Tsang, democracy's dangling modifier

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2009, 12:00am

When Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen campaigned for re-election in 2007, he sounded like a fervent supporter of democracy, vowing that, if elected, he would 'resolve the universal suffrage issue before 2012' and would not leave it to his successor.

Soon after his new term began, that July, the government published a green paper on political reform to solicit public views, including whether universal suffrage should be implemented in 2012, and the chief executive sent a report to Beijing on the outcome of that consultation.

That December, the National People's Congress Standing Committee said universal suffrage shall not be used in choosing either the chief executive or the Legislative Council in 2012. However, it decided that the chief executive could be chosen by universal suffrage in 2017 and that the entire legislature could subsequently also be elected by universal suffrage.

Tsang explained that this meant the entire legislature could be elected by universal suffrage in 2020. So, after years of struggle, Hong Kong finally had a timetable for implementing universal suffrage.

Since then, however, Tsang has acted as though his mission was accomplished and all he now had to do was prepare for the 2012 elections. But that is not true. Tsang promised to thoroughly resolve the universal suffrage issue and not leave it to be handled by his successor. He is doing precisely that.

In his 2007 policy address, delivered that October, Tsang said: 'Promoting democracy is a constitutional responsibility vested in the chief executive ... under the Basic Law. It is my responsibility to take Hong Kong towards universal suffrage.'

Brave words, but they are no longer being spoken today. Indeed, he has indicated that the public consultation later this year will be confined to the 2012 elections.

Indeed, the Tsang administration is making it quite clear that the method for holding the 2017 election will be dealt with by the next chief executive, and that the 2020 Legco election will be the responsibility of the chief executive to be elected in 2017. This is evidently the result of Beijing telling Tsang unequivocally to confine himself to the 2012 election, after which his term expires.

The Standing Committee decision made it clear that the method of electing the chief executive in 2017 will be decided closer to that date. While saying the election of the chief executive in 2017 'may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage', it went on to say: 'At an appropriate time [prior to that election], the chief executive shall make a report to the Standing Committee ... as regards the issue of amending the method for selecting the chief executive...'

That is to say, just as Tsang had reported in 2007 on the 2012 election, so the next chief executive should report, no sooner than 2012, on the 2017 election.

Similarly, 'at an appropriate time prior to the election of all members of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong SAR by universal suffrage', the then-chief executive 'shall make a report to the Standing Committee' regarding the precise method for holding such an election.

Beijing has made its wishes known. Tsang, it seems, must accept it. His promise of resolving the universal suffrage issue before his term ends lies in tatters.

But how did this happen? Could Tsang have made promises that he knew Beijing would not allow him to keep? That is very unlikely. Certainly, his policy address is vetted by Chinese officials before it is delivered and so, in October 2007, Beijing must have agreed that he could promise 'to take Hong Kong towards universal suffrage'.

That promise was made two months before the Standing Committee's decision. It seems Beijing had second thoughts about agreeing to both a timetable and a road map to universal suffrage before 2012. So Tsang was left to twist in the wind by himself.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.