Signs of spring

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2012, 12:00am


It is significant, and encouraging, that a key Chinese official involved in Hong Kong affairs has praised the recent presidential election in Taiwan and suggested that party politics in Hong Kong is lagging behind, with deep-seated problems.

Wang Guangya, the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said the central government had hoped for a gentlemanly contest between Henry Tang Ying-yen and Leung Chun-ying and was taken aback by the scandals and name-smearing of recent weeks.

Wang recognised that this was part of the political process, which had also marred previous elections in Taiwan. But, he said approvingly, the campaign between the island's president, Ma Ying-jeou, and Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen was a contest of political platforms and ideas.

Hong Kong is, indeed, lagging behind Taiwan in its political development. But why? For one thing, Taiwan's DPP had a head start, having been formed in 1986. At the time, Hong Kong had no political parties, only a British governor who appointed most of the legislators.

But the introduction of direct legislative elections in 1991 brought into being Hong Kong's first political party - the United Democrats of Hong Kong, the precursor of the Democratic Party. This was followed by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong in 1992 and the Liberal Party in 1993.

Hong Kong was then a few years behind Taiwan. But Taiwan started direct presidential elections in 1996 and has held them every four years since then. During the intervening 16 years, power shifted twice from one party to the other.

Hong Kong, by contrast, won't get to choose its chief executive directly until 2017 at the earliest. By then, Hong Kong would be 21 years behind Taiwan.

The Basic Law was drafted to ensure an 'executive-led' system, with a weak legislature - one where legislators don't even have the power to introduce legislation. And it is illegal for the chief executive to be a member of a political party.

Given such a peculiar situation, how can Hong Kong possibly be expected to have mature political parties? And who, after all, is responsible for this?

Soon after Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, all local political parties agreed that there should be universal suffrage for election of the chief executive in 2007 and of the entire legislature in 2008. But this was vetoed by Beijing.

So a colonial British government, followed by a Chinese government fearful of the disruption that democracy might bring, delayed the introduction of party politics in Hong Kong. The immaturity of political parties today is the inevitable result.

Now, finally, a senior Chinese official has taken cognisance of Hong Kong's political plight. Hopefully, this means that the central government recognises, albeit belatedly, that party politics is normal and indeed essential.

Wang is certainly a breath of fresh air. Hong Kong now needs to go down the road of political development, a process that was artificially delayed by Beijing for a decade. But, better late than never.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1