Democracy timetable offers little solace
Seasoned observers of Hong Kong's political scene and supporters of democracy may have had mixed feelings about Friday's headlines. The big news was the decision of Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming to stand down from the Legislative Council in July after serving as an elected lawmaker since 1985. He expressed regret that his dream of a democratic Hong Kong had not come true.
The other story was on findings of the Commission on Strategic Development's taskforce on electoral reform. Reports quoted constitutional affairs minister Stephen Lam Sui-lung as saying a majority of taskforce members support expanding the number of Legco seats in 2012 from the existing 60 to either 70 or 80.
The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress ruled in December that the 50:50 ratio of directly elected seats to functional constituency seats must remain in 2012. So, any increase in directly elected seats must be matched by a corresponding increase in seats for the trade- and profession-based functional constituencies.
Mr Lam said most members favour allocating five new functional constituency seats to district councillors. Some members suggested women, small and medium-sized enterprises and Chinese herbalists should also get functional constituency seats of their own.
The government, in a paper submitted to the taskforce, compared the number of legislators with the size of legislatures abroad, and said each lawmaker in Hong Kong represented a much higher number of people than did legislators elsewhere.
Mr Lam said having more lawmakers would spread the legislative workload and give more people a chance to participate in the political process.
The idea of expanding Legco smacks of the government's failed blueprint three years ago for electoral reform in 2007 and 2008. It also proposed giving district councils an additional five functional constituency seats in Legco and adding five directly elected seats.
Pan-democratic lawmakers voted down the proposals. They said they could not accept them because they contained no timetable for universal suffrage. They also argued that allowing government-appointed district councillors - of which there were at the time 102 - the same rights as the 400 elected councillors to choose five legislators would be undemocratic.
With memories of this fiasco still vivid, there seems little sense in reviving the 'district council model' without making it more democratic. It would seem sensible to allow only elected district councillors to choose the five legislators, or to elect them by proportional representation - which would allow a fair distribution of seats among the various political groups on district councils.
Any district council model that gives unfair advantage to certain political parties risks a recurrence of the fiasco of 2005.
Now that the NPC Standing Committee has fixed a timetable for universal suffrage, the idea of creating new functional constituency seats makes a mockery of the ultimate goal of democracy. Worse, it will deepen scepticism in some quarters about the commitment of the central government and the Hong Kong administration to universal suffrage.
Mr Lee's imminent retirement from politics reminds us how rough Hong Kong's journey towards democracy has been. He was among the first batch of indirectly elected legislators in 1985 when the colonial government began a belated process of democratisation. Six years later, Mr Lee won a seat in the first direct elections to Legco. Seventeen years on, he can be forgiven for feeling regret that it will take at least another nine years to directly elect our chief executive, and at least another 12 years to have a fully directly elected legislature.
Mr Lee is not alone in feeling frustrated, he and his ilk can take little comfort in the timetable for democracy, given the views emerging from the discussions by the government's electoral reform taskforce.