Study the map on road to universal suffrage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's recent assertion that universal suffrage elections for the chief executive in 2017 will go ahead even if there are no reforms in 2012 is puzzling. It seems diametrically opposed to what is in the Basic Law and what Beijing officials said two years ago, when the National People's Congress Standing Committee announced its decision.

At the time, Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary general of the NPC, who came to Hong Kong to explain the decision, declared: 'We hope the special administrative region can make progress in 2012. Take one step forward, progress to 2017 stably, and there is the transition. The timetable given by the NPC will be honoured.'

And Rao Geping, an NPC Basic Law Committee member, said if the development of Hong Kong's political system 'comes to a halt in 2012', the conditions for implementing universal suffrage for the chief executive election would not have been met. That is because the Basic Law stipulates 'gradual and orderly progress' in moving towards the election by universal suffrage of both the chief executive and the entire legislature.

Why is the chief executive saying now that progress in 2012 is not a condition? Perhaps officials in Hong Kong, by studying the wording of the Standing Committee's decision, have concluded that the 2017 decision is irrevocable.

But Hong Kong government legal minds do not have a good record of second-guessing the central government. In 2005, after the resignation of Tung Chee-hwa, government lawyers concluded from studying the Basic Law that the new chief executive would have a full five-year term. Beijing, however, ruled that he would only serve out the remaining period of Tung's unfinished term.

Or perhaps Tsang is trying to score points with democratic legislators, hoping they will support his reform proposals. But it is just as likely that they will now feel that rejecting his reform package will be cost-free.

In any event, what the democrats want is a road map, and all signs are that Tsang is not going to provide one. He says that how the 2017 chief executive election will be held is up to the next chief executive and that he will only focus on the 2012 elections. But this is different, certainly at least in emphasis, from a statement he issued two years ago after the Standing Committee decision.

'I once thought that it would be easier to forge a consensus on a road map and the models for universal suffrage first, and then set a timetable for implementation,' Tsang said at the time. 'I now believe setting a timetable as soon as possible first can help forge a consensus on the road map leading to universal suffrage.'

Well, we've had the timetable for nearly two years. What has Tsang done about forging a consensus on a road map? Why should the subject be avoided in the coming consultation?

Stephen Lam Sui-lung, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, said after the Standing Committee decision: 'As to questions relating to the road map and electoral models for implementing universal suffrage, for taking forward democracy in 2012, these issues have been left for Hong Kong to determine on its own.'

Since a road map is for Hong Kong to determine, there is no reason not to include it in the consultation document. Even if it is not possible to engage Chinese leaders today on the situation in 2017, Hongkongers can and should be discussing alternatives and setting out principles to be adhered to when universal suffrage elections are held. In fact, asking Beijing to provide a road map is actually giving up an important part of our autonomy.

In the end, of course, Beijing still has to give its approval. But that is no reason why people in Hong Kong should not discuss a road map in this consultation exercise. And the chief executive can then report the findings to Beijing. He doesn't even have to stick his neck out and make any recommendations. Let Beijing decide for itself how to respond to suggestions made by Hong Kong people.

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