(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 21 December 2016.)
The pan-democrats’ coalition successfully captured an estimated 325 of the 1,200 seats on the 2017 Chief Executive Election Committee. This is 50 percent more than their share 5 years ago.
In the year now well known for its “black swans”, this appears to be another entry in what is already a rather long list.
I remember speaking to many pan-democratic politicians both before and after the August 31, 2014 resolutions about the share of seats they could capture on the 2017 Chief Executive Election Committee. They were not optimistic about getting much more than two hundred. For them, achieving 325 seats was simply not conceivable.
Until a few short months ago, few would have suspected such an astounding achievement was possible at this stage.
The fact that political polarization has failed to narrow in the two years since the Occupy Central movement is an important factor in precipitating the significant jump in pan-democratic seats on the Chief Executive Election Committee.
What is its significance for political development in Hong Kong?
It represents an important milestone towards building public accountability in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s political order. In all past elections of the Chief Executive, the democratic opposition was politically irrelevant despite its considerable popular support. Its presence on the Chief Executive Election Committee was mere window-dressing.
For this reason, the coalition derided the political arrangement as a “small circle” election that was short on legitimacy because it failed to be accountable to a broader constituency, which they also dubbed “not genuine universal suffrage.” But with 325 seats, the pan-democrat coalition has approached a position of wielding effective power through exercising “checks and balances” in the politics of selecting the Chief Executive. It is now a power to be reckoned with.
In addition to its numbers, it also represents a voice not only from the grassroots, but also from the learned and professional classes. Among its ranks are many who will represent the voice for the future of Hong Kong’s higher value added service economy. It is a social voice that has been poorly represented among the pan-democratic political parties so far. Their numbers are likely to grow over time. And they will bring changes not only to the Chief Executive Election Committee, but also the Legislative Council.
It is significant that the voters that elected them did not support those who stood for casting “blank votes” or radical positions. If this new force coalesces and is well led, it could eventually emerge as the new voice of democracy. And, unlike the old democratic forces, it comes from a part of the population who represent a growing share of Hong Kong’s future GDP.
Their participation in the Chief Executive Election Committee creates a better prospect of introducing greater representation in this body in the future. This has the potential of bringing popular legitimacy to a political institution that is increasingly perceived to be lacking it.
Justice Woo Kwok Hing, one of the candidates running to be the Chief Executive in 2017, has advocated expanding the constituency of the Chief Executive Election Committee from the current 246,000 to one million. His position is similar to the one advocated by the Group of 13 Scholars in April 2014 that called for broader representation of the Nominating Committee (seehttp://2017cenom.blogspot.hk/).
These voices are highly sensible, but were unfortunately drowned in the civil disobedience movement. Rational and moderate voices receded as radical and extremist ones gradually took over, and society became increasingly polarized in a political confrontation that led nowhere.
Time will tell whether the reappearance of rational voices will happen. Things are still at an early stage. Much will depend on the attitude of decision-makers in Beijing, in Admiralty, in Western District, the loyalist and patriotic voices, the voices of the pan-democrats, and the elected candidates themselves and their supporters.
Two years ago, pan-democratic politicians felt compelled to follow the lead of the extremists and the student activists, most of whom believed that it was impossible for them to participate in the established political processes because the terms were very unequal. This led to, for example, endless filibustering in the Legislative Council as a response. Political gridlock delayed or torpedoed many sensible public policies.
Although the difficult political situation was expressed in highly moralistic and idealistic terms as the violation of the principle of equal choice through equal participation, the real issue was the opposition’s sense of futility in being denied power within the established political institutions. Hopelessness inevitably bred irresponsibility and extremism, although it does not justify them.
While universal suffrage is a moral ideal underpinning any democratic system of government, its effective operation still depends entirely upon other real practical features, of which “checks and balances” is a crucial element in ensuring accountability.
The failure of the liberal democratic state to hold onto many of its rapid triumphs after the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 have led many political thinkers to search for new ways to characterize the essential features of a democratic political order and how it can be effectively governed.
Significantly, in one of the most important books on the subject Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, the term “democracy” is deliberately shunned in favor of an “inclusive” political system. The latter places the defining feature of a political system on whether government is effectively and broadly accountable to the people, especially in a complex pluralistic society where the people have diverse and conflicting interests.
While it is likely that an “inclusive political system” would embrace “genuine universal suffrage,” any serious reflection would suggest that this is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition. Politics is often far more complex than the morals and ideals that inform its ideology.
