(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 22 April 2015.)
Society is being invited to consider whether to “pocket it first” when the Government tables its proposal for political reform in the Legislative Council today. This is a very unfortunate choice of terminology. It allows opponents to claim the offer falls short of expectation, to invite us to reject it and to wait for something better. The goal of perfection becomes the enemy of progress.
Democracy is said to uphold equal human rights. In practice, it means the opposition majority successfully captures political power once monopolized by the ruling minority and promises to respect the latter’s interests.
History has shown again and again this struggle for power can lead to two primary outcomes. First, the ruling minority agrees to share power with the opposition majority, which is only possible if the ruling minority does not feel too threatened. The greater the conflict between the two forces, the more they will seek to block each other from participating in policymaking.
Second, if a power sharing agreement cannot be reached, then the ruling minority represses the opposition majority. Sometimes the opposition majority proceeds to annihilate the ruling minority. Whichever side wins, democracy is lost.
Consider two examples of these outcomes. In England, the first constitutional step to limit the powers of the British monarch was the introduction of the Magna Carta in 1217. There were many twists and turns, with each step counting to the final goal. Universal suffrage was not introduced until 1918.
France was the first nation to adopt universal male suffrage in 1792, but its political history was more tumultuous than England’s. Universal male suffrage was repealed and revoked several times amid sometimes violent upheaval until the Constitutional Law of 1875 solidified this right.
The willingness to accommodate is the critical defining difference between the two countries. Forcing the issue before its time and before satisfactory accommodation leads to violent backlashes.
The Basic Law is an unprecedented political document accepted by most people in Hong Kong because it wisely promised to preserve our way of life after 1997.
It also did not threaten the interests of the local ruling coalition. But the institutional role performed by the colonial master had to be replaced. The substitute was envisaged to be a popularly-elected executive and legislature, constituted in a step-by-step process that required mutual accommodation and respect.
The central issue is how to preserve our way of life, but will vetoing the government’s reform proposal advance that concern? There are two things to consider.
First, reconstituting the political rules of society kindles intense infighting among different domestic interests. Wealth disparity and lack of income growth in Hong Kong have created a more unequal society and fuelled populist redistribution policy ideas, which are contrary to the civic and economic freedoms that the Basic Law seeks to preserve.
Second, Beijing is a deeply interested party and has important roles to perform in safeguarding the implementation of the Basic Law. One critical role is to balance the opposing interests in society. But this depends on all sides maintaining a balanced relationship with Beijing, which is impossible given the continued democratic confrontation with Beijing over 4 June 1989.
What will be the state of affairs after the government’s political reform proposal is rejected later this summer, as seems likely? Distrust between Hong Kong and Beijing will take a turn for the worse. Democratic political reforms will progress on an even more narrow and difficult path.
Regardless of whether the pan-democrats retain one-third or more of the seats in the legislature, the relationship between the executive and the legislature will be in deep winter. The executive will sidestep the legislature in order to govern and administer, which would be a blow for greater accountability and representative government.
If the voice of the moderate democrats becomes silent, then existing gains would backslide even further as the Legislative Council degenerated into a Roman Coliseum.
Public policy in Hong Kong should not be held hostage to chance, accident and the will of the irrational and unreasoning, who are unwilling to accommodate at all costs. The people of Hong Kong have thrived because they understand when to give and take. They know that our prosperity and freedoms were built one step at a time and that every step counts.
It is time we realize this matters to the development of our political democracy, too.