which reminded us that “universal suffrage” are words found in the Basic Law and not the Sino-British Joint Declaration. There is a bare promise to “lobby” legislators to obtain the two-thirds majority support, but up to now we see no attempt to engage them in dialogue and negotiations. The continued aspersions about foreign interference do nothing to alleviate the mistrust between the relevant stakeholders.
The pan-democrats’ veto will likely serve the interests of the central and Hong Kong governments most. Pan-democrats will be blamed for frustrating the public’s aspiration for universal suffrage and will suffer the consequences in future polls. The secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs has already drawn attention to these potential consequences in referring to the “worst-case scenario”.
The governments know that, after the veto, universal suffrage for the legislature will come no earlier than 2028; two years being insufficient for a directly elected chief executive in 2022 to consult, amend the Basic Law and enact local legislation to implement reform in 2024. Thirteen years is a good stretch of time to educate a new generation of young people on the “proper” understanding of “one country, two systems”. Functional constituencies will remain intact until then and maybe longer. With few options available, the hope is for more disgruntled voters to return pro-government legislators, that being the only way for Hong Kong to be governable again.
In the current political climate, the veto should be the last thing that pan-democrat legislators want to invoke. It plays entirely into the hands of the two governments. In an ironic twist of fate, accepting a political reform deal is now the most powerful political weapon in the hands of pan-democrats. They really must “seize the opportunity” to test how committed the two governments are to universal suffrage.
All signs indicate that Beijing is happy to allow the current administration to carry on for another five years in 2017. As rational actors, members of the current administration have little incentive to realise a system of universal suffrage, which, with proper safeguards, could transform the current political landscape, even under the constraints of the August 31 decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.
Pan-democrat legislators need to draw up a list of negotiable demands and seek talks with the two governments. The demands might include proposals to make the nominating committee more representative and the nomination process more open and fair, and election rules that allow voters to veto all candidates.
Other possible demands include obtaining central government assurances on future reform, functional constituencies, Article 23, and acceptability of candidates from the pan-democrat camp. The official response to such entreaties will be the real test. If legislators come up against a cold wall, then the governments’ unarticulated desire will become plain. A veto in such circumstances will appear justified without fear of consequences at the polls.
But if the governments’ articulated aim proves genuine and agreement becomes possible, then those pan-democrats involved in the breakthrough may well have taken the first step to becoming the leading political force in 2016 and 2017.
Professor Simon Young Ngai-man is associate dean (research) in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong