Universal suffrage

Democracy haters are taking aim at our liberties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am

Short-term political expediency poses a very real danger to Hong Kong's freedoms and rule of law. Yet, as the Legislative Council by-elections draw close, the government and its allies are conjuring a small storm of measures that will both undermine Hong Kong's practice of free and fair elections and challenge a fundamental principle underpinning the legal system.

Those who oppose the by-elections - which participants from the democrat camp are describing as a referendum on democracy - had the option of making their opposition highly effective in the best traditions of Hong Kong's electoral system. They could have stood against those advocating universal suffrage and, by perfectly legitimate means, may well have won some or all of these by-elections. They were held back on orders from Beijing, where Hong Kong's way of doing things remains something of a mystery.

Instead, the anti-democrats are trying to block funding for the polls and reduce the number of polling stations, to make it hard for people to participate. So far, so bad. Even worse is the extreme reluctance of government leaders to exercise their right to vote - relinquishing a leadership role in a process that many regard as vital in preserving Hong Kong's limited but important electoral freedoms.

Were all this not bad enough, suggestions are being entertained that the legal system should be undermined by declaring illegal that which is not specifically stated to be legal. In short, the by-elections should be outlawed precisely because the law is silent on their legality. The rule of law is thus reduced to the rule of expediency, and much flows from there - none of it good.

Hong Kong's electoral system has worked because it remains strictly governed by laws that provide a degree of consistency to the process. Once this edifice is tampered with, in the short-term interests of thwarting the referendum campaign, the damage will probably be irreparable.

All this gives us a very worrying insight into the minds of those who are increasingly demonstrating their lack of respect for laws that don't suit them and have no compunction about arbitrarily changing the system for their convenience.

It should be stressed, in fairness, that the administration has not as yet succumbed to these pressures and is organising the by-elections in an appropriate fashion. But instead of upholding the integrity of established procedures, senior officials from the chief executive downwards take every opportunity to cast doubt on their validity. They go further by hinting that they favour changes in the law to accommodate those who hate democracy and search constantly for ways to undermine representative government.

Many people who believe in universal suffrage, myself included, have been opposed to this referendum on tactical grounds, fearing the unnecessary uncertainties that it produces. However, opposing the tactic is not the same as losing sight of the goal - which is to find ways to propel Hong Kong closer to a democratic system.

The referendum campaign's consequences are even worse than many of us predicted. But that does not mean its opponents should be silent over what is developing into a full-scale assault on the election system. Arguing that the democrats have only brought this on themselves is not good enough; indeed, it perversely accuses those seeking progressive reform of being responsible for retrogressive reform.

And it's not only diehard democrats who should be worried; moves to undermine the rule of law and liberty might spread elsewhere. As the Health Department constantly reminds us, viruses must be contained without delay.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur