Why Article 23 and an open vote belong together

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am


There is bad news for anyone hoping things will calm down on the political front after the present Legislative Council term ends in a few weeks' time. After a summer pause, pandemonium is likely to break out at a higher pitch than ever.

First will come the Legco election when we can expect some pretty lively campaigning, especially for the five seats to be returned by the new 'super' constituencies. Then the council will assemble to hear the first policy address from the new chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

In addition to addressing a flurry of urgent socio-economic issues, Leung is going to have to lay out the framework for two political hot potatoes: the next stage of our democratic development, and how to take forward our obligation to enact national security legislation.

Taking the Legco election first, the issue of what to do with the 35 functional constituencies, in particular the 30 rotten-borough equivalents, looms large. Ultimately, they are going to have to be abolished but it is unlikely this can be done in one go. Reform of any kind will require support from members of constituencies that most need to be changed, and this won't be easy. Turkeys, after all, are not famous for voting for Christmas.

Perhaps the most that could be achieved in the first phase would be substantial reform. A good way to start would be to set a minimum number of voters for each functional constituency - say 20,000. Any that can broaden their electorate in this way could stay at least for the 2016 election.

In the run-up to 2020, the people could decide whether to go a step further - ramping up the minimum number of voters or scrap the functional constituencies altogether.

These are just options to mull over. But we should all be clear about one thing: standing still in 2016 is not an option if we are to achieve democracy by the target year of 2020.

People will want to hear Leung's thoughts on the subject. The 2013 policy address would be the last possible occasion for fairly detailed proposals to be floated, so some preliminary thoughts this year would be a useful start.

Similarly with the nomination process for the chief executive election in 2017. This should not be pushed back beyond next year, because the public will want some idea of how this is going before reaching a firm opinion on the proposals for Legco.

A Civic Party member wrote in these pages last week that the Basic Law is a contract that cannot be breached. He is correct, but it does rather beg the question of when his party - and other members of the pan-democratic camp - will be prepared to consider our obligation to enact legislation required to comply with Article 23.

Why do I think the subjects of democracy and national security are linked? From Beijing's perspective, what is the justification for the democratisation of Hong Kong, in accordance with some sections of the Basic Law, when Legco is not prepared to enact national security legislation required by another section? Surely only a community mature enough to implement the latter is fit for the former.

Similarly, as seen from the democratic benches, why should we risk proceeding with the controversial legislation without the safeguard of a fully democratically elected legislature?

Is there scope for a deal here? I think so, but no one is going to like it much. The Hong Kong government and Beijing are going to have to go further and faster than they might like with the democratisation process. And the pan-democrats are going to have to accept we do need to take up the subject of national security legislation in a serious way.

A bold plan for democracy could get us everything. A feeble plan will get us nothing except the biggest July 1 march in our history and a filibuster that could last for months.

Each side may take some consolation in the words of Mary Poppins: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk