Try selling this suffrage deal in New York

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 December, 2003, 12:00am

'The introduction of elections of chief executive and all seats of Legco through universal suffrage amounts to abolition of the business sector's rights to participate in politics.'

Peter Woo,

Chairman, Wharf (Holdings)

IT IS NOT the first time we have heard this sort of thing from Mr Woo and he is not the only one to hold this opinion of universal suffrage. It is tycoon talk and tycoons, some of whom perhaps got their status more by marriage than by dint of sharp wits and hard work (now whom could I be thinking of here?), indulge in it readily.

Their line has it that Hong Kong is different because it is a business town. Everyone knows this. It is plain for all to see. Therefore political models elsewhere do not apply. In Hong Kong, business must have an appropriate representation and any attempt to unseat the business constituency through universal suffrage is a dangerous distortion of political reality.

The trouble is that I do not see what is plain for all to see. I agree that Hong Kong is a business town, but I do not see that this makes it different from any other town.

Every town I have ever visited is a business town. Take away the business and you have no town. No one would earn money and no one could buy the next meal. Every working person in every town engages in business at some level, perhaps not as a tycoon but, if there were no employees, there would also be no tycoons.

Hong Kong is perhaps different in that it is more of a hub of financial and trading activity than other towns are but, if the definition of business is managing other people's economic activities while not getting your own hands dirty, then we are squarely in the camp of New York and London.

And I do not hear businessmen in those two cities protesting that universal suffrage amounts to abolition of their rights to participate in politics. Hong Kong is certainly unique in that regard.

Let us assume, however, that there is justice in Mr Woo's argument. The question then becomes whether it is only the business sector that should have these rights. We have a medical sector too plus an educational sector, a legal sector, a labour sector, a sports sector, even a catering sector. Should they not also have representation?

But they do, you say. They all have functional constituency seats in the Legislative Council.

Very well, but then why should we have general elections at all? If every adult can claim membership of some working constituency, then why not just hold elections by working instead of geographic constituency? You probably have more ties to your career than you do to the district in which you bought a flat. Perhaps our electoral arrangements should reflect this.

The big difficulty here, of course, is the one that got Chris Patten into so much trouble in his governorship when he tried to introduce universal suffrage to functional constituencies. No go. Beijing would not have it. The voting lists are restricted to a few select people who happen to hold top jobs in these constituencies.

Remember this when Mr Woo refers to the business sector. He means business widely but he means sector narrowly. His sector is a small number of wealthy magnates and professionals who may speak for their industries but are just as likely to speak for Beijing first, which is why Beijing wanted things this way, and for themselves second. What Mr Woo means is the established elite.

Now you may of course say, and you will find this view well echoed among these people, that the elite are the natural rulers. They are likely to be brighter, more energetic and better educated people and they certainly have more at stake than do public housing tenants who have invested little in Hong Kong.

Perhaps, but then find me the wealthy magnate whose idea of what is good for Hong Kong differs from his idea of what is good for himself. If there is one thing that plutocracy has proved certain to create, it is monopolies, cartels and a thousand other market-rigging ideas for the benefit of the plutocrats. We already have evidence aplenty of it here. You get worse, not better government this way.

And who is to say that the public housing tenant truly has less at stake? He has his life and that is a mighty big stake. What he wants with that life is opportunity and he is just as entitled to it as is his boss. It is what he seeks with his vote, just as his boss does, and it gives him as much stake as his boss has.

But the truly unusual thing in all this is that a newspaper columnist should have to read lessons on civic responsibilities to a man who is active in civic politics and who has even stood for the highest office in our town. You should have been taught these civics lessons in primary school, Mr Woo.