(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 16 April 2014)
In last week’s essay, I showed that politics, especially in a city like Hong Kong that cannot afford to be insular and inward looking, is best organized to reflect the twin concerns of “life” and “work” in a balanced manner. This can be achieved by having two filtering mechanisms for nominating and electing our political representatives. One is geographical constituencies to address “life” issues and the other is functional constituencies for responding to “work” concerns. The latter take up an important role when a place is closely connected to the outside world, as is Hong Kong, by focusing on matters that are inadequately represented by geographical constituencies.
The functional constituencies envisioned here would be more democratic than those currently in place. Under a twin filtering arrangement grounded in the principles of universal suffrage, each eligible voter would cast two votes: one in the geographical constituency where they reside, and the other in a functional constituency that is closest to their current, past and close relative’s work interests. A political system with two filtering devices is more likely to return a balanced spectrum of political representatives in a city that has to respond to a diversity of both internal and external concerns. Such a public decision-making process would better reflect the overall interests of the majority as society gradually changes.
Change is inevitable, especially when our economy and social life are so intimately connected with the external world. Events beyond our control have from time to time impacted our society and these have become critical junctures in our history. The transition at these junctures used to take place under the leadership of a Governor and a government without a political mandate returned through popular elections.
Elections with Equal Participation
But what worked under a colonial administration that took advice from a hand-picked group of economic and social elites is no longer suitable today. Our political aspirations have changed. Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law state that the ultimate aim for selecting the Chief Executive and the members of the Legislative Council should be through election based on universal suffrage. These articles also specify that the method for selection “shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the HKSAR and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.”
It appears, therefore, that if the elected representatives of the various sectors and sub-sectors of the Nomination Committee for Chief Executive and the different functional constituencies of the Legislative Council were all to be selected through universal suffrage, this ultimate aim would be essentially attained. However, the filtering mechanisms in the Nomination Committee and the Legislative Council are not so constituted in two senses.
First, in the Nomination Committee the principle of universal suffrage does not apply to the election of representatives. Not every eligible voter can choose its representatives. Second, although every voter can cast a vote in the functional constituencies of the Legislative Council, individual voter participation in each functional constituency is not on an equal and fair basis.
Most functional constituencies are organized to represent producers rather than consumers. The five “super-district” constituencies are essentially a residual category that appears to rationalize a tortured implementation of the principle of universal suffrage.
Reconfiguring the functional constituency elections for the Nomination Committee and the Legislative Council would be consistent with the ultimate aims of Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law. The ecology of political life in Hong Kong would certainly improve and become less divisive and dominated by minority interests in three ways.
First, functional constituencies based on universal suffrage would be a means for taking into account Hong Kong’s vital links with today’s globalized and networked world. Hong Kong’s economy depends on these global linkages and it should not construct a democratic political system that is unresponsive to the external environment if it wants to continue to thrive, and indeed to survive.
Second, they would enhance the voices of moderation of the “silent majority” that is essential if majoritarian democracies are to function properly and avoid the tyranny of geographically and functionally entrenched minorities.
Third, producer dominance in the functional constituencies would be better addressed by admitting both producer and consumer representation into functional constituency elections.
Critical Juncture in Building Democracy
If elections in functional constituencies were grounded in universal suffrage with voluntary participation, then they would acquire the moral high ground that they do not now possess. Political representatives would better reflect the common interests of the majority of the people. They would cease to be perceived as chiefly representatives of producers rather than consumers, of the elites rather than the public, and of old interests rather than new and upcoming ones.
Democratic political systems based only on geographical constituencies have a strong built-in tendency to be less responsive to changes in the external environment and too focused on narrow local interests. The fragmentation and divisive tendencies are particularly strong if elections in geographical constituencies adopt voting rules based on proportional representation. This unfortunately is how Hong Kong does it.
Countries in Europe that have adopted this voting method are more politically and socially divided and their economies have experienced slower growth. Professor Robert Mundell, known as the father of the Euro, called the European Union an idea to prevent Europe from sinking. Monetary union was intended to provide much needed fiscal discipline that was lacking in the political democracies of Europe.
Singapore as a city economy also has to thrive and survive by responding to changing external environments. To do this it falls back on a popularly elected authoritative. government to ensure agility and responsiveness in its policy strategies. In the process it has chosen to impose limits on its political development. Singapore has yet to develop a truly working model of democracy.
Hong Kong has an exceptional opportunity to choose how to develop its democracy to fit its role as an international economic city. Most democracies in advanced nations were developed when their economies were far less open than they are today, and Hong Kong’s economy is one of the most open of all. Developing Hong Kong’s functional constituencies based on universal suffrage and voluntary participation could become a building block for a new working model of democracy in the modern world. It would remedy the weakness of the current model which is based solely on geographical constituencies inherited from the pre- or early industrial era.
Difficult Road to Universal Suffrage
As mentioned above, Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law make provision for the development of democracy in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. Unfortunately progress has been very limited and not even gradual.
