(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 27 May 2015.)
The pro-democracy camp has long petitioned the Hong Kong government and Beijing for the full implementation of universal suffrage as indicated in Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which delineates the requirements for electing the chief executive. The two key passages are:
“The chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.”
“The method for selecting the chief executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
In December 2007, the Standing Committee of the Tenth National People’s Congress further ruled “that the election of the fifth chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the year 2017 may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage; that after the chief executive is selected by universal suffrage, the election of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may be implemented by the method of electing all the members by universal suffrage…”
The above three paragraphs laid out the critical elements for the establishment of a system of government in Hong Kong based on universal suffrage.
After it became clear that sovereignty over Hong Kong would be restored from Britain to China in 1997, it became necessary to introduce a more representative system of government in order to preserve the confidence of the people of Hong Kong in the future. Under the British colonial government, some steps were taken to progress towards this goal, a goal on which London and Beijing did not always see eye to eye.
The initial changes were almost exclusively limited to reforming the legislature. Instead of having appointed legislators, a system of elected ones was introduced in stages. The creation of functional seats and geographical seats provided a mixed balance of political voices so different constituents in society could be represented in the legislature. This balance gave greater influence to the existing ruling coalition representing business and professional interests, which was in fact the established practice under the British colonial administration.
The political reform that was introduced simply formalized and institutionalized the power of these constituents in the political structure. The political arrangements in fact transferred political power from the executive, represented by the British governor, to the various constituencies that had political representation in the legislature. Under British colonial rule, the powers of these constituencies were not formally institutionalized. Before these changes, the British governor was the legitimating source of the appointed legislators. The original executive-led government in effect lost power and authority as a consequence.
The subsequent promulgation of the Basic Law and the departure of the British colonial government continued a process that further eroded executive authority. This came about through a number of developments. First, the Chief Executive, having lost his authority to appoint legislators, discovered he was at the mercy of numerous organized narrow special interests in the legislature, coming from both the geographical and functional constituencies.
Second, the conflict between functional and geographical constituencies in the legislature emerged as a contest over the democratic principle and the implementation of elections through universal suffrage. The vilification of the functional constituencies as a non-democratic and pro-establishment institution that should be abolished gained growing popular and moral support.
Third, both of these developments happened very rapidly due to a combination of factors:
(1) June-fourth became a watershed event for democratic parties. It became clear that the fear towards Beijing had a powerful moral appeal that could be transformed into political votes at the ballot box. The push to abolish functional constituencies was portrayed as a defense of universal suffrage and a moral victory for democracy. The expansion of geographical constituencies came to be depicted more as a moral victory than a consolidation and expansion of the democrats’ own power base and narrow interests.
(2) The misguided tactical creation of proportional representation fragmented the geographical vote. Narrow interests became even narrower. This was not entirely apparent at the beginning because popular elections in geographical constituencies commanded an aura of moral authority. The appearance of democratic elections provided a cover for the pursuit of narrow interests.
(3) The growing hostility between the democrats and Beijing was of course exploited by some establishment interests to their advantage, to preserve their hold on power through some of the functional constituencies. In so doing, they became further vilified in the eyes of the supporters of the democrats. Beijing, too, was vilified in the process as a protector of narrow interests that were loyal to the central government rather than to the people.
(4) The rapid emergence of a growing economic and social divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” made it appear that many supporters of functional constituencies were beneficiaries of an exploitative system that was the source of rising inequality. Radical narratives of Hong Kong’s situation emerged within the pan-democratic camp. Grassroots radicalism gained an exaggerated voice by virtue of the proportional representation arrangements for the geographical elections to the legislature.
The rise of radical narratives to describe Hong Kong’s economic and social condition is not difficult to understand, even though it is incorrect as an analysis of our situation and it has held moderates to hostage. The reaction and conservatism of the entrenched establishment reveals that increasingly they have become the voices of their own divided narrow interests. The politics of narrow interests dominate both the pan-democratic camp and the establishment.
Even though some of these voices portray themselves as representatives of the public interest, they are increasingly viewed with skepticism. The rise of filibuster actions in the legislature is primarily responsible for this change in attitude. Filibuster was invented as a democratic instrument to protect the vital interests of minorities against majoritarian tyranny in a democracy. This is an important element in the democratic system, but in Hong Kong it has become a defense for minorities, not the interests of the majority of the people. It has even gone further to harm the interests of the majority.
The abuse of filibuster actions is testimony to the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the radical narrative. In its final days, the long unending Occupy movement also turned public opinion against the radical elements that held the movement to hostage.
The most significant development in the struggle to introduce a democratic system of government in Hong Kong was the December 2007 ruling by the Standing Committee of the Tenth National People’s Congress to conduct the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage ahead of the Legislative Council. The sequencing of the two steps gave hope to those concerned with Hong Kong’s future development that it might be possible to restore a healthier balance in our political system and allow democracy to have a genuine chance to do good.
Organized narrow interests are an increasingly uncontrolled force in modern society. They have become a fundamental threat to the proper functioning of political democracies, open societies, and market economies. I have discussed at great length their detrimental effect on economic development. There is also recognition that the rise of minorities is becoming a threat to basic universal civic rights, including the freedom of speech and of beliefs. Becoming “politically correct” is a modern form of tyranny.
The December 2007 ruling, in principle, held out hope that through the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage, then embracing the necessary reforms of the legislature, the rampant narrow interests to whom the Chief Executive is currently beholden and held hostage could be tamed. If this could happen, Hong Kong’s future would not continue to derail as it has in the past three decades. To be sure, the necessary legislative reform would threaten the political stakes of all parties – pan-democrats and establishment alike. One would expect them to be highly concerned about the process of nominating and electing the Chief Executive.
It cannot be ruled out that some of the pan-democratic and establishment interests threatened by the prospect of legislature reform would privately wish that the Chief Executive is not elected by universal suffrage in 2017. Their interests may be better served if the reform proposal is unacceptable to the coalition of pan-democrat legislators. More likely outcomes would be if the opposition were held hostage to a radical narrative that contravened the Basic Law and was totally unacceptable, or if the government proposal were so harsh and onerous that it would be too difficult to accept.
For a political reform proposal to be approved, it must deliver a reasonable compromise that does not threaten the interests of all stakeholders excessively. Finding an acceptable solution is difficult enough. Finding a feasible pathway to it is equally difficult.
As it happened, the most significant political development in Hong Kong since December 2007 was the Occupy Central movement, an idea advanced by Benny Tai only in January 2013. It was proposed initially as an act of civil disobedience carried out in Central to put pressure on the government if its universal suffrage proposals were not acceptable.
In subsequent deliberations, the Occupy Central movement demanded that the government proposal should satisfy “international standards” in relation to universal suffrage. At the final stage of preparations, the movement in effect endorsed the proposition that public nomination was the only acceptable proposal to achieve “genuine” democracy.
This public nomination position had been rejected by major pan-democratic political parties in deliberations that took place in 2009, after it was proposed by radical legislator Leung Kwok-Hung of the League of Social Democrats. It is likely the true leadership of the Occupy Central movement had in effect been captured, at least through thought leadership, if not by strategic manipulation.
While the Occupy Central movement drew attention to the dominance of narrow establishment interests in the Selection Committee for the Chief Executive, it also revealed how the pan-democrat camp was beginning to fall victim to the manipulations of radical elements. It is not inconceivable that reactionary and conservative elements in the establishment actually welcomed the radicalization of the democratic movement.
This would not be the first time in Hong Kong’s history, and indeed human history, when the interests of the few, indeed of the many divided few, succeeded in dominating the interests of the broader public. Political contests, unlike economic competition in the marketplace, unfortunately often lead to negative sum outcomes.
A Chief Executive elected through universal suffrage has become perceived as a threat by certain narrow interests on both sides of the political divide. The more each side threatens the other, the greater likelihood that political reforms will become stalled. Rejecting the current proposal serves only the interests of a few narrow, well-organized political elements on both sides.
The classic feature of such a failure is characterized by economists as the “smart for one and dumb for all” syndrome (also known as the prisoner’s dilemma game). The machinations of narrow interests have pushed both the establishment and the pan-democrats into a political dead end.
A friend of mine related the following story. It contains the germ of an idea that could lead us out of the current impasse. In 1971, tobacco advertisements were officially banned in the US. The lobbying effort of the anti-smoking movement was successful because the heavily cartelized tobacco industry actually recognized that banning advertisements was in their interest as it saved them a lot of unnecessary expenses that ate into their profits. Tobacco advertisements did not increase the total sales of tobacco, but merely changed the relative market share of different brands. It was a “win-win” solution for both the anti-smoking movement and the tobacco companies to have government impose the ban, but for all stakeholders not to openly talk about its real effects.
The analogy is that every legislator must cease to hold each other hostage and openly declare that each of them should vote their conscience for the interest of Hong Kong- exactly opposite to Hong Kong’s path to democracy to date. It may be too late to change the outcome this time, but unless we realize our true situation, there can be no hope for the future. Hopefully, there may still be a small chance that a final accommodation can be found. The final victory would then be for the people of Hong Kong and for Beijing, rather than the minorities that have ransomed our future.