'Two votes' has to be better than no progress
Beijing may derail a potential solution to the dilemma of functional constituencies - possibly unintentionally. Pan-democrats have been calling for the trade-based seats to be scrapped before 2020, when universal suffrage elections for the entire legislature are meant to be held. But Beijing seems to favour their preservation, saying they will help Hong Kong's economic development.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration is caught between the pan-democrats' demand and Beijing's position. That is why senior officials, from the chief executive down, say that while the trade-based seats as currently constituted are incompatible with universal suffrage, they can be made compatible.
One widely touted solution is to give each registered elector a second vote. Thus, each voter will have one ballot in a geographical constituency and one in a functional constituency - or 'one person, two votes'. Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen said, in mid-April, that this would satisfy requirements for full democracy - although some democrats have ruled it unacceptable in a universal suffrage election.
The proposal provides some room for manoeuvre between those seeking full democracy and those wishing to keep the trade-based seats. For the 2012 Legco election, the chief executive, as part of his political reform package, has proposed the creation of five new functional seats to be filled by elected district councillors instead of by traditional, narrowly based functional constituencies.
The Democratic Party and the Alliance for Universal Suffrage have suggested expanding the electorate beyond district council members to all registered voters. Fung Wai-wah says the alliance, of which he is convenor, would probably accept the reform package if Beijing allowed all registered voters to take part in the district council functional constituency elections.
That in itself is a good reason for Beijing to back the plan, since it would mean Legco approval for the 2012 political reform proposals. It could also pave the way for similar reform of all trade-based seats.
But Li Gang , a deputy director of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, has said Beijing may reject the alliance's proposal. It may not be consistent with the Basic Law's 'legislative intent' to allow all electors to vote in a functional constituency election, he said. There may also be a problem with the 2007 decision of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, which said the half-and-half ratio between trade-based and geographical seats must not change.
If Beijing rejects the proposal, that will mean it considers 'one man, two votes' unacceptable in a functional constituency election.
The Basic Law says 'the delimitation of functional sectors and corporate bodies, their seat allocation and election methods' must be set out in Hong Kong legislation that is approved by Legco.
It should be a simple matter to amend Hong Kong's electoral law.
But Beijing can always issue another interpretation of the Basic Law saying the amendment is not consistent with its 'intent' - which was not specified.
The issue of trade-based seats is fundamental. If it is not solved, there will simply not be universal suffrage elections in 2020. If the electorates of functional constituencies remain limited to small circles, as they are today, no one will recognise them as universal suffrage elections.
This problem has to be resolved before 2020. If Beijing rejects the 'one person, two votes' formula today, it will make the problem that much more difficult to solve - unless, of course, it is willing to see the total abolition of functional constituencies.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.