Universal suffrage

Myth of the 2007 mantra

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 November, 1997, 12:00am

It might almost be called the 2007 mantra. Faced with the near-impossible task of trying to justify the massive reduction in the functional constituency franchise for next year's polls, Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Michael Suen Ming-yeung and his colleagues have done their best to divert attention away from this by instead talking optimistically about the prospects for introducing full democracy in 2007.

The millions who will lose their second vote next May are repeatedly told to forget about this and 'look forward' to a decade from now, when Annex 2 of the Basic Law states changes can be made to Hong Kong's political structure. Article 68, which vaguely refers to an 'ultimate goal' of universal suffrage, is cited ad nauseam to create an impression that full democracy will be a sure bet come 2007.

When tackled on this, Mr Suen even suggested that no one could stand in the way if the community decided this was what it wanted a decade from now. Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang went still further, referring to 'the opportunity in 2007 for the community to take a decision on universal suffrage' in her much-criticised speech defending the new electoral arrangements.

Even Tung Chee-hwa has got in on the act, downplaying the significance of functional constituencies by repeatedly depicting them as only an 'interim arrangement' during speeches in the US and London. And the Chief Executive has also made full use of the 2007 mantra in his efforts to defuse foreign criticism of the jerrymandering of next year's polls.

While this may represent a tactically sound strategy for government officials charged with defending the indefensible, the problem is it has raised expectations about what will happen in a decade's time, to the point where they are virtually certain to be disappointed.

For the Basic Law contains no clear statement that functional constituencies are only an interim arrangement which will fade away. Nor does it contain any timetable for the introduction of full democracy. Certainly, it gives no indication this should be put in place in 2007.

A more plausible interpretation of the mini-constitution's reference to it as the 'ultimate goal' is that the transition to universal suffrage will not be completed until 2047, at the end of the 50-year period covered by the Basic Law.

Nor will many of the officials now making promises about full democracy be around in a decade's time to be reminded about them. 'Where will Michael Suen be by 2007?,' asked former Preparatory Committee member Professor Lau Siu-kai of Chinese University.

'At the present moment, everyone has to insist that we are following a process of democratic evolution under the Basic Law. But I would expect strong resistance to any attempt to increase the number of directly-elected seats in 2007 and it is most likely that there will be no change.' The Basic Law does not even stipulate a review must be held in 2007, let alone require any reforms to be introduced. All Annex 2 does is to set down the obstacles which must be overcome 'if there is a need' for any changes to be made. Chief among these is a requirement that the Chief Executive signal his consent.

If, as seems likely, Mr Tung stays on for a second term, this decision will be his to take. And the Chief Executive has already stated he has not yet made up his mind if it would be right to introduce any reforms in 2007.

Judging from his speeches in Washington, where Mr Tung approvingly referred to the 21 years it took the US to introduce its current constitutional structure, he may well decide 10 years after the handover is too soon for any such major changes.

Certainly, the pressure from conservative opponents of democracy is likely to remain just as intense as it is now. That does not mean there will be no changes in 2007. A modest increase in the number of directly-elected seats remains possible, if only to placate a community which had expected substantially more. But the prospect of universal suffrage is likely to remain almost as remote in 2007 as it is now.