Groping in the dark

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 December, 2010, 12:00am

The Hong Kong government will shortly introduce into the Legislative Council draft legislation specifying the arrangements for the election of the chief executive and legislators in 2012. The proposals will seek to put flesh on the bones of the controversial electoral reform package, approved by the legislature in June.

The contents of the legislation were outlined by Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen at the end of October, so we have a fair idea of what to expect. The Citizens' Commission on Constitutional Development has deep concerns with regard to some key aspects of the government's proposals. What worries me most, however, is the general lack of interest and critical scrutiny - both by the public and the media - of the potential implications of the government's proposed arrangements, not just for the outcome of elections in 2012, but for the ultimate achievement of genuine universal suffrage for election of the chief executive in 2017 and all members of Legco in 2020.

Changes to the arrangements for election of the chief executive are particularly crucial, because 2012 is the last opportunity to introduce meaningful reforms before the introduction of full universal suffrage in 2017. Hong Kong people want to be able to choose a leader who will stand up for their rights and freedoms and who will represent the views of all sectors of the community impartially.

This can only happen if the method by which candidates for the post are selected is fair and transparent. As the Basic Law precludes direct nomination of candidates by the public, it is essential that the composition of the future nominating committee and the selection arrangements it adopts ensure the election of candidates who truly speak for the voters.

The government originally pledged to provide more room for members of the community to participate in the chief executive election, but its current proposals do nothing of the kind. For example, it has completely ignored the widespread public view that only people and not companies should be allowed to vote in the various sub-sectors of the Election Committee; it has also ignored popular pressure for expansion of the electorate of the sub-sectors to include more eligible groups and thus broaden the representation wherever possible.

Expansion of the Election Committee from 800 to 1,200 electors provides an opportunity to make it more genuinely representative of the Hong Kong community. Instead, the government is proposing to maintain glaring imbalances in the voting power of particular social and economic sectors, by allocating additional seats on a pro rata basis.

For example, the agriculture and fisheries sub-sector will be allocated a further 20 seats, making a total of 60, and will thus continue to control 20 per cent of the votes in the third sector of the committee, even though agriculture and fisheries contributes less than 0.1 per cent of Hong Kong's gross domestic product and provides employment to only 0.2 per cent of the total workforce.

Compare this with the position of sub-sectors that represent 'pillar industries' such as import and export, and financial services, which each contribute over 20 per cent to local GDP. These groups each have a mere 12 seats in the first sector of the committee: just 6 per cent of the total number of seats in this sector. They will qualify for an additional six seats each, making a total of 18 seats compared with the 60 seats for agriculture and fisheries.

As with the process of consultation on the chief executive election, the government is highly selective as to the public opinion it accepts on changes to the legislature's electoral arrangements in 2012. A clear majority of Hong Kong people want to see a commitment to abolish functional constituencies by no later than 2020; in the meantime, they want to see a broadening of the electorate of the existing trade seats and the abolition of corporate voting.

By declining to respond to these aspirations, the government's package of changes in 2012 amounts to no real progress towards the attainment of genuine universal suffrage by 2020. The most that can be said is that the amended proposal - for district councillors who will occupy the five new functional constituency seats to be directly elected by Hong Kong voters rather than by a small circle of their peers - is slightly less objectionable than the original.

It is nevertheless still seriously flawed. District councillors and legislative councillors fulfil separate and distinctive roles. Why do we want to confuse these roles and, in the process, create two classes of geographically elected Legco members? Can one person effectively represent the relatively narrow interests of a local district one minute and, in the next, the interests of up to 3.3 million voters throughout Hong Kong?

I foresee many practical problems for candidates seeking election to these new seats, both in terms of their ability to canvass over 3 million potential voters and their ability to represent them if elected. Only the wealthier political parties will have the financial and organisational capability to mount such a large-scale campaign.

Time and again we come back to the same fundamental problem. The government has failed to provide a clear vision of the final shape of democratically based government in Hong Kong; it has also failed to provide a firm assurance that when universal suffrage is finally implemented, in 2017 and 2020, it will be genuine universal suffrage that accords with internationally accepted principles. As a result, we continue to grope our way forward blindfolded.

At this crucial juncture in our constitutional development, it is vital that we do not resign ourselves to arrangements for election of the chief executive and Legco members in 2012 that fall far short of what we want and what is needed to achieve genuine universal suffrage. Meaningful progress can be made even within the constraints of the approved constitutional framework. While there is still time to make our voices heard, I urge all concerned citizens and especially the political parties to speak up and press the government to introduce legislative changes that truly enhance the representation of Hong Kong people in the Election Committee and Legco.

Anson Chan Fang On-sang is steering group convenor of the Citizens' Commission for Constitutional Development