(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 17 December 2014)
The Occupy Movement has denounced Hong Kong’s political arrangements as a false system of “one person one vote” because the people do not possess equal political rights in nominating candidates for the Chief Executive and voting for Legislative Council candidates in the functional constituencies.
I don’t think these institutions have to be abolished. They can be reformed and opened up to greater political representation to become genuinely democratic without contravening the Basic Law. How this can be accomplished can be discussed and debated.
The Occupy Movement makes two accusations against Hong Kong’s political arrangements. The first is a moral indictment in that governing society becomes more difficult without a morally acceptable form of “one person one vote.”
The second accusation is a protest against social injustice. It claims the ruling elites have dominated the unrepresentative government establishment, making society less inclusive over time, subverting justice, and retarding economic progress through a closed extractive rather than open competitive system.
In Hong Kong’s case, the protesters are concerned about deepening economic and social contradictions that they believe are perpetuated by the current political arrangement, even if not caused by it.
This narrative is gaining support because the public is frustrated that Hong Kong’s economic and social contradictions have not been addressed. The longer this continues, the more people will believe the government does not want to solve them in order to protect the interests of the ruling elites.
The Chief Executive Selection Committee and the Functional Constituencies in the Legislative Council are seen as the bastions of these elites, and they are the targets of the Occupy Movement. The reluctance to open up the present political system is perceived by the public as a sign of the cronyism between Beijing and the ruling elites. Increasingly, Beijing is being blamed for supporting these elites by preventing genuine democracy in Hong Kong.
The emergence of radical elements among the pan-democrats reflects not only the lack of progress on political reforms, but also the result of a poorly designed set of election rules using proportional representation that ends up protecting small extreme minorities. These radical elements have taken their struggle to the streets with greater use of violence. There is a danger that society will continue to polarize and the political middle ground will vanish.
A growing number of people agree political reform is necessary, but they differ on what should be done and who is the primary villain.
The pan-democrats’ strategy is to capitalize on voter fears of Beijing’s arbitrary rule. This is a high-risk, opportunistic strategy and arguably very shortsighted. By antagonizing Beijing, the democratic movement risks being branded unpatriotic and forces its supporters into the unenviable position of choosing between Beijing and Hong Kong.
But there is no compelling reason why Beijing must side with the local ruling elites against local permanent residents unless pressed to do so. If Beijing chooses to place itself in such a position, then it, too, is politically extremely unwise, given that the Basic Law has promised a democratic system of government for Hong Kong. Yet the local ruling elites are keen to encourage Beijing to assume such a role.
At present, Hong Kong does not have a working political system that can both successfully aggregate majority opinion and protect minority interests. Our self-serving divisiveness has produced a fragmented political landscape. Such divisiveness is unlikely to change before 2017. Without a Chief Executive elected through universal suffrage, it is unlikely to change even after 2017.
Faced with such a difficult dilemma, should Hong Kong accept “pocketing it first” as the next step on our road to genuine democracy? Or should we let all our institutions decay beyond repair? Can we not imagine a better path to the future conditional on credible promises of continuing political reforms to the Nominating Committee and the Legislative Council election in the near and immediate future?
The people of Hong Kong must decide on these questions in the coming year. Regardless of whether you support or oppose the Occupy Movement, we must decide together. Those charged with the responsibility of taking this decision forward must listen to the voice of the people and to their hearts. For both the establishment and the pan-democrats, this is not the time for political brinksmanship.