Hong Kong can be trusted with democracy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 April, 2006, 12:00am

Democratic development in Hong Kong has been sidelined since lawmakers voted down the government's limited reform proposals in December. Why distinguished mainland legal experts yesterday decided to reopen the debate at a forum in Beijing can only be guessed at. But the toughly worded statements are certain to reignite passions. Wang Zhenmin , deputy dean of Tsinghua University's law school, broke new ground by laying down six preconditions for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Veteran Basic Law drafter Xu Chongde questioned democracy's value and argued that it had played into the hands of despots like Adolf Hitler.

The opinions of top mainland legal experts are usually in line with those of the central government. But it would be worrying if the views expressed yesterday reflect Beijing's position on democratic development in Hong Kong. The opinions fail to recognise the value to our city of a more democratic system and instead put further obstacles in the way of progress.

Professor Wang's assertion that Hong Kong is not ready for democracy is difficult to accept. Our city complies with the standards generally applied internationally. Hong Kong has economic prosperity, a free press, a cosmopolitan society and a well-educated population. Professor Wang, however, applies different standards. He says, for example, there is no consensus in Hong Kong on the introduction of universal suffrage. This is correct. But there will always be different views in society. It's rare to have consensus on important political changes. Moreover, consensus is a slippery concept, one which doesn't have any objective measure absent a vote. If Professor Wang really would like to test his idea, he should push for a referendum on universal suffrage.

Professor Wang also cites Hong Kong's failure to safeguard national security by passing new laws under Article 23 of the Basic Law as a reason why we are not ready for universal suffrage. But Hong Kong people would be more receptive to such legislation if they had greater trust in the central government, especially over its position on democratic reform.

The academic argues that Hong Kong's political culture is not yet mature enough for democracy. There is, undoubtedly, a need to groom political talent as we make progress towards a more democratic system. But this involves giving political parties more responsibility. It is ironic that his comments were made on the day the government announced its disappointingly timid proposals to reform the district councils. The district councils are, in part, intended to nurture future political leaders.

Professor Xu's apparent concern that democracy can lead to the rise of rulers like Hitler is overstated. Hitler rose to power by subverting the democratic system - not complying with it. It is true that democratic elections do not always put in place the best leaders. But if the electorate gets it wrong, the system provides a good way of correcting the mistake - the government can be voted out of office at the next poll. Hong Kong people are pragmatic and would choose their leader carefully.

In the years leading up to the 1997 handover, Beijing promised democratic development would be a matter for Hong Kong under the 'one country, two systems' arrangement. It is now clear that this is not the case. Progress will not be made without the blessing of the central government.

Democracy is not like a light switch. It cannot just be turned on one day. There is a need for it to develop. That process has been under way in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. It needs to continue developing, whether through giving district councils more responsibility, making the Legislative Council more accountable or having a representative vote to elect a chief executive.

Universal suffrage would not solve all of Hong Kong's problems. But it would provide an effective mechanism for resolving disputes between competing interests in an increasingly complex society.