Standing still betrays the cause of democracy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 May, 2010, 12:00am

The 'de facto referendum' is over without having achieved anything tangible in terms of bringing full democracy to Hong Kong earlier than scheduled.

In fact, very strangely, pan-democrats generally don't seem all that anxious to lock in universal suffrage at the earliest possible date, which is 2017. They continue to threaten to veto Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's political reform package, apparently viewing with equanimity the likelihood that this will result in a delay of at least five years for universal suffrage.

This is weird. Hong Kong has been ready for democracy for decades, and hundreds of thousands have marched for many years to bring it about. The British never gave Hong Kong universal suffrage and Beijing was reluctant, ruling it out for the 2007-08 elections and again for 2012.

So when Beijing promised that the chief executive could be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, it was a very big deal indeed. But instead of hailing this triumph and working to ensure there is no slippage, the pan-democrats through their actions are putting at risk something that so many of us have worked long and hard to achieve. If Tsang's political reforms are vetoed this year - as they were in 2005 - it will mean a decade without electoral progress. It is hard to see how standing still serves the cause of democracy.

Moreover, since the Basic Law states that universal suffrage is to be achieved 'in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress', there is a real danger that the veto may result in universal suffrage elections not being held in 2017 - on the grounds that they would violate the principle of gradual and orderly progress.

Remember, it is Hong Kong, not Beijing, which has clamoured for the implementation of universal suffrage. So, if such elections are not held in 2017, it will be Hong Kong's loss, not Beijing's. With a timetable, every effort should be made to ensure Beijing has no excuse to wiggle out of its commitment.

The pan-democrats' objections to the 2012 package are not so much over how the 2012 elections will be held, but rather how other elections in the future will be held. In fact, two key demands made by the pan-democrats in 2005 have now been met: Beijing has agreed to a timetable and Tsang has agreed to exclude appointed district councillors from the proposed indirect elections to the legislature. Current demands for a road map and the abolition of functional constituencies are directed at elections in 2017 and 2020, not 2012.

It is difficult to see what purpose a veto of the political package would serve. It certainly would not result in full democracy at an earlier date, and would probably have the opposite effect.

There would only be losers, no winners. The pan-democrats would probably be viewed by the public as naysayers who lack the political wisdom necessary for dealing with Beijing. Hong Kong would lose by again having no electoral reforms in 2012, and the 2017 elections would be put in jeopardy. While Beijing might well be happy with a delay in universal suffrage, it, too, would be a loser since international opinion would no doubt blame it for delaying democracy.

This is not to say that the concerns are misplaced over whether the 2017 chief executive election and the 2020 Legislative Council elections will be genuinely democratic. But those battles will be fought in future years when the government proposes necessary amendments to the Basic Law.

As long as the pan-democrats continue to have more than a third of the seats, they will be able to block any move of which they disapprove. There is no need to fight tomorrow's battles today. As the Gospel of Mark tells us, 'sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof'.

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