Awaiting the big thaw
A week may be a long time in politics. But with only a few weeks left to find a consensus before the government tables the motions on the 2012 electoral changes for a vote in the Legislative Council, the prospect of a breakthrough is still dim. All eyes are on the pan-democrat camp whose veto power as a critical minority will make or break any deal.
The meetings between Li Gang, deputy director of the central government's liaison office, and representatives of the Democratic Party and the Alliance for Universal Suffrage have so far produced little in the way of substance.
If there is no breakthrough again this time, as in 2005, it would mean Hong Kong's constitutional arrangements will have been frozen for a full decade. Failure for the second time would not bode well for the future of democratisation, despite the universal suffrage timetables laid down by the National People's Congress Standing Committee for electing the chief executive in 2017, and the whole of Legco in 2020.
It is not entirely fair to just blame either Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, for not trying hard to take up Hong Kong people's aspirations for democratisation, or the pan-democrats, for not being pragmatic enough to accept a more incremental political reform package. They both have to operate within their different set of constraints.
During British rule, the democratic camp always refused to endorse partial reform packages but, because it constituted only a marginal force in Legco, such packages still got approved by pro-establishment votes, and the democrats were able to take advantage of additional political space rendered by such unsatisfactory yet still progressive reforms to grow and expand their political clout.
Now occupying over one-third of Legco seats, the pan-democrats face the dilemma of either vetoing any government proposal not meeting their full demands, which means no progress, or compromising with the government in order to make some progress.
Any constitutional reforms are ultimately about the redistribution of political power. Hence, the decision-making model is not going to be rational in terms of broad democratic principles, but closer to what some political scientists describe as incrementalism in which only mutual accommodation can achieve improvements, otherwise the status quo will continue.
The government has pleaded that, in balancing various interests, its current 2012 package using elected district councillors to elect six 'new functional constituency' seats, together with five additional geographical directly elected seats, can best secure support from a majority of legislators as well as the central government. The Democratic Party wants such district council seats to be directly elected by universal suffrage, with district councillors making nominations.
The other major point of contention is the future of existing business and professional functional constituency elections, which the government has already declared do not conform with the principle of universal and equal suffrage. The pan-democrats, however, want a clear decision now to abolish them by 2020.
The gap between the two sides is not small. If both sides persist with their respective stances, then the last opportunity of achieving a compromise will slip away. It is a test of the will of all parties concerned - Beijing included - as to whether they are keen about compromise for the sake of Hong Kong.
If the details for 2012 can only be refined within the current package's framework, can mutual accommodation be achieved by agreeing that the 2016 legislature can have a majority of directly elected seats, to provide a further transition towards universal suffrage by 2020? One way to do this is by adding five more each of geographical and district council seats, and electing all district council seats by universal suffrage, as proposed by the democrats. This will bring the seats elected by universal suffrage in 2016 to close to two-thirds of the legislature.
The current administration is not mandated to deal with the 2016 arrangements, but facilitating further cross-party dialogue with Beijing's blessing should not be ruled out. Where there's a will, there's a way.
The big question now is: is there a will to fight for compromise at all costs?
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank