The spirit of democracy means respecting others

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 June, 2010, 12:00am

The government's 'Act Now' campaign to promote its electoral reform proposals has entered its second week. On Sunday, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, with senior ministers and political assistants in tow, visited a number of districts throughout Hong Kong, in the hope of rallying support to push the city's electoral process forward.

Having learned from the experience of the first week, many officials have become better at street campaigning. The people they contacted applauded them for having the courage to face the public and opposition voices. The controversial constitutional reform proposals for 2012 have been submitted to the Legislative Council and face a vote on June 23.

After details of officials' Sunday activities were released to the media in advance, they attracted a series of rowdy protests from some radical political parties and the public along the route. Officials were heckled and shouted at. Tsang and Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen were surrounded by protesters and reporters, making it impossible for them to conduct the campaign.

Important elements in the spirit of democracy include the ability to support rational behaviour, use reason to convince others, and promote respect for others voicing their opinions. The voice of the opposition is already loud and clear. The result of the recent Legco by-elections showed that 500,000 Hongkongers oppose the reforms.

If we presume the remaining voters have an opinion on Hong Kong's political future, we need to give them a chance to air their views. Polls tell us that about half the population still support the government's reform package. So, it's only reasonable that the government should conduct its own campaign to make sure these voices are heard. But the opposition to the campaign in many segments of Hong Kong society shows that our deep-seated political and social conflicts are worsening.

The police said 113,000 people attended the commemoration on June 4, while organisers put the number at a reasonable 150,000. Political heavyweight Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a deputy to the National People's Congress, criticised the police confiscation of two Goddess of Democracy statues, calling it a pointless political suppression that might have boosted the Victoria Park turnout.

Fan has got it totally wrong: the main reason for the unexpectedly high turnout is public dissatisfaction with government. The police action and Chinese University's refusal to permanently install a Goddess of Democracy statue only added fuel to the fire. The Victoria Park vigil is a popular way for Hongkongers to peacefully express their feelings about the June 4 incident. But we can fully understand why the government's 'Act Now' campaign drew so much opposition. It all comes down to the administration's lack of a popular mandate.

Without full universal suffrage, people will continue to voice their discontent, providing the opposition with ample opportunity to market their political strategies. Some people have compared the Victoria Park vigil with the government's street campaign, praising the former and bashing the latter, which is unfair. The annual June 4 rally can carry on peacefully, year after year, because pro-government supporters will never 'gatecrash' it - unlike what the post-1980s activists, who were the main rally supporters, did to the government's campaign.

Tsang and his ministers broke with tradition by confronting their opponents and directly rallying public support for government policies. While a fairly frustrating political baptism for them, it has changed the government's political culture. It sets the foundations for the future, when full universal suffrage and true democracy will finally take root and blossom.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.