The road not taken

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 December, 2009, 12:00am

All eyes are now on the forthcoming five-district resignation plan by some pan-democrat legislators, following the Democratic Party's decision to reject the proposal for its members to take part. The outcome of the subsequent by-elections will probably shed more light on the shift of sentiment among supporters of democracy than on the divide between the opposition and the establishment.

Whatever the outcome, finding a solution to the political impasse is not going to be made easier. If the radical wing of the pan-democrats wins handsomely, why should it bother to sit down with the government and rival parties to seek a compromise? Should it lose, the sense of despair generated among pan-democrats will make it equally difficult for the moderates to steer a different course.

The hard reality remains that unless and until all sides - and both the central government and the local population - come to accept political compromise as the only way out, and are ready to think in new ways about constitutional change, then the impasse will persist.

Some political scientists like to explain continuity and inertia against change by citing 'path dependence' theory. The gist of it is that any status quo has built-in vested interests in the form of the people, structure and culture. This culminates in a logic of existence, which is 'reproduced' by the existing policy or mechanisms that create inertia, and the incentives to drive out competing ideas and interests.

Change only occurs when the cost of maintaining the status quo becomes too high, compared with possible increasing returns from a potential new system. As such, any change, save revolution, is by definition incremental, incomplete and an interactive process between the forces of continuity and reform.

Breaking the spell of path dependence requires more than just a change of key players, and the prevailing culture and ideology, to the extent that there is less enthusiasm for keeping the status quo. It also requires a collective will and capacity to reach a settlement through compromise and reform. This helps to loosen the existing structure that maintains vested interests, thereby facilitating change and giving it legitimacy.

At this critical time for Hong Kong, the practical question is how to succeed in altering the course of the current path. Without compromise, this seems almost a non-starter.

The next question, equally critical, is how to unleash fresh forces of change so that the whole of society is set on a new path of steady democratisation, to make future reforms path-dependent but on a different course.

Today, ideological support for, and the legitimacy of, functional constituencies is much weaker than it was in the 1990s. The community has been largely won over to the logic of universal suffrage with equal voting rights. There is increasing incompatibility between culture and structure, causing instability in the system. This cannot go on for long.

Abolishing functional constituencies is necessary to break the old path and make a new one. However, finding a new structural system to replace the old one remains contentious, as various vested interests jockey for greater power or seek to protect their existing power.

The government-proposed 'district councils' constituency is not ideal, but it is attractive in that it essentially erodes the old functional-constituency logic as well as the logic of appointment (because only elected district councillors would be allowed to elect legislators). It also reinforces the newly dominant logic of universal suffrage. This is a cultural breakthrough and its impact should not be played down.

Before we reach the final stage of doing away with all functional constituencies in 2020, the question is how to bring about a significant change of tack - ending one path dependence and substituting another. This requires building a new structure.

Staying put, with no change in 2012, may well expose the present incompatibility, but it does not help to construct change.

If the devil is in the details, why don't various parties engage seriously on the details of a transitional phase, instead of dismissing suggestions just in terms of grand principles and rhetoric?

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank