Flimsy arguments

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 January, 2008, 12:00am

Pragmatism has become the tyranny of politics in Hong Kong. The leading political players no longer ask what is right, but what is practical. This seemingly realistic approach to politics is welcomed by many in Hong Kong who pride themselves on their practicality. But it is a dismal and often misleading way of approaching the big issues of the day.

None is bigger than the matter of working out how Hong Kong is to be run and by whom. Instead of approaching this question with vision and a determination to establish which system is most likely to work for the benefit of all, the ruling elite are scraping around to identify the lowest common denominator. They suggest that what matters is finding the system least likely to offend the rulers in Beijing or the vested interests here that oppose change.

Finding solutions that satisfy only those at the top of the tree is considered to be pragmatic. But this kind of thinking is a way of ignoring the real issues and becomes a recipe for creating new problems.

Instead of asking what is right for the development of Hong Kong, the government starts examining the question by wondering how the answer will be received by those whose every instinct points to the preservation of the status quo; those who have nothing to gain from changes that diminish their influence and control.

Looking at the issue this way inevitably produces wrong answers. And this is especially disappointing in a place like Hong Kong, which strives to be world class in every way, yet is prepared to settle for a third-rate system of government. So, how can this problem be overcome? Of course, there is a need for compromise and even for pragmatic thought about what is practical. But the way to begin is not to focus on ways of preserving a status quo that has outlived its usefulness.

To see into the future, and plan for it, requires vision. Lamentably, our leaders have their eyes firmly glued on the ground. Every time a suggestion of aiming high is put forward, they adamantly insist that ambition and enthusiasm should be curbed.

They argue that the people are not 'mature' enough for a better system, that creating an elementary structure of universal suffrage, meaning fair and equal voting rights, somehow does not apply to Hong Kong. And then they begin to list the problems or, more accurately, excuses that surround building an electoral system to compare favourably with the best in the world.

When concentrating on the obstacles to change, as opposed to the possibilities of change, the government performs the remarkable feat of trying to move forwards by moving backwards. But maybe there is a more sinister starting point of government thinking which is not so much characterised by dismal ambition as by artifice. Can it be that, in the name of pragmatism, the government is working hard not to create a truly fair electoral system but to find ways of preserving the influence of those who stand to lose most from a system of universal franchise? To put it bluntly, is the real agenda to preserve the position of legislators who come from the 'rotten boroughs' and would most certainly not be elected in any genuine form of election?

But the so-called pragmatists' real trump card is one that they have willingly given to the big players in Beijing. Instead of accepting at face value the Basic Law's promise of providing the special administrative region with 'a high degree of autonomy', the pragmatists insist that the words 'high' and 'autonomy' can hardly be taken literally.

And when even the National People's Congress endorses the notion of universal suffrage, they are quick to point out that this well-known and universally understood system needs to be somehow tailored to accommodate Beijing's loathing of genuine elections.

Why can we not start from the position of having faith in Hong Kong's constitution and building the best possible electoral system out of it? And why do Hong Kong's leaders pride themselves on the ability to be the world's best counters of paper clips, as opposed to the visionaries planning to create a truly democratic society?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur