Historical context may clarify reform debate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 September, 2010, 12:00am

The first half of this year will go down in history as the time when the central government for the first time conducted negotiations with the Democratic Party and, to everyone's surprise, accepted its proposal to allow the five new functional constituency seats in the 2012 elections to be popularly elected.

So it is not surprising that the British government, in its six-monthly report to Parliament on Hong Kong, should dwell on this aspect, including its own role.

The report recalls that, on May 28, after the first formal meeting between the democrats and mainland officials, British Foreign Office minister of state Jeremy Browne issued a statement in which he expressed hope that 'continued discussions between all parties would lead to an agreement on the way forward'. Similarly, he issued another statement on June 24 welcoming the passage of the political reform proposals.

The six-monthly report explained that 'the context for these proposals was the National People's Congress Standing Committee statement of 2007 allowing for the introduction of full universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive ... in 2017 and of the Legislative Council in 2020'.

That is true, but it doesn't go far enough. Further context could have been provided by explaining that the Chinese government had, in 2004, reneged on promises made regarding the right of Hong Kong to decide on its own when to introduce universal suffrage elections for the entire legislature.

This is a point that all British reports have carefully avoided since 2004. Moreover, since the central government liaison office's negotiations with the Democratic Party have been depicted in some quarters as interference in Hong Kong's internal affairs, it would have been useful if the British government had said why it felt the negotiations - not just dialogue - were proper and why this was not a case of the central government improperly assuming functions that should have been discharged by the Hong Kong administration.

The report describes the debate over functional constituencies. Again, however, London does not take a position. It would have been very helpful if Britain, which after all introduced functional constituencies into Hong Kong, had voiced its own position on this and on whether these seats could be made consistent with universal suffrage.

In fact, some explanation as to why Hong Kong has this problem today would be most helpful. Why did the British introduce functional constituencies in the waning days of colonialism, thus leaving a time bomb in Hong Kong at a time when the discredited system had been phased out in Britain itself?

The report quoted Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as saying of the amended political reform package: 'Under this proposal, every voter will have two votes in the 2012 Legco elections, one for geographical constituencies, and the other for functional constituencies. We believe this proposal will make our election more democratic and will pave the way for universal suffrage.'

Does Britain agree that 'one person, two votes' could pave the way to universal suffrage? Would this, in words used in the report, 'meet international standards of universal suffrage'?

The six-monthly reports are valuable because they constitute a record of what occurred in Hong Kong and of Britain's view as to whether the Joint Declaration is being honoured by China.

They could be made even more valuable if the British government were to provide greater historical depth and explain why it took actions that contributed to Hong Kong's present problems.

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