Reform package must pass muster, for all our sakes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 March, 2010, 12:00am

The chief executive kept his eye on his top priority while visiting Beijing, this month, during the National People's Congress session: a compromise agreement on the 2012 elections. He refused to be sidetracked by renewed talk of Hong Kong's need to pass national security legislation.

He was only being realistic. Failure to pass a political reform package would be a disaster not only for the Tsang administration but for the city. Beijing would see Tsang as someone who cannot get things done. And Hong Kong would be seen as rebelling against Beijing, since it would mark the second time a political reform package had failed to pass the legislature.

That result could well mean a shortened term for the chief executive. Although Tsang has denied it, it would almost certainly mean postponing the universal suffrage election for the chief executive now planned for 2017.

There would be no winners: China would lose face internationally, as the world would interpret this as Beijing reneging on its commitment to Hong Kong. The Tsang administration would have no credibility, either in Beijing or locally. In Hong Kong, the pan-democrats would become fragmented: moderate democrats would become radicalised, and those who remain moderate would become marginalised.

Yet all this is a real possibility unless the administration presents the Legislative Council with a model that is clearly better than that proposed in the consultation document.

Of course, there are constraints imposed by the NPC Standing Committee regarding the 2012 proposals, such as maintaining the 50:50 ratio between directly elected and functional seats. Still, even within those constraints, considerable progress is possible. But that was not evident in the original proposals.

In fact, for some reason, the administration seemed unwilling to do certain things that, on the face of it, would be easy to achieve and could be pointed to as steps towards universal suffrage. One example is the abolition of corporate votes.

After all, how can there be voters in a universal suffrage election who are not human beings? The replacement of companies by, say, the board of directors, would be relatively easy. And yet, even here, the administration proposed no change.

If the government continues with its anaemic reforms, it will undermine moderates in the pan-democratic camp who have refused to go along with the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats in holding a 'de facto' referendum.

Moreover, it should be within the government's power to end the system of appointing members to district councils.

Such steps are obvious and the government should take them. But they are not enough. Plenty of constructive ideas were proposed during the three-month consultation period, most of which have to do with the functional constituency system. Failure to adopt any substantive proposals involving functional constituencies would show that the government is not serious about consulting the public.

In this area, Beijing must show understanding of the administration's situation. If the central government allowed Hong Kong room for manoeuvre, changes could be made for 2012 that would pave the way to genuine universal suffrage elections further down the road.

If Beijing clearly supports decisions made in Hong Kong, then the business community and conservative elements will accept them. But if Beijing withholds its support, there will be no agreement and, in the end, there will be hell to pay.

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