(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 12 July 2014)
Informed talk is circulating that the government’s report (Carrie Lam’s report) on the first stage consultation on political reforms will be released early next week. It will attempt to integrate and summarize some 130,000 submissions representing different and diverse opinions. These will be like a smorgasbord of foods and drinks for a dinner buffet cooked by dozens of chefs from all cuisine schools. Summarizing it will be a colossal and thankless task. The report will be criticized for what it says and for what it fails to say.
Both critics and supporters, whatever their political persuasions, should appreciate the challenging task of writing a report to summarize divided and diverse political views. Judging from public reports of political viewpoints over the past year there is little doubt that opinion is too divided and antagonistic to be susceptible to any form of integrative and balanced interpretation.
Still the report will be valuable to read for putting on full display the entire spectrum of viewpoints in society today. We are unlikely to discover any fresh viewpoints from Carrie Lam’s report. The past year has seen many groups, particularly the pan-democrats, trying hard to have their voices be heard. But it has not been a year where different viewpoints have been debated, combined, refined and revised. There has hardly been any attempt at engagement and integration. If anything opinion appears to be more divided today than a year ago.
Carrie Lam’s report should have incorporated all these opinions, perhaps with some annotations, subtle or otherwise. I have faith that the report will give all parties a fair hearing despite what the critics say and all types of media slant.
Now is the time to start the process of seeking common ground among the various viewpoints by taking advantage of the release of Mrs. Lam’s report.
We should have faith in the wisdom of the people to arrive at a political reform proposal that can sensibly promote the interests of all sectors in society, takes into account the historical and current circumstances in Hong Kong, accords reasonably well with democratic principles, and can be supported by the majority of the population. The goal is to produce a proposal that can pass the five-step process so that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong will be elected by universal suffrage in 2017. Our ability to achieve this is the true test that our community deserves the democratic governance that the majority wants.
This is no mean feat and will take some time. Political opinions in society need some breathing space to engage each other for this process to ferment after the publishing of the Carrie Lam report. For this reason, the Chief Executive’s report should not be rushed and can wait until early October before submitting his report to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. The Legislative Council would also have returned from its summer recess. This delay will not be material as the Standing Committee meets every two months. There will still be enough time to complete the five-step process.
There is no legal requirement that the Chief Executive must submit its report after the release of government’s report. Past practice is merely a matter of habit and convenience. At this juncture, the submission decision should be based on what is best for achieving progress in the search for a reasonable political consensus.
There are strong hints that the Carrie Lam report will not favor any single proposal. Indeed this is because the task is impossible at this stage. Circumstances are such that if it were up to the Chief Executive to take a position and make a recommendation to the Standing Committee then it can only be by fiat. The broad base support for such fiat is not yet present. If instead the Chief Executive makes no recommendation then it puts the Standing Committee in the unenviable position of having to rule also by fiat and take blame for political and moral irresponsibility.
The past few months have seen rapid and abrupt twists and turns on the political landscape. All parties in Hong Kong and on the mainland could benefit from reassessing what is the best way forward for the people of Hong Kong on this paramount choice affecting their future. Decisions taken at a time, when pessimism descends upon some sectors only to turn into elation and when confident predictions turn into worse nightmares, cannot be in the long-term interest of the community.
Hong Kong has to step back and reassess before moving forward again. These are grave decisions and the Chief Executive should not be rushing into it.