Selective report on electoral reform consultation further divides Hong Kong

Simon Young says after months of work to seek public views on electoral reform, the government's selective reporting of the result fails to move Hong Kong towards a consensus

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 2:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 3:05am

In preparing its two recent political reform reports, the Hong Kong administration's strategy was to avoid provocative statements and appear neutral and open. Notice no references to the State Council's recent white paper. The aim was to ease tensions, at least until the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress delivered its decision in late August and took the blame for any consequences.

Judging from the public reaction to the reports, the strategy appears to have flopped.

There are at least four reasons why the reports do not get us any closer to reaching an agreement on universal suffrage for the chief executive.

First, there is the preoccupation with patriotism (love for country and Hong Kong) and confronting the central government. Apparently the "mainstream opinion" is that the chief executive should be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong, and does not confront the central authorities. But if Hong Kong is to be a truly democratic society, the chief executive must be prepared to confront the central authorities (not necessarily an open confrontation) as part of being accountable to the special administrative region.

We would expect any chief executive to confront the central government if, for example, mainland officials were deliberately acting in violation of the Basic Law. As a first principle, universal suffrage in Hong Kong requires the acceptance that the chief executive might need to be confrontational with the central and other authorities in order to discharge his or her duties under the Basic Law.

Second, the government needs to be able to capture public