(This essay was published in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on 29 October 2014.)
My disappointment with the 31 August decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress stems from my fear that Hong Kong might have lost the chance of having a Chief Executive elected through universal suffrage in 2017.
Hong Kong needs political reforms to address two critical problems. The first relates to the deep economic and social contradictions that have arisen in here from economic globalization and China’s opening. Coherent and sustainable policies are needed to deal with them but there will be fundamental disagreements and debates about what these should be. The Basic Law provides some guidance, but the answers to many issues are not entirely clear and not without controversy. There is a danger that the future government policies could compromise the core values Hong Kong has depended upon for its past successes.
The second problem relates to the present political gridlock and open confrontation on the streets and in the legislature, which is preventing government from taking effective policy actions and is compromising its ability to govern well. A continuing pattern of incessant political struggle in the legislature will produce stagnation or at best a mixed bag of disparate policies approved by chance or contrivance, not ones that are coherent and sustainable. Those who hope that legislation affecting people’s livelihood issues will survive are speaking from their hearts not their heads.
Only when the head of government is accountable to the broad electorate will there be any hope that the present political gridlock can be broken, and Hong Kong’s deep economic and social contradictions be addressed. Only a popularly elected Chief Executive will have any real chance of uniting people, ending the bickering, and putting a halt to polarization.
Building such a consensus will be a massive task and it will require the backing of the ballot box to make it happen. Waiting until 2022 or 2027 to introduce political reform would be disastrous for Hong Kong. The present divisions would become exacerbated and even more opportunities would be lost, some unrecoverable.
Under the “Five-Step” process for political reform, the first two steps have been completed. The next two steps are now critical. Whether these can be carried out with success depends on reaching political agreement between the members of the legislature and the government. If the final agreement complies with the constitutional arrangements, it will also have the blessing of Beijing.
Reaching an agreement on the Chief Executive election would be a significant accomplishment because it would reflect agreement on not just a single isolated issue, but also an understanding on how to take forward political reform.
Some protesters on the streets and some pan-democrat legislators want the August 31st decision to be rescinded. Without getting into a discussion of why I think this is neither necessary nor feasible, let me focus on the issue of how to take forward the “Five-Step” process under the present circumstances.
Going forward is much better than going backwards and rescinding the decision because time will not be lost. Going forward would minimize further damage to whatever remaining trust exists among different parties.
But two conditions have to be met for the “Five-Step” process to move forward. First, there must be room for all parties to identify an acceptable political accommodation. Second, political reforms are complex affairs with many different interests so there must be an institutional arrangement that fosters trust among the different parties in working out such an acceptable political consensus.
According to the “Five-Step” process, the Hong Kong government is primarily responsible for taking forward the next two steps of getting Legislative Council endorsement of the electoral methods, and the Chief Executive’s approval. Under current circumstances, the process seems doomed to fail because the level of trust between government and the opposition is at an absolute minimum. Given that the political opposition commands more than one-third minority support in the legislature and is ready to mobilize its support in society, then no political reform proposal can be approved without their agreement. The “Five-Step” process becomes merely an empty formal exercise with a forgone conclusion. Hong Kong will not have a popularly elected Chief Executive in 2017, and it will be difficult to see how the “Five-Step” process could be re-started in the near and perhaps not so near future.
A society already divided will find it even more difficult to find grounds for agreement. It will become more difficult to govern. Even keeping together the fringes of the establishment coalition may become challenging.
This could only lead to rising oppression in the name of the people. Government policies would be forced on society in the name of addressing Hong Kong’s deep economic and social contradictions. There would be competing political mobilizations of public support. Politics would no longer be a process of seeking consensus, but of political struggles. This would be disastrous for economic freedoms and civil liberties. At some point, the population would feel tired and alienated.
The election of the Chief Executive in 2017 is the crucial political issue now. The real challenge is not whether the protesters should withdraw from the streets, but rather, how to carry forward political reform. If political reform can be addressed now, then the withdrawal of the protesters will become a non-issue.
I believe there is plenty of room for introducing a more democratic political arrangement even after the August 31st decision. The reformation of the legislature has hardly started. The composition of the Nominating Committee for the Chief Executive (other than the “Four Sectors”) and how their members are to be formed has not been touched on. There are many details still to be worked out on the design of both the nomination process and the election process. How the reforms of the legislature and Chief Executive elections fit together have not been considered at all. The empty spaces that need filling are large enough to make Hong Kong as democratic as the United States and the United Kingdom.
The demands of the opposition to allow public nomination of the Chief Executive and abolish functional constituencies in the legislature are the opening bids of a radical agenda that does not necessarily command majority support even within the opposition coalition. To date, these demands have been rejected on legal grounds and not been given a political counterargument.
But how can the process of negotiations be taken forward when trust is lacking?
A third-party platform is needed to foster such trust among the different parties. The government should appoint a commission composed of individuals of high standing in society, who command a high degree of legitimacy, to submit a recommendation to the government on the future of political reform. This commission’s report should incorporate a broad spectrum of the public’s political aspirations, but in compliance with the constitutional requirements. Its recommendations should be made public. The commission’s work should precede the next stage of the “Five-Step” process.
The work of the commission will not be easy, but it has the advantage of commanding the trust of different parties, including that of the central government.
Political reform is always a complicated task. Political disagreements cannot be resolved easily because they impact on many different and often conflicting interests and aspirations in society. They cannot be resolved solely through negotiations broadcast live on television, nor under the threat of protesters occupying public streets in defiance of the law and the courts.
Prolonged occupation of the streets is an affront to the rule of law. The occupiers have said they intend to surrender themselves to the law to take personal responsibility for their actions. This is laudable, but the real goal should be to win the hearts and minds of the people not to defend public streets.
Trust does not appeared present, but I believe there is still plenty of room to introduce democratic reforms to complete the “Five-Step” process.
Huge stakes are at risk for the people of Hong Kong and, I believe, also for the central government to see a successful completion of the political reforms that will affect the 2017 Chief Executive election and the 2016 Legislative Council election.
Hong Kong today does not need political confrontation to advance towards democracy. The memory of the Cultural Revolution in modern Chinese history is still strong. Beijing is well aware of the disasters of political struggle. Unfortunately shaking off the practices of the past is not easy. This past continues to haunt Chinese politics, and today, political struggle is evident in Hong Kong’s political life.
Hong Kong should resist letting this struggle rule our political future. The development of democracy must be advanced through accommodation and consensus building, and not be dominated by the radical tendencies of the pan-democratic movement. Calling for pan-democrat legislators to resign in order to trigger another so-called “referendum” is an unnecessary escalation of political tension. It will derail all prospects for political accommodation. The gains achieved so far by the Occupy movement will be dissipated as the public turns away and society becomes more polarized.
The Hong Kong Government has a primary responsibility to prevent this by completing the “Five-Step” process and bringing it to a resounding success for the benefit of the people of Hong Kong and for the central government.
Building Blocks for a Narrative on Hong Kong’s Democratic Political Development (Part V)