Riddled with Humpty Dumpty rules

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 December, 2009, 12:00am

Every time I see a discussion about Hong Kong's progress towards long-promised 'democracy', I have to make sure I have my copy of Alice Through the Looking Glass at hand, especially the references to Humpty Dumpty - the giant egg who came to a sticky end in the English nursery rhyme. He infamously said that words were his playthings: 'The question is, which is to be master - that's all.'

The rulers in Beijing, egged on by sympathisers, sycophants and puppets in Hong Kong, have shown themselves prepared to reinterpret and, if necessary, redefine clauses of the Basic Law when they felt it in their interest.

In light of the current debate about 'universal suffrage', now is the time for good democrats - as well as for lovers of Hong Kong - to think more carefully and constructively about preserving and extending democracy in the face of real challenges.

To lay down clear principles: democracy is good for Hong Kong as a rich, sophisticated, modern city whose inhabitants are surely capable of making adult decisions about their rulers - and if they are conned by crooks or charlatans, then they can kick them out; real democracy in Hong Kong would be good for the rest of China, too, since Beijing would then know that Hong Kong can get on with governing itself and contribute fully to the motherland.

Article 45 of the Basic Law, dealing with the selection of the chief executive, is full of expressions that Humpty Dumpty would love.

It says: 'The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.'

Still, it is puzzling that 'universal suffrage' is being debated since, in the theory and practice of politics, it has a clear and well-defined meaning, namely one person, one vote - not some persons with a fistful of votes, or even one person with two or three votes.

So what is going on? Surely supporters of functional constituencies are not going to claim they can, or could if cleverly enlarged, satisfy the requirement of universal suffrage? Is it a bargaining chip - we will give you universal suffrage, but we will decide on the nominating committee and the democratic procedures it operates under? Or could the phrase 'ultimate aim' come into play again - with 'ultimate' seen at least as later than 2017 and 2020?

Hong Kong's dance with Beijing about democracy has gone on for a long time without really getting anywhere. Beijing has wasted too much time listening to self-seeking, so-called 'pro-Beijing' forces.

The mainland, above all, should understand that anyone calling themselves 'pro-Beijing' is insulting Hong Kong and the rest of China. We are all pro-Beijing and, since 1997, Hong Kong and its people have been proud to be part of China again.

Where do the opponents of democracy imagine that pro-democracy forces want to take Hong Kong if they gained complete power, given that Beijing runs foreign policy, the presence of the People's Liberation Army garrison, and the economic and trade integration between Hong Kong and the mainland?

Milquetoast democrats and those who don't want to rock the boat say Hong Kong has enough democracy without the expensive mess of elections. Some assert that governments chosen by election may be worse than benevolent dictators.

If you look at the tyranny of the majority that rules in some western countries, you might argue that Hong Kong, with its vociferous press, lively population and honest legal system, is freer than, say, Britain, where prime minister Tony Blair could take the country to war without legal or political permission.

But holding elections is the crowning glory of a democracy: it allows people to throw out governments when they go astray.

Elections are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for democracy. The fact that some countries have forgotten the importance of other democratic practices does not mean democratic elections can be abandoned without a loss of democracy.

This is why Hong Kong's democrats should pursue a twin-track approach. Take every opportunity to convince Beijing that the rulers there have less reason to fear the people of Hong Kong, in elections, than untrustworthy sycophants. The second track should be to use the democratic levers at hand.

In democratic countries, political leaders emerge through parliament, the press and the forces of public opinion. Why should it be any different in Hong Kong? Why should a hugger-mugger committee decide who can stand and then another small group 'elect' the leader? This is not only undemocratic, it is stupid in terms of running a lively city.

It is time for the democrats to use their democracy. In the two years until the next 'election' of the chief executive, this newspaper (and other media) should draw up a long list of 20 to 30 candidates, from deep insiders to rank outsiders, listing their attractive points, strengths and weaknesses, policy pros and cons, how they would appeal to Hong Kong and Beijing, how good they would be at administration, at running a team, at balancing the books, and in a crisis.

Ask them to address the critical issues and, if they will not, draw your own conclusions. Talk to their best friends and their worst enemies, if they have any. How much, after all, do we really know about Henry Tang Ying-yen, C.Y. Leung, or anyone else who might run in 2012? Isn't it better for everyone's sakes that the questions be asked openly before, rather than after?

In essence, let this paper - in consultation with the people of Hong Kong - write the election book as it happens. Find an honest opinion poll co-ordinator and run regular polls on issues and candidates. Call town hall meetings. In a thriving and vibrant place like Hong Kong, there is no need to hide in hugger-mugger committees.

Kevin Rafferty is the author of City on the Rocks, Hong Kong's Uncertain Future