Steady pace of reform is in Beijing's interest, too
With the action by the National People's Congress Standing Committee at the end of last month, the long-running saga of political reform for the 2012 elections finally drew to a close. The Standing Committee announced that it had 'approved' the amendment regarding the method to elect the chief executive, and 'recorded' the amendment on the formation of the Legislative Council.
Those are the words used in the Basic Law, which differentiated between moves to change the method of election of the chief executive and of the legislature, seemingly saying that Hong Kong could make decisions on its own about the way the legislature is to be elected, with such decisions merely reported to the Standing Committee 'for the record'.
However, the rules have been changed since April 2004, when the Standing Committee issued an interpretation of the Basic Law. Beijing made clear it would not automatically 'record' whatever decision was made in Hong Kong. At that point, the words 'approve' and 'record' lost any distinction they may previously have had.
The Standing Committee took away from Hong Kong the autonomy given by the Basic Law to decide on the pace of democratisation where Legco was concerned. It also took away the right to initiate proceedings leading to universal suffrage elections for chief executive; instead, it ruled that Beijing had to decide if there was a 'need' for change. The new five-step procedure, beginning with the Standing Committee granting permission to initiate a process for change and ending with its approval of the change, means Beijing now controls the process from beginning to end.
With this change, the Hong Kong legislature's role was limited to approving by a two-thirds majority - or blocking with more than one-third of the vote - whatever change is proposed by the chief executive. Clearly, simply playing by Beijing's rules is not going to result in genuine democracy, as it is understood in the rest of the world.
In a Legco where half the seats are required to be functional constituency seats, the two-thirds majority requirement means the functional seats can never be abolished, since those members will not commit collective suicide and vote themselves out of office.
Pan-democrats generally take the practical position that if China decided to abolish functional constituencies, these legislators would toe the line. Democrats can only pressure Beijing to change the rules, rather than try to lobby for the support of functional legislators.
That in fact is what the Democratic Party did in June when it succeeded in getting approval of its reform proposal for the 2012 political package.
Beijing had previously decided that the reform was contrary to the Basic Law and the Standing Committee decision of 2004. But, when Beijing for political reasons wanted the support of the Democrats, the rules were bent and the Democrats won the day.
That success shows that change, while difficult, is not impossible. The next step must be to get rid of the 50:50 ratio in Legco so that functional seats no longer have the built-in ability to block change.
Democrats should also press their demand for Beijing to produce a 10-year programme for democratic reform in Hong Kong. If Beijing spurns this effort, the radical League of Social Democrats is likely to gain strength in Legco in 2012, to the detriment of both Beijing and the more moderate democrats.
Beijing should be able to see that, on this issue, once again, its interests and those of the more moderate democrats coincide. If Beijing sees the wisdom of that policy and acts accordingly, all of Hong Kong, not just the democrats, will benefit.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org