Universal deception

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 December, 2009, 12:00am

At last the truth is out. Previous government promises about steady progress towards universal suffrage will soon be exposed as a cynical lie. The ground is being prepared, in ways seen before, to ensure that the new version of Hong Kong democracy is something that would not be recognisable in any of the world's democratic countries.

There is a pattern to these things. First comes the promise, then out trickles the qualifications that make the promise hardly worth the paper it is printed on. So it was in 2005 when the government promised that its democratic reform proposals were the start of a steady march towards universal suffrage. Back then, there were demands for a road map to direct this steady march. With astonishing speed, 'experts' from Beijing were produced to declare that a road map of this kind was illegal. The echo chambers in Hong Kong were then mobilised to endorse this view and clap loudly as the road map was trampled into the ground.

Here we are again, five years on, and promises are made about realising the goal of universal suffrage, quickly followed by expert opinion from Beijing that universal suffrage is not incompatible with the rotten-borough system known as functional constituencies.

This time, the ante is upped and no lesser a person than Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen is produced to join the echo chamber and solemnly declare that, yes indeed, Hong Kong is to enjoy a special kind of democracy because, oh dear, democracy as understood elsewhere in the world can hardly apply to a little spot on the southern tip of the Chinese coastline.

But Tang is not as dumb as he looks because, by focusing on the future of functional constituencies, he and his allies are able to deflect focus from the great lie which is that the promise of universal suffrage will be honoured. It was perhaps astonishingly naive to believe that a one-party state hewn from the rock of revolutionary struggle would voluntarily agree to the ultimate freedom of allowing even a small proportion of its people to freely elect their own government.

Instead, the Communist Party, and its Hong Kong cheerleaders, have latched on to preserving a rotten system introduced by the British colonialists to ensure that a small but immensely powerful elite would be given the means to control the legislature, even if a proportion of its members are elected by universal suffrage.

The system the British used was one employed by the city council of the pre-revolutionary International Settlement in Shanghai.

If members of the Communist Party are capable of appreciating irony, they will emit a small chuckle at the thought that a communist government is using the very tools that the revolutionaries dedicated themselves to destroying.

And, just in case there are cheerleaders for functional constituencies from the right, they may like to recall that, in Europe, it was the Italian Fascists who adopted this system as a means of destroying Italy's democratic system and replacing it with the corporatist structures that were a hallmark of Benito Mussolini's regime.

So here we are in 2009 and the great minds of the Hong Kong government are smugly patting themselves on the back for having found a way of proving that water can flow in another direction in the special administrative region.

Universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics is about to be born, a system which, according to calculations by the Human Rights Monitor, makes the average functional constituency voter worth 15,940 ordinary 'little' voters who make their mark on the ballot paper.

It is only a matter of time before the new plans for a dual voting system are unveiled and functional constituencies are officially declared indispensable. No one need hold their breath because the essence of the new plan is little more than an affirmation of the status quo.

Indeed, a reasonable argument could be made that the current programme for democratic reform is nothing less than a step backwards from plans unveiled by the post-war British governor Sir Mark Young in 1947. He was outmanoeuvred by anti-democrats in London; these reactionaries remain alive and well in Hong Kong - but now they have Chinese faces.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur