(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 2 April 2014)


Opinions on political development in Hong Kong are stubbornly divided. A very considerable proportion of the public today wants to see a more democratic political system emerge but progress has unfortunately been painfully slow, thereby exacerbating political divisions in society and leading to growing impatience among various quarters. Public governance and future economic and social development are likely to become seriously compromised if these divisions are not narrowed.


Support for an elected Chief Executive and Legislative Council returned through universal suffrage is growing and is desirable for two separate reasons. First, there is a strong belief in Hong Kong that this is the only morally defensible political arrangement for the majority of the population. Second, the political legitimacy of the government, governability of society, and policy acceptance among citizens will become impossible without political representation formed on the basis of a broader spectrum of interests.


Means Make the End Meets


The first reason is concerned about the ends of democracy. Democracy as a political ideal presumes that justice is premised upon all individuals having equal rights. This moral high ground commanded by a democratic political system legitimizes government in the eyes of the people. While gaining legitimacy may reduce political division as a source of political instability, it does not necessarily guarantee social harmony and economic prosperity. If there are other causes of social disharmony and economic stagnation, then political division and instability could still appear and reappear.


In my essay, “When Society and Politics become a Tyranny of Minorities” (HKEJ, 19 February 2014), I gave an account of Hans O Staub’s description of Europe’s minorities-dominated political landscape and the difficulty of reaching consensus. The argument is that the tyranny of minorities has subverted the democratic ideal of majority rule and protection of minority rights. For democracy to be a worthwhile ideal to pursue, it should foster the healing of social disharmony and economic stagnation.


The second reason why universal suffrage is desirable concerns the means of democracy and how it can work best. This requires the discussion to move beyond the moral issue.


Democracy is a method for realizing the ideal of ordinary politics. The theory of democracy requires that democratic ends be achieved by democratic means – that both the ideal and the method are needed for democracy to function properly.


This assertion may or may not be true in practice. If it is true, then democracy makes sense. If it is not true, and the method cannot realize the ideal, then the notion of democracy is incomplete. An important question is whether the means are capable of attaining the ends. Attainability is a central part of the inquiry for the realization of the democratic ideal.


The political democracies in Europe and North America have survived and in some cases thrived in the past century, but not all are doing well. Some are torn by divisive politics dominated by disparate minorities. Important social and economic policies are held hostage to political paralysis. The democratic ideal falls and sinks in systems where it is impossible to make public decisions. The means for attaining the democratic ideal has become flawed.


Democracy is Negotiation


In Hong Kong, the discussion of how to design a method for a popularly elected Chief Executive and Legislative Council has made very little real progress so far. Most of the times the debate circles around the moral issue, with Beijing portrayed as unwilling to move forward and the pan-democrats as advocates for a rapid forward advance. Trust between the many parties is so low that all we are left with are political posturing and a continuous rehashing of entrenched positions that often drives the distance between them further apart.


Without a productive discussion of the means for realizing the political ideal in an achievable way, our city will become more divided, more radical, more dominated by minority interests, and more driven by new and old vested interests. A tell-tale sign of this is that the discussion of how the Chief Executive will be nominated and elected in 2017 is totally isolated from how the Legislative Council elections are to be reconstituted in 2016. Similarly, the 2012 Legislative Council elections were finalized without any discussion of the 2017 Chief Executive elections. Political development cannot be undertaken in an uncoordinated “piecemeal and segmentary” fashion.


Such considerations have fuelled skepticism among some commentators that even if the Chief Executive is democratically elected through universal suffrage and is nominated in a very open manner, it will be impossible for him or her to govern effectively when faced with a divided legislature and a bureaucracy that will survive elected politicians. Political baptism at the ballot box alone is an insufficient condition for effective governance.


The difficulty of achieving a functioning democracy can be seen in statistics from Freedom House. In 1973 only 45 out of 151 countries were political democracies. After sweeping political changes, by 1999 some 120 countries out of 192 had become democracies. Yet by 2012, only 90 still remained as democracies. Underlying the initial political changes was a massive social transformation that the new fledgling democratic governments could not govern effectively.


In Hong Kong, the “piecemeal and segmentary” process of political development contributes to the perception that there is deep disagreement on the moral aspect of democracy. Without a roadmap on the city’s future political direction and development, the political posturing and flag waving will only succeed in rallying support among select constituencies rather than lead to negotiated compromises involving opposing parties.


In this scenario, the winners at each step become the new vested interests and they work against the next step. The losers lose faith and become distrustful of the process of give and take. All parties avoid taking risks and choose to stay in their comfort zone among their own minority constituencies. This works increasingly against the common interest of the majority in society – the “median voter”.


The present manner of political development encourages radicalization and a drift into minority-driven politics. The middle class and the “median voter” are increasingly side lined. The democratic ideal is pushed beyond reach, perhaps fulfilling a secret wish of some minorities. This is not what the people of Hong Kong, who have to live and work in this city, want. No wonder some of the most productive members of society are sadly contemplating migration. Then, of course, there are those who fear Beijing’s intransigence and wish to leave. But intransigence is seldom the failings of one side only.


Functional Constituencies and the Democratic Ideal


The democratic ideal must embody three elements – participation, liberty and equality – as central to the political life of a citizen. A mechanism of voting that embodies all these democratic elements is viewed as morally satisfying.

In Hong Kong, we have both geographical and functional constituencies. The representatives of the 28 functional constituencies (excluding the super District Council) of the Legislative Council and the four main sectors (with a total of 38 sub-sectors) of the Election Committee to select the Chief Executive, are not in general popularly elected.


They have therefore often borne the brunt of criticism for being in violation of core elements of the democratic ideal. There have been repeated calls for their abolition on moral grounds or on the grounds that they often, if not always, defend vested and narrow interests at the expense of the common interest, which is potentially damaging for the democratic ideal of majority rule.


The creation of functional constituencies in the legislature by British Governor Chris Patten to prepare for the transition to post-1997 rule was a logical political response to stabilize the support of the business and professional elite at the time. While the same faces were preserved in positions of influence, the selection mechanism changed from appointment at the Governor’s pleasure to self-election by the elite and their power brokers.


This had the effect of weakening the government’s powers and compelling it to lobby and bargain intensely with highly diverse and fractionalized interests for political support. When effective governance is held hostage to special vested interests, the conditions are set for the rise of cronyism and the erosion of the rule of law.


But these are arguments about how representatives of the functional constituencies should be elected rather than arguments against functional constituencies as institutional categories for filtering political representatives. Why then are geographical constituencies better filtering categories than ‘functional constituencies’ if all candidates have to face popular elections at the ballot box with their respective constituencies?


Historically, the development of representative government first took place in Western Europe and the American Colonies. At that time, the most important economic activity was agricultural farming and the most important social unit was the village community. For this reason, the early representative governments were founded on geographic constituencies based on clusters of largely self-sufficient farming communities and villages.


Geographic constituencies bear the birthmark of the pre-modern agricultural economy and village-centered society, where work and home interests coincided. For example, in the United States, in the 60 years prior to the Civil War in 1860, almost every elected president came from the Democratic Party, which represented the interests of farmers including slave plantation owners in the South.


Geographic constituencies are a logical institutional category for filtering political representatives in an agricultural era where economic self-sufficiency is the norm. They are less obviously suited to an industrial era which is market-based and where the fortunes of individual industries may rise or fall over time. Nor are they obviously suited to cities like Hong Kong that have extensive international economic ties and a population of foreign nationals who have no right to vote in local elections.


Geographic constituencies inevitably compel citizens to focus on inward looking policies and are therefore sub-optimal for city economies that are outward looking.


The great divisiveness and occasional paralysis in policymaking that are found in modern industrial democracies are partly the result of geographically constituted elections. Europe, Japan and to a lesser extent the United States all suffer from such an arrangement. Democracy is not the problem in these countries, as some have argued; rather, the ailment lies with the way the election mechanisms are configured and consequently how power becomes distributed.


Similarly, India‘s democracy has been blamed for its poor economic performance, but it is geographic constituencies that have discouraged worker migration and frozen the nation in its pre-modern condition. Fortunately for China, workers from rural villages were not prevented from migrating to the urban centers when reforms began 30 years ago.


Geographically constituted democracies are more appropriate for static rural communities. US President Thomas Jefferson, who was very hostile to the banking industry, expounded such a vision of democracy known as Jeffersonian democracy and it has become a source of current inspiration among converts of the Tea Party.


But such an arrangement, which was efficient for constituting representative government inherited from a pre-modern era, is not necessarily appropriate for an international business metropolis like Hong Kong.


A political electoral system constituted only on geographic constituencies would reinforce Hong Kong’s restrictive population inflow practices. The economic vibrancy of an international city depends critically on its ability to attract and renew its population pool through immigration. New York and London would not be the business metropolises they are without expanding beyond their jurisdictional borders and attracting population inflows. Some 40% of the population in New York City was not born there. For this reason, geographic constituents in New York are more likely to have an outward looking and cosmopolitan orientation.


In a Hong Kong based solely on geographic constituencies, local politics would work against the city’s aspirations to be an international business and financial center. Some form of countervailing political force therefore is needed to keep inward-looking forces in check for the larger interest.


For this reason Hong Kong is fortunate to have functional constituencies on its political landscape in addition to geographical constituencies. Reconstituting the former is, I believe, much easier than the latter.


Reform and Development


The functional constituencies are potentially of immense value precisely because they address a wide range of economic and social concerns that are not adequately represented through geographic constituencies. However, we have to realize that their current set-up is incongruent with the three elements of the democratic ideal. This is morally unacceptable. What is worse from an economic perspective is that this arrangement serves the interests of the service providers and not the customers. As such, our political incentives are structured to defend existing interests rather than promote social harmony and economic prosperity.


It is well worth exploring, however, ways to reconstitute the election of representatives in the functional constituencies, not only for the reasons I have raised above but because they affect both the nomination of the Chief Executive and the election of members to the Legislative Council in a politically substantive way. How we reform this element of the political landscape in Hong Kong at this juncture, where time is very limited and the stakes are very high, is critical for the near and distant future.


Reconstituting the elections to functional constituencies could suggest a pathway of future political development in Hong Kong and hopefully revive faith in the idea that democratic development should be a process of building institutions and trust among different parties. It would then focus our minds on the central task of building a more representative government that can work effectively for the long-term interest of the Hong Kong people. It is evident that not everyone will be in favor of reconstitution if they are to become losers immediately and permanently. Their interests and concerns would also have to be brought into the process.


I intend to develop these thoughts further next week in the hope of encouraging others to put forward their ideas for people to consider.




YCR Wong, “Core Values, Functional Constituencies and the Democratic Principle,” Hong Kong Economic Journal, 4 April 2012


YCR Wong, “When Society and Politics become a Tyranny of Minorities,” Hong Kong Economic Journal, 19 February 2014



Fifteenth essay in the series on Rekindling Hong Kong’s Magic

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