The opening up of the functional constituencies in the Legislative Council in recent years has largely amounted to little. While their numbers have expanded – the first 14 functional constituencies were elected in 1991 and increased to 23 in 1995 and 28 in 1997; in 2000 two of the functional constituencies were replaced – they still are largely comprised of producers, with some voters having greater sway in determining the outcome of their particular functional constituency election.
The main progress in “opening up” the functional constituencies came in 2012 when every voter was allowed two votes to elect one of the 5 new “super-district” constituencies. However, these were in substance based on geographical constituencies even though they were called otherwise. From the perspective of developing a more balanced representation of “life” and “work” concerns, this could even be regarded as negative progress.
Likewise, progress has been immaterial in opening up the Election Committee for the Chief Executive. The original number of seats for functional representatives was set at 800 in 1998 and remained unchanged until 2011, when it was only increased to 1,200. Even this adjustment made only very limited progress because the additional seats were more or less equally distributed among sub-sectors.
No new functional sub-sectors were added and the distribution of seats also not changed. If in 2017 the Nomination Committee remains a close replica of the 2011 Election Committee, then we would have made no progress for two decades.
This prolonged lack of gradual progress now threatens the prospect of making any further orderly advances towards democratic goals.
The insistence by some pan-democrats on direct nomination of candidates for Chief Executive is not difficult to understand, even though legal experts from Beijing insist it will be in violation of the Basic Law. There are two basic reasons for insisting on direct nomination.
First, it appeals to voters who are frustrated at the lack of any real progress in reaching the ultimate aim of electing the Chief Executive by universal suffrage, in a manner that would better reflect the choices of the broad majority of people. This goal has been blocked by the fact that the composition of the Nomination Committee has remained essentially unchanged.
Second, direct nomination is a common element in the political posturing that keeps the coalition of pan-democrats together in a united front. Some in the camp see direct nomination as a strategy for negotiating with Beijing on how the candidates for Chief Executive will be selected. Others see it as a political strategy to ingratiate themselves with frustrated voters by assuming the moral high ground and flooding the media with sound bites and headline news.
Viewed from this perspective, one can regard the proposals by Mr. Tong Ka Wah and Mrs. Anson Chan, the recent proposal by 18 scholars, and other suggestions that drop the element of direct nominations, as bold attempts to make material progress towards the ultimate aim of selecting candidates for Chief Executive by universal suffrage through a more open process. For their efforts they deserve our praise.
Political Development Rooted in Actual Situation
But leaving aside considerations related to strategic manipulation and bargaining, the direct nomination of candidates for Chief Executive is in general not a very desirable filtering mechanism for putting forward political candidates. Whether it contravenes the Basic Law is of course an important matter, but this is not my concern here.
Mature democracies everywhere have relied on political parties to aggregate highly diverse public opinion. The interests and views of the public are seldom unified. More often they are conflicting and extremely diverse. To build public consensus so that majoritarian democracy can still function properly requires political parties to transform the many contradictory and diverse interests and views of the public into a coherent election platform. Without the cohering activities of political parties, the outcomes will remain fragmented and prone to being driven by minorities, as they are now in Hong Kong.
Allowing direct nominations may appear to be opening up the nomination process for Chief Executive, but it would actually further fragment the political system. In light of the slow pace of progress in political reform, it could also become an opportunity to vent frustration, when many diverse interests coalesce behind some popular issue or a charismatic agitator as has happened in the past. This is not in the long term interest of Hong Kong and leaves the future outcome to chance events. If the Nomination Committee lacks sufficient popular representation, the first best solution is to make it more representative rather than to work around it. It is already late for the Nomination Committee to open up in 2017, but not doing so by then risks being too late.
Political development is full of uncertainty and it is natural for Beijing and those in the establishment to be worried about change, especially when the political arrangements that existed under British Colonial rule appeared to have worked well. Indeed some of the institutions and practices of that era are enshrined in the Basic Law. But there still must be some material progress towards implementing universal suffrage even if due emphasis is placed on having a gradual and orderly process. And to do so successfully it is worth remembering a keen observation about political reforms made by the Hong Kong Government in 2007: “it is necessary to take into account both the inclination of LegCo and the aspirations of the public for any constitutional development plan to stand a chance of being implemented.”
I believe introducing a significant element of popular representation into the Nomination Committee would offer such progress. New members could be added to the Nomination Committee (originally the Election Committee) by a more popular political representation process and through functional constituencies. This would open up the possibility of introducing a parallel popular political representation process for electing Legislative Council members in 2020 through functional constituencies.
When both the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council are elected through more popular political representation via functional constituencies, there is better hope of bridging the gap between the executive and legislative sides of government. Both elections would have a significant increase in popular participation and representation, demonstrating material progress in the journey towards a more democratic system of government. Finally, introducing more popular representation through functional constituencies at this time would show full cognizance of Hong Kong’s situation as an international economic city with lofty long-term development aspirations that has nonetheless been mired in divisive and fragmented minority politics. It would dovetail with Article 45 that “the method … shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the HKSAR.”
Seventeenth essay in the series on Rekindling Hong Kong’s Magic