Regina Ip's rethink on democracy welcome

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2006, 12:00am

When Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee left the government - and Hong Kong - after the controversy over national security laws, few would have predicted she would be back to confound both her detractors in Hong Kong and her admirers in Beijing. The controversial official, who warned in 2002 that democracy was not a panacea and had led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, now recognises that direct elections offer a way out of 'the many governance problems experienced by Hong Kong'.

The former secretary for security made herself unpopular with her confrontational defence of the government's planned national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law and became a main target of the pro-democracy movement.

After a spell under the tutelage of renowned academics at Stanford University in California, she appears to have undergone a conversion. In the summary of her master's degree thesis, which we publish today, she is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for direct elections for the Legislative Council and the chief executive by 2012. She ends by telling Hong Kong 'the future lies in our hands and we, the people, should grasp the democratic moment'. This is not the sort of rhetoric we are used to hearing from Mrs Ip.

In her summary, she correctly identifies key flaws in the political system put in place under the Basic Law. Mrs Ip points out that the strict separation between Legco and the Executive Council means that the much-touted notion of executive-led government exists in name only. She boldly suggests that consideration should be given to amending the Basic Law to restore the direct link between the executive and the legislature that used to exist in colonial times, but to do it 'in a full-fledged representative democracy'.

She also recognises the crucial role of political parties in developing democracy in Hong Kong, and calls for them to be strengthened. These are all matters that Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and the members of the Commission on Strategic Development - currently considering the way ahead - should accept.

The challenge lies in bringing about the transformation that Mrs Ip envisages. A parliamentary-style system in which the government is formed from members of the legislature is one way to provide the 'organic nexus' between the executive and the legislature, which Mrs Ip says is needed.

But the Basic Law does not provide for such a system. It envisages a weak Legco which acts as a limited check on the government, rather than governing itself. Amendments may well be necessary if Hong Kong is to have the sort of system Mrs Ip seems to have in mind.

And then there is the question of ensuring that the system complies with the underlying principles of the Basic Law. Mrs Ip says these principles, which include balanced representation and facilitation of the capitalist economy, must be respected and that a way must be found to ensure that the business and professional community retains a pivotal role.

There is no reason why the introduction of direct elections should deprive these groups of such a role. Business people and professionals occupy influential positions in other parts of the world that have fully representative governments. But finding a way of reassuring these members of society - and Beijing - that direct elections are not a threat to them will be key to achieving consensus. Perhaps that is what Mrs Ip has in mind.

There is still much work to be done before Hong Kong can realise the 'ultimate goal' of universal suffrage provided for by the Basic Law. Progress, however, must be made - and made soon. Further details of Mrs Ip's vision for the future are needed, before she can be declared a champion of democracy. But with her long experience of government, good relations with Beijing and apparently new-found democratic ideals, Mrs Ip could make a valuable contribution to Hong Kong's political development.