Britain points the way on reform

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2010, 12:00am

Electoral arrangements to return the chief executive and all members of the legislature in 2017 and 2020 respectively must meet accepted international standards of universal suffrage, Britain's foreign secretary says.

In a foreword to the latest British government six-monthly report on Hong Kong, David Miliband also urged Hong Kong officials to come up with a 'sufficiently progressive' reform proposal for 2012 when it is tabled in the legislature for approval.

'The UK and the international community will continue to take a close interest in political developments in the lead-up to the 2012 elections and beyond,' Miliband wrote in the report, published yesterday.

'It will be of great importance that the arrangements for 2017 and 2020 meet accepted international standards of universal suffrage,' the foreword stated.

Saying that the British government continued to take an interest in the universal suffrage debate, Miliband stressed that Hong Kong's stability and prosperity, underpinned by the human rights and freedoms enjoyed by its residents, could best be guaranteed by democratisation.

The position taken by Miliband, echoing earlier remarks by British consul general Andrew Seaton, came days after the Hong Kong government ended a three-month consultation on democratisation in 2012.

The stepping up of pressure in the international community coincides with an apparent thaw in tensions between the government and the Democratic Party. The Democrats have opted out of by-elections triggered by the resignations of five lawmakers from the Civic Party and League of Social Democrats, which the two groups see as a de facto referendum on the pace and scope of democratisation. The exercise has been branded by Beijing as a 'blatant challenge' to its authority.

Officials earlier said differences with the Democrats had narrowed after the party and its allies started negotiations with the government on possible concessions. The party has indicated that it would give its support if Beijing could give assurances that genuine universal suffrage, including the abolition of functional constituencies in the legislature, would be introduced in 2017 and 2020.

In its report, the British government noted pan-democrats' concerns over the possible retention of these trade-based seats in some form beyond 2020 - the earliest date Beijing has said universal suffrage can be introduced for the entire legislature.

The report reiterated Britain's position that 'if functional constituencies were to be preserved beyond 2020, it would be up to their supporters to explain how they were compatible with accepted international standards of universal suffrage'.

On the long-standing problem of several pan-democrat lawmakers being banned from visiting the mainland, the report urged the central government to give them home- return permits to develop 'dialogue and understanding'.

The report concluded that in general, the 'one country, two systems' principle of the Sino-British Joint Declaration had worked well and that the rights and freedoms guaranteed had been respected.

In a statement, a Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau spokesman welcomed the conclusion of the British government's report, saying the Hong Kong government hoped to come up with a final reform package 'acceptable to different parties'.