(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 11 June 2014)
Political opinion on how to select the HKSAR Chief Executive (CE) remains highly divided, some say polarized. On 22 June, the Occupy Central Movement will stage a mini-referendum to invite the public to pick among three pre-selected proposed methods. All of them embrace elements of citizens’ nomination, which Beijing says violates the Basic Law by circumventing the Nominating Committee (NC). If these three proposed methods are the only choices on the table then Hong Kong will most likely not have a CE selected through universal suffrage in 2017.
A good proposal must fulfill three conditions. First, meet the constitutional and legal requirements. Second, pass the “Five-step Process”. Third, create conditions that result in the election of a CE who is empowered and effective in addressing Hong Kong’s polarizing political situation.
If no progress is made on political reforms, the outcome could be calamitous because the current electoral process no longer meets the aspirations of the people. But political compromise will be difficult without shared beliefs and a common interest in what the future should bring. It behooves all stakeholders to reflect on their positions and seek a good solution based on democracy, openness and tolerance.
Between now and 2017, perhaps common sense will in the end prevail, and a reasonable compromise will be found. It will surely test the wisdom, erudition and forbearance of the people of Hong Kong as never before. There is talk that a middle way should be formed. Even the organizers of the mini-referendum of 22 June feel compelled to add an extra question in a bid to boost voter turnout to avoid the perception of lack of broad public demand for “genuine” universal suffrage.
Most political disagreements in Hong Kong to date have stemmed from the perception that political reform is a zero-sum game. It is zero-sum between Beijing and the people of Hong Kong. It is zero-sum between the pan-democrats and the establishment. It is zero-sum between the radicals and the moderates within the pan-democrats. It is zero-sum between the hard-core and the moderates within the establishment. And the list of variations goes on. When everything is seen to be zero-sum, then change becomes impossible. We are left with the tyranny of the status quo. The present becomes the enemy of the future. And all progress is halted.
The composition of the NC is an important case in point. Between 2007 and 2011 the NC expanded from 800 to 1200 members. But no changes were made in the composition of members. Every sector and sub-sector just expanded more or less in equal proportions. So every one of the four sectors added 100 members and the sub-sectors increased proportionally. The raison d’être for adding more members was to enhance representation of the NC. Yet aside from increasing its size, nothing fundamental changed. What happened? The tyranny of the status quo prevailed. Each of the four sectors and every one of the 38 sub-sectors saw change as a zero-sum exercise and resisted it with success.
The present political arrangements have so far failed to offer the elected CEs the legitimacy to govern effectively and to respond to the concerns of diverse stakeholders of Hong Kong. That is because these arrangements are very much out of sync with the economic and social reality in Hong Kong. Thirty years of economic change on the Mainland and in the world has altered the economic and social landscape in Hong Kong. Our political institutions might not have been able to cope with the new landscape even in the absence of the restoration of sovereignty in 1997.
A similar situation appeared in Hong Kong in the late 1960s after a decade of industrialization. An emerging working class had appeared among the new immigrants who arrived in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They and their children had aspirations for a new social arrangement. The colonial government eventually responded by revamping the administrative machinery, forming district offices, and introducing new social programs in housing and welfare, but only after a tumultuous outbreak of civil unrest and violence. To be sure, local conditions were not the only precipitating factor in this upheaval, but they were the critical initiating ones.
Looking to today, the lesson to be drawn is that failing to change the political system at this time would be disastrous. Much is at stake with the elections of the CE in 2017. For the Hong Kong people, it will be a telling sign of what their future will hold. Hong Kong’s competitiveness ranking has recently dropped. Surely this reflects on our deteriorating political governance, directly and indirectly.
The considerable economic and social similarities of the populations of Hong Kong and Singapore make comparisons between the two cities particularly valuable. Economically, Hong Kong is falling behind Singapore in terms of per capita GDP. Socially, Hong Kong is falling behind Singapore in terms of lower homeownership rates and higher divorce rates. These new challenges require government policy action. Effective political governance does matter.
On 29 April, a Group of 13 Scholars (G-13), including myself, released the G-13 Proposal for a new approach to nominating the CE by reforming the NC (see http://2017cenom.blogspot.hk/). It is crafted to meet the constitutional and legal requirements of the Basic Law, address the public’s democratic aspirations, and yet pass the scrutiny of Beijing, the Legislative Council, and the Administration (or the Five-step Process) necessary for universal suffrage to be adopted.
G-13 Proposal aims to enhance the representativeness and acceptability of the central role the NC should play in the selection process of the CE. The proposal retains the four sectors of the former CE Selection Committee (SC) and its method of selecting the 1200 original members, but calls for up to 1200 new popularly elected members to be added, i.e., 300 per sector.
The crux of the G-13 Proposal is that the electorate can directly vote for these 1200 new members of the NC on a one-person one-vote basis. Any registered voter could compete for these new seats. The public would therefore be able to participate in the election of up to one-half of the members of the proposed NC. This election of new members would enhance the representation of the NC and be a very major step in opening up the NC through a gradual and orderly manner, in accordance with the stipulations of the Basic Law.
The new members would also have to receive endorsement from the four sectors, which would reaffirm the central role of the NC in the CE nomination process. Operationally, a person who wishes to join the NC in the new members category would follow two steps. The first step would be to secure endorsement from 1/300 of the voters (not members) belonging to one of the four sectors of the original SC. The second step would be to secure 2500 votes from the electorate.
Table 1 gives the number of voters in the original SC in the 2011 Chief Executive elections.
The four sectors had 38 sub-sectors with an estimated 15,927 corporate voters and 233,738 individual voters, combined to form a total of 249,665 voters. To become endorsed as a candidate for the 1,200 new seats on the NC, a person has to secure support in either one of the four sectors. This means getting 89 endorsements from the first sector, 100 from the second sector, 58 from the third sector, and 2 from the fourth sector. The total number of endorsements required from the second sector is capped at 100 to limit the time required for canvassing endorsements. These endorsements are not from the sub-sectors, but from one of the four sectors as a whole. So, for example, a candidate wishing to become an NC member in the first sector can obtain endorsements from the financial services sector, import-export sector, and tourism sector.
A candidate for the new NC membership would receive endorsements from the sector as a whole and not any sub-sector. This opens up the representation of the NC to candidates who must make a broader, sector-wide appeal and not just focus narrowly on sub-sector interests. This would improve the quality of the nomination process and set in motion a political process that minimizes the need for a CE candidate to over-commit himself to narrow interests in order to get nominated.
To become a new member of the NC, one would not only have to seek endorsement from the voters in one of the original four sectors, but also secure 2500 votes from the electorate. This would ensure the public is able to participate in a meaningful manner in the nomination process, which is crucial for the democratic process to be considered genuine. The new additions would enhance the representativeness and openness of the NC in a balanced manner conducive to orderly progress towards a democratic system as envisioned in the Basic Law. This would be a big step towards gaining the support of the public and eventually passing the “Five-step Process.”
By opening up the NC membership to candidates able to appeal to the broader interests of society, we also make it possible for CE candidates to do the same. Such a nominating process would compel CE candidates to reach out to a broad spectrum of interests and the wider electorate, including Beijing, when seeking office. Politics would then be able to return to the path of building policy consensus for serving the majority rather than outwitting each other in games of deception and confrontation. Political polarization could then be curbed and the CE candidate would feel less beholden to narrow extreme interests.
Equally important, reforming the NC would be a big step towards nominating CE candidates who have the ability to govern and can subsequently effectively engage an elected legislature comprising both geographical and functional constituencies. Beijing’s long-term interests in Hong Kong are unlikely to be well served when candidates feel compelled to deal only with extreme polarized interests. This reform would give good governance a better chance to succeed after the CE candidate takes office.
Broadening representation in the four sectors is especially significant because it would also encourage two developments. First, it would redeem the credibility of the NC in the eyes of the majority as it addresses their wish for political moderation and genuine democracy. Second, by opening functional constituencies to popular elections, it would complement geographic constituencies in a way that promotes public decisions in favor of the political center (or political majority).
Retaining the original SC memberships pays due respect to historical legacy without being unduly burdened by it. Keeping two types of members in 2017 is a pragmatic political choice that allows the NC to take a big progressive step. It accords with the desire for gradual and orderly progress, and for moderation. Such an arrangement respects the legitimate rights and interests of all groups in society, addresses the frustrations of those whose aspirations have been ignored for too long, and avoids creating fresh conflicts by engaging in difficult political bargaining over the past.