Consider that an important feature of the “checks and balances” mechanism –– the rotation of political parties in power–is widely believed to be the ultimate test of true accountability in an “inclusive” political system. Chris Patten raised this test in his recent speeches in Hong Kong when he expounded the workings of democratic government. Using this more stringent yardstick of “democracy” is even more difficult.
For this reason, Singapore, which has universal suffrage, is not considered a democratic political system because the ruling People’s Action Party has never lost a single election. Japan, where the conservative Liberal Democratic Party has been in power for over 93 percent of the time since its founding in 1955, could still be regarded as a borderline case for democracy.
In Hong Kong, building “checks and balances” into the Chief Executive elections and the Legislative Council elections, and into how different parts of the government function in relation to each other, are important political milestones in the construction of a more accountable system of government.
Under the best case scenario, a working democratic political order must have three functioning areas. First, an autonomous functioning state supported by meritocratic bureaucracy. Second, the rule of law whereby governance is performed according to rules that bind the entire population, including the political elites and state power. Third, accountability to constituents where government is responsible to the people it governs, both procedurally and substantively.
The main political difficulty in Hong Kong today is in the third area — accountability –– but failure to make progress in one area will inevitably affect the other two areas as well. The present political arrangements were designed primarily to preserve the political, economic, and social status quo that prevailed about three decades ago. To a considerable extent it was the political voice of that time wanting to preserve their way of life. Yes there were dissenters, but it was nevertheless the dominant voice then.
Fresh demands to enhance the accountability of our political institutions have to convince not only stakeholders within Hong Kong, but also the Central Government in Beijing. Making the case for political institutional reform is not easy in any society under almost all circumstances. In Hong Kong it is likely to be uniquely difficult given the diversity of interests both within Hong Kong and in Beijing.
When the Basic Law was promulgated in 1990, Hong Kong’s economy constituted a relatively significant share of the entire Chinese economy and Chinese interest in what happened in Hong Kong was a matter of considerable concern. It deserved top-level attention.
By contrast, Britain at the end of World War II was much less concerned about local affairs because Hong Kong constituted a relatively insignificant share of the British economy. As long as Hong Kong did not become a fiscal and political burden for London, she was quite prepared to let Hong Kong have considerable autonomy on a relatively long leash.
Rapid Chinese economic growth for three decades has also reduced the relative importance of Hong Kong in China’s economic calculus. Is it possible that China is more prepared to keep Hong Kong on a longer leash? The relevant logic to be applied here should be the same: only if Hong Kong does not become a political inconvenience and threat to Beijing.
Any enhancement of political accountability should not be a threat to Beijing and be perceived as improving governance in Hong Kong. For this reason, taking gradual steps to enhance the representativeness and accountability of our existing political institutions, without upsetting the basic architecture, is a far more acceptable approach.
Following this logic, the effort to broaden representation of the four sectors of the Chief Executive Election Committee (or the Nominating Committee in the future) and the Functional Constituencies in the Legislative Council should be seen as an improvement in public accountability rather than a threatening or hostile act.
In this view, it is entirely appropriate that Beijing’s central concerns are also prominently represented through the members of the Chief Executive Election Committee who are active in the nation’s political affairs.
A political change like this is desirable for Hong Kong because it will better reflect the massive shifts in Hong Kong’s economic and social landscape in the past three decades after China’s opening and global economic integration. Hong Kong has transformed from a manufacturing into a service economy that is far more dependent on human capital quality. Unfortunately, we have not improved significantly in this area.
Over a quarter of our population (nearly two million) are recent immigrants, mostly unskilled, who arrived through cross-border marriages and family reunion. This has contributed to slower economic growth, greater economic inequality, and more pressure on social resources. Meanwhile, the proportion of children growing up in single-parent households has increased more than ten-fold and this group is mostly concentrated in low-income households where the divorce rate is especially high.
Rising housing prices have produced a society divided into “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of asset wealth, leading to frustration and despair especially among the young generation. Any social scientist who compares Hong Kong’s economic and social shocks in the past three decades with those experienced by rich societies elsewhere in the world must conclude that our shocks have been bigger but we have survived them much better, despite the imperfections of our political system.
These changes require a major policy response from government, a reprioritization of the public policy agenda, and effective leadership able to take decisions forward with the broad support of people from different constituencies. For the first time since 1997, the Election Committee now has a real chance of picking the most appropriate candidate it deems best prepared to take Hong Kong forward and make progress in improving government accountability.