Friday, October 21, 2005

Political Reforms in Hong Kong

The legislative reforms unveiled last Wednesday in Hong Kong are the most comprehensive since China took the territory back from Britain. The bad news for democrats is that they fall short of the universal suffrage they crave. Still, the democrats may have no choice but to go along.

The plan made public by Chief Secretary Rafael Hui would add ten seats to the Legislative Council (Legco), five of them directly elected, the other five chosen by district board councilors. It also proposes to enlarge the electoral college that chooses the Chief Executive by including elected as well as appointed district board members.

Of course, the government’s proposals had been rumored for weeks, so there were no real surprises in the announcement. The manner in which the reforms were tabled was curious, however. Why didn’t the Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, unveil the proposals himself in his annual policy address on Oct 14?

The specter of the last British colonial governor, Chris Patten, still hangs over the slow evolution of democracy in Hong Kong. I imagine that Tsang did not want to be so personally identified with the reforms. Patten’s whole administration and legacy was defined by his efforts to expand the number of directly elected seats in the legislature.

Those electoral changes, which Patten unveiled shortly after he became governor in 1992 and implemented in 1995, set off an enormous row between London and Beijing with Hong Kong caught in the middle. It is not surprising that the first Chinese Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, would not touch the issue.

It is possible that Hong Kong needed a respite from all of the sturm und drang of the Patten years in those fragile and nervous early months following the handover in 1997 as both sides, China and Hong Kong, got used to each other. That respite came to a screeching halt, however, in the huge protest march that took place on July 1, 2003.

During his seven years as chief, Tung never talked about political reform, studiously ignored the democrats and implemented only those electoral changes that were explicitly spelled out in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution. To his credit Tsang has reopened the issue, although by letting Hui introduce the measures, he has shown that he doesn’t want to be too closely identified with it.

On the plus side of the ledger the proposed reforms represent the most far-reaching political reforms under China’s flag. On the negative side, they fall short of providing the “universal suffrage” that many people in Hong Kong desire. Already many prominent democrats are lining up to denounce the reforms as not going nearly far enough to bring full democracy to Hong Kong.

It should be noted that the term “universal suffrage” has a special meaning in Hong Kong. Everyone in the territory has the vote already. It’s just that these votes are channeled into only a narrow portion of the body politic. Universal suffrage in Hong Kong means everybody voting for all members of the Legco and for the Chief Executive, now chosen by an electoral college of 800 members.

Obviously, Tsang would not have allowed the reform proposals to go forward without Beijing’s approval. In any case, since it involves a change in the composition, which sets Lego membership at 60, any reform would have to be reported to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

The central government seems willing to allow for the Legco’s expansion provided that the ratio of directly elected and functional constituencies remains equal at 35/35 instead of the present 30/30. This is why five of the seats chosen by district board members are being labeled “functional constituencies,” even though functional constituencies are supposed to represent special interests, such as lawyers, accountants or civil engineers.

If all of this is beginning to sound a little confusing and insider, bear with me. Hong Kong has a jerry-built, Rube Goldberg political process because it is patched together to accommodate a local population that, for the most part, wants a fully democratic system, and the fact that Hong Kong is part of a country that doesn’t, so far, embrace any form of democracy.

Nobody in Hong Kong would be so rude as to suggest that the whole deal looks awfully Pattenesque, but let me. The five district board seats are less like functional constituencies than they are like the old Election Committee, which under Patten chose 10 Legco members and was made up of – guess what? – district board councillors.

The only difference is that after the handover, the new administration reintroduced the colonial practice of having the government appoint some district board members, though they still amount to only about a fifth of the more than 500 local councillors. Nevertheless, the democrats have seized on these appointed representatives as a fatal flaw in the reforms.

For a while it seemed as if the democrats would support the proposal as the best deal they would likely get at this time. Lee Wing-tat, chairman of the Democratic Party, even had some positive things to say about it. But then veteran democracy campaigner Martin Lee spoke up, hectoring democrats to get some backbone and courage of their convictions.

“This is the most critical moment. If we cannot defend our bottom line of [full] democracy, it is pointless calling ourselves democrats,” he wrote in Next magazine. Lee surrendered his formal leadership of the Democratic Party some years ago, but his views obviously still carry considerable weight. The bottom line for Lee has always been universal suffrage.

Moreover, the closer the democrats look at the likely outcome of these reforms, the more they sharpen their pencils and do the sums, the more they understand that the reforms will do little to alter the balance of power. Assuming that the democrats win three of the five new directly elected seats and two or three of the new functional seats, they would increase their numbers to 30-31 out of 70.

Since the first elections in Hong Kong in 1991, the democrats (both members of the Democratic Party and independent democrats) have consistently garnered roughly 60 per cent of the vote. That now translates into about 40 percent of the seats in the legislature. If they won 30 seats under the new arrangements, they would still have . . . what? About 40 percent of the seats.

At the moment the democrats seem determined to oppose the political package put forward by the government. Some 23 of the 25 sitting liberals issued a joint statement urging the government to provide a timetable and road map towards universal suffrage. Still the political climate makes it risky for them to simply oppose these reforms.

Public approval for the democratic members is low at the moment. The government of Donald Tsang is very popular, unlike the previous administration. Beijing seems to be making peace offerings to the democrats as shown by the get-together in Guangzhou earlier this month. Another mass demonstration being bruited for early December might prove embarrassingly sparse.

The public may look on opposition as being simply stubborn obstructionism in pursuit of a utopian cause. The baby thaw with Beijing, which they are so eager to nurture, would freeze again. In the end the democrats are in a corner and may not have many good options other than to accept the proposals and try for some compromises.

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