(The Chinese version of this essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 22 April 2015.)


There will be few surprises when the Government’s proposal for political reform in 2017 is tabled in the Legislative Council today. The key contents were been reported in the media last week. Carrie Lam, Rimsky Yuen and Raymond Tam have urged the public not to harbor false hopes that the August 31 decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress will be reversed or softened at the last minute. If this is true, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, then the pan-democrat legislators are expected to veto the proposal, as they have repeatedly stated this is their unified position.


Ideologically, what is under dispute is whether Hong Kong should accept what the pan-democrats call “genuine” versus “false” democracy. In practical terms, the contest is about whether the pan-democrats will be able to capture more than a third of the seats in the 2016 Legislative Council election so that they can continue to hold veto power over future political reform proposals. The coming two months will be the first stage in the contest over who can make the most convincing case to hold this veto power, in a highly contorted election system that magnifies minority preferences through proportional representation in the geographic constituencies.


Both pan-democrats and the establishment must win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s voters.


The following two months and beyond will see intense attempts by both camps to mobilize popular support.


The pan-democrats aim to keep their support with their minority. The establishment hopes to mobilize the majority for its cause.  It is highly unlikely this will be a contest of reason, but only of unreason, of irrationality, of will. This is a huge pity for it will push society another step closer to protracted political confrontation – the root cause of all tyrannies. Unfortunately, there are elements in both camps that would rather see this happen.


Society today is being invited to consider whether to accept “pocketing it first.” This is a very unfortunate choice of terminology. It allows those opposed to the offer to claim that it falls short of expectation, to invite us to reject it, and to wait for something better. It makes the attainment of perfection the enemy of making any progress.


Consider the history of democratic political development in England. The first constitutional step to limit the powers of the British monarch was adopted in 1217 with the introduction of the Magna Carta, but universal suffrage was not introduced until 1918.


Along the way there were many twists and turns. When King John of England first signed it on 15 June 1215, he had no intention of keeping his commitment. The group of rebel barons immediately went to war with the unpopular King. After John’s death his son Henry III reissued the document in 1216 in an unsuccessful bid to build political support. At the end of the war in 1217, it formed part of the peace treaty. Henry III reissued the charter again in 1225 in exchange for a grant of new taxes; his son, Edward I, repeated the exercise in 1297, this time confirming it as part of England’s statute law.


The Magna Carta promised only the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. Still, every step in political reform left a footprint. And every step counted to the final goal.


Democracy as a political system is defended morally for upholding equal human rights. This is of course the rallying call of the opposition majority in battle. In practice, democracy is a workable political arrangement where the opposition majority has successfully captured the political power once monopolized by a 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. This is only possible if the ruling minority does not feel too threatened by the opposition majority. An accommodation is reached.


The greater the conflict between the ruling minority and the opposition majority, the more they will seek to deny opportunities to the other to participate effectively in policymaking. And the more costly it becomes for each to tolerate the other. Incumbents will democratize when either the cost of tolerating the opposition falls, so that they are prepared to enfranchise them, or the cost of repression becomes too high.


Democracy has been hailed as the rule of the majority while respecting minority interests. The first minority it accommodated was the ruling elite. Their interests were protected through all sorts of constitutional arrangements, for example, bicameralism.


A second outcome is that if a power sharing agreement cannot be reached, then the ruling minority proceeds to repress the opposition majority. Sometimes the opposition majority proceeds to annihilate the ruling minority. Whichever side wins, democracy is lost. The political bitterness in the aftermath of such confrontations cannot be easily cured, and peace is kept by imposing authoritarian rule for long periods.


France was the first nation to adopt universal male suffrage in 1792, three years after the French Revolution, when the National Convention was elected by all males 25 and over. In the subsequent year, King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine. Over the following 82 years, France experienced profound political upheaval, with republican, monarchist and Bonapartist governments ruling at various times. Through these changes, suffrage increased and decreased based on the introduction, repeal and reintroduction of various degrees of universal, property and census-based suffrage. The Constitutional Law of 1875, which provided universal male suffrage, ended the turmoil and extended the franchise.


French political history is tumultuous compared to that of the English. The willingness to accommodate is the critical defining difference between the two. 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 members of the local ruling coalition and the public at large because it wisely promised to preserve the same kind of life for the people of Hong Kong 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 to be a set of political arrangements that envisaged a popularly-elected executive and legislature to be constituted in a step-by-step process.


British colonial rule was buttressed by the rule of law and a commitment to preserve civic and economic freedoms. The ruling coalition comprised the colonial masters, established businessmen and professionals, and a loyal civil service. The arrangement succeeded in delivering justice and prosperity for all and not only the members of the ruling coalition. In so doing, it made the authoritarian political arrangements acceptable or at least tolerable.


Replacing the authoritarian colonial master with democratic institutions in a peaceful and orderly manner could only be achieved through mutual accommodation and respect for the diverse interests of all. Violent adversarial confrontation threatens to derail the process of peaceful democratic evolution.


The big issue today is whether the government’s proposal for political reform should be vetoed this summer. The position advanced by the opposition pan-democrats is that the proposal does not bring “genuine” democracy and may even abort the process of democratic evolution.


The big issue for the people of Hong Kong, and one that was the central concern of the Basic Law at the time it was prepared, is how to preserve their way of life for 50 years after 1997. The question of what happens after 2047 also has to be clarified in due course.


Will vetoing the government’s reform proposal advance this central concern of the public? There are two issues to consider.


First, reconstituting the political rules of society kindles intense infighting among different domestic interests. Economic globalization and repeated economic crises have made matters worse in Hong Kong, as wealth disparity and lack of income growth have created a more unequal society and fuelled populist redistribution policy ideas. Such political sentiments are contrary to the preservation of civic and economic freedoms cherished in the colonial era, and which the Basic Law was originally drafted seeks to preserve.


Second, Beijing is a deeply interested party and has an important role to perform in safeguarding the implementation of the Basic Law. One critical role is to provide a balanced handling of the opposing interests in society. Some believe that the best thing is for Beijing to stay out of local disputes. This is wishful thinking because local interests will seek to involve Beijing in their disputes in order to prevail over their opponent.


A balanced handling of local disputes is a win-win for all. But this depends on all local interested sides maintaining a balanced relationship with Beijing. Unfortunately this is impossible because the democratic opposition has continued to confront Beijing over 4 June 1989. This was sometimes an opportunistic means to win more votes in local elections.


Once the establishment and opposition engage Beijing in an increasingly uneven way, local politics becomes polarized, adversarial and confrontational. Trust between Beijing and Hong Kong is lost to the detriment of democratic political reforms. Prolonged conflict is the root cause of all tyrannies.


What will be the state of affairs after the government’s political reform proposal is rejected later this summer? 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 are able to retain their grip on more than one-third 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.


This is of course a step backward on the path to greater accountability and representative government. It is simply another form of repression. If the voice of the moderate democrats becomes silent, then existing gains would backslide even further as the Legislative Council degenerates into a Roman Coliseum.


This is most unfortunate because the effects of economic globalization and economic crises in the past 30 years have left Hong Kong economically and socially scarred, with slow growth in incomes and greater inequality. These problems urgently need to be addressed.


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. Such a situation only benefits those who see politics and history as an unending history of struggles and confrontations. The people of Hong Kong have thrived because they understand what to go after and what to accommodate. They know that our prosperity and freedoms were built one step at a time and that every step counts.


It is time that we realize that this matters to the development of our political democracy, too.


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