Reforms will add fuel to calls for political change

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am

This year, Hong Kong has seen a 'de facto referendum' being held, the chief executive debating a pan-democratic leader on television, negotiations between the central government and the Democratic Party and, finally, passage of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's political reform package after its demise was universally expected.

Where do we stand today, after these milestones?

The defeat of a motion of thanks for Tsang's policy address suggests that his administration continues to be mired in a legislative system without a government party. But there has been change, according to a 150-page report on opinion surveys sponsored by the National Democratic Institute and carried out by the Hong Kong Transition Project.

We know that the rich-poor divide is widening, that there is suspicion of government-business collusion, and that there is growing hostility towards the wealthy.

This is summed up in one word: unfair. Life is unfair. The system is unfair. Employers do not treat their workers fairly. But, most of all, the government is perceived to be unfair in the way it governs, in the way it formulates policy.

In February 2003, before the massive demonstrations that summer, 67 per cent of the people surveyed believed the government formulated policy unfairly. The proportion dropped to 54 per cent in May 2005, but rebounded to 65 per cent in August this year.

Despite this, there is now a majority, albeit a slim one, that believes constitutional reforms will make government policy fairer. After the reform package comes into effect in 2012, 51 per cent of Hongkongers believe, government policymaking will be fairer.

Hong Kong people, it seems, believe in democracy.

Although there has been a split in the ranks of the pan-democratic camp, the survey indicates that public support for them remains high. In fact, satisfaction with the Democratic Party, whose negotiations with the central government resulted in the passage of the political reform package, rose from 40 per cent in May to 53 per cent in August. Interestingly, the other two pro-democracy parties, which opposed the Democratic Party, have not been much affected. Support for the Civic Party rose from 47 to 48 per cent, while that for the League of Social Democrats fell from 30 to 29 per cent.

The Democratic Party's proposal enfranchised 3.2 million people in the functional constituency elections. This will of course widen the political base of the new legislators, but the impact is likely to go beyond that.

Hitherto, the fact that the vast majority of voters were simply excluded from functional constituency elections means they probably paid little attention to them. From now on, however, since all registered voters will belong to a functional constituency, they are likely to take an interest in such elections.

They will certainly notice that 3.2 million people vote to fill the five additional functional seats while some of the other seats are elected by only a handful of voters - if they are elected at all.

Pressure on the government for further political reform is therefore likely to increase. The more voters get involved in the process of government, the more they will understand the process, and the more they will realise the inequities of the present system and demand change.

The reforms this time around will provide additional fuel for the demand for more thorough reforms in the future.

If the government is smart, it would try to pre-empt such pressure by proposing much needed reforms on its own when it presents detailed proposals for the 2012 elections.

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