Process derailed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2009, 12:00am

A great collision is about to occur. There's going to be such a big bang that Hong Kong will take a long time to pick up the pieces. We're still picking up the pieces from the last crash, back in 2005, when the democracy camp derailed Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's political reforms, claiming they were fake.

Hong Kong's democracy train has been stuck on the tracks since then, waiting to restart. The longer it is kept waiting, the harder it is to get it moving again. Tsang wants to get the train going again, but slowly, chugging towards only partial democratic reforms for the next round of elections in 2012.

The democrats see that as yet another underhand move to slow democracy's advance. They want a faster train that will arrive at democracy's door by 2012 - or, to at least travel on tracks that will give the people a good view of what Beijing's promise of full-blown democracy will look like. They want exact details now of the promised universal suffrage due to start in 2017 for the chief executive election and then for all the legislature in 2020.

Two things can happen. Tsang can comply or the democrats can compromise. But the trouble is that Tsang is powerless to comply - the decision rests with Beijing - and the democrats are in no mood to compromise.

That leaves the democracy train rusting in the middle of nowhere, shunted up a siding, and waiting to be hitched to a new engine.

It is now the calm before the crash. Everyone is waiting for Tsang's proposals. The democrats think they can force his hand with political gimmickry.

One idea is that, if Tsang doesn't prevent a crash by providing a detailed democracy road map, a democratic legislator will resign from each constituency, thereby forcing a by-election that will be dubbed a 'referendum' on democracy.

This suggestion has divided, rather than united, democrats, many of whom fear voters will correctly see it more as a show that wastes public time and money than a solution.

The other idea is even more hare-brained. It involves voting down Tsang's reform proposals and then demanding that he dissolve the legislature to trigger fresh elections that can serve as a democracy referendum.

It is a hare-brained idea because it presumes Tsang will go along with this game plan. His aides have already laughed it off. Indeed, the constitution doesn't require him to dissolve the legislature if his democracy proposals fail.

Both sides have painted themselves into tight corners. Tsang is on record as saying his proposals will only deal with the 2012 elections as the next step towards full democracy.

The democrats have already rejected this, even though they have yet to see the proposals. Beijing is not in the habit of blinking first, especially on the issue of Hong Kong democracy. And the democrats, after having blocked what they considered too small a step towards democracy in 2005, don't seem to have thought through the consequences of further pig-headedness.

Forget what they say about politics being the art of compromise. Politics in free societies these days is more about the art of confrontation. But, if ever there was a Hong Kong case for compromise, it is on the democracy issue. Polls show that the people want democracy. But they also show that the people prefer compromise to stalemate.

Actually, that's not hard to achieve. It simply requires Tsang to move far enough down the democracy road for the 2012 elections to prove Beijing's sincerity in allowing full democracy thereafter. And it requires the democrats to simply believe in Beijing's sincerity.

But if the two sides repeat history by crashing again over how fast the democracy train travels, the wreckage they create will be a lasting reminder of the impotence of Hong Kong politics. It will be a testament to how short a leash Beijing has on Tsang and how short-sighted the democrats are.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster