(This essay was published in the South China Morning Post on 17 September 2014.)
The political reform framework decided by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has evoked strong reactions in Hong Kong. The pan-democrats have denounced it as undemocratic and incompatible with “genuine popular elections”. For me, it is consistent with many critical elements of the Basic Law – the agreement between the Chinese sovereign and the people of Hong Kong that was promulgated by the National People’s Congress in 1990.
To be sure, all interested parties and groups have pushed the envelope, but this is not the same as saying one side abrogated a promise. The implications of the announced framework deserve to be carefully analyzed and understood.
The Basic Law allows for one country-two systems but debates over the future political framework to sustain this have split into three narratives.
The first narrative traces back to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, when there were fears Hong Kong’s fundamental commitment to limited government, a free enterprise economy, civil liberties, and the rule of law would inevitably be overwhelmed by populism, through the development of democracy.
This narrative sees democracy as unnecessary to preserving the rule of law, a free economy and civic freedoms because they flourished here under a colonial ruler without democracy, and also in Singapore, which is not a free polity.
Populism in this argument would contribute to a growing redistributive and regulatory state and, eventually, to curtailments on economic and civic liberties, and thus would erode the commitment to limited government and a free enterprise economy.
The second narrative also arose after the Joint Declaration, but sees the threat coming from the Chinese sovereign, as a non-democratic state. It is favored by those who strongly support a “bottom-up approach” to building democracy in Hong Kong and want to anchor political decision-making with the people and no one else, even though the people of Hong Kong under one country-two systems are not a sovereign people. Nor is Hong Kong a sovereign polity.
The third narrative fears that the current deep political divisions between these two camps will become even more difficult to bridge as society continues to polarize. The Standing Committee’s announced framework therefore comes as a disappointment to them.
These folks wish to see Hong Kong have a popularly-elected Chief Executive in 2017. Their fear is that the Standing Committee’s framework does not allow sufficient room for political differences to be bridged.
To them, progress in 2017 would be an important step towards reducing the uncertainties of political development. This could improve governance, restore the capacity to adopt sound policies to address Hong Kong’s deep economic and social contradictions, and sustain long-term prosperity and stability.
Alternatively, failing to make progress on political reforms would precipitate a continuing process of gradual decline – politically, economically, and socially.
Many of those who hold a moderate middle ground embrace this third narrative. They believe one country-two systems can only work if both sides of the political divide are patient and tolerant. But increasingly they find themselves sandwiched between the intransigent narratives of the pan-democrats and the establishment. They do not subscribe to the “bottom-up approach”, but wish to see a democratic arrangement develop without unwarranted confrontations with Beijing.
Although the Standing Committee’s framework is restrictive, I think the prospects of finding a moderate middle ground have not yet vanished, despite the limited room to maneuver. Such room was never going to be very large given the boundaries laid down in the Basic Law, which had to accommodate a great diversity of opinions and conflicting interests.
As the differences of opinions and interests have widened over the years, some have turned to political innovations as a solution. But are they within the Basic Law?
Citizen nomination of candidates for Chief Executive is an innovation outside the Basic Law, as is changing the four sectors of the Nominating Committee. But other innovations fall within the Basic Law, such as changing the thirty-eight sub-sectors of the Nominating Committee and how they are to be constituted.
Growing economic and social contradictions have to be addressed by sound policies. Political innovations that facilitate the adoption of such policies should be accommodated. There should be room within the Basic Law and the resolutions of the Standing Committee to allow for changes over time that contribute to a better future for Hong Kong.