Signs of a more flexible Beijing give people hope

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 July, 2010, 12:00am

The breakthrough in negotiations between the Democratic Party and the central government that led to the passage of the 2012 political reform package was a victory for rationality, both in Hong Kong and Beijing.

In Hong Kong, the Democratic Party finally abandoned its all-or-nothing position, which had led to its rejection in 2005 of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's first political reform package. Instead, it decided to get the best possible deal for 2012 while preparing to fight future battles regarding universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020.

In Beijing, Chinese leaders decided to give in and accept the Democrats' proposal of 'one person, two votes', thereby enlarging the franchise for the five new Legislative Council seats representing district councils from about 400 to more than 3 million voters. Given those figures, no one can say that it was not a move towards greater democracy.

The Democrats have released a report detailing their contacts with the central government and with the Hong Kong administration. Their chairman, Albert Ho Chun-yan, emphasised the party's success in the negotiations, pointing out that it was rare, if not unprecedented, for the central government to sit down and negotiate with an opposition party on equal footing and actually give ground after having repeatedly staked out its position.

The Democrats' leader deserves all the compliments he is receiving. He, more than anyone else, stuck his neck out by promising to support the political package if Beijing accepted his party's district council proposal, which pointedly did not seek promises on 'genuine universal suffrage' in 2017 and the abolition of functional constituencies.

If Beijing had refused to budge, Ho would have been seen as having compromised his principles without having anything to show for his efforts.

However, it is clear that Ho and his party saw that the continuation of the political stalemate between the pan-democrats in Hong Kong and the central government would have done nobody any good. If the Democrats - and the central government - had not acted to resolve the situation, the package would have been rejected and the chief executive would have faced a no-confidence vote in the legislature. A governance crisis was looming.

Beijing evidently realised the seriousness of things and decided to try to ameliorate the situation.

The Democrats had initially insisted on linking the 2012 package with the 2017 and 2020 elections. But Li Gang, deputy director of the central government's liaison office, pointed out that it was unrealistic to expect Beijing to be able to resolve all issues in a few weeks.

So while the Democrats agreed to consider the 2012 package on its own merits, they also asked the central government to present a 10-year plan for democratisation in Hong Kong, between now and 2020. According to the liaison office, Beijing has agreed to study this idea.

The 2012 package, of course, pales in significance when compared to the upcoming decision on how the chief executive is to be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, followed by the Legco elections in 2020.

But the fact that there was an agreement between the Democrats and the central government provides hope that an accord can be reached, too, on the much tougher issues that lie ahead.

As for divisions within the pan-democratic camp, this should not have any permanent effect on the fight for genuine democracy.

While it is way too early to celebrate, there is now some grounds for hope that the central government may in the future be willing to compromise.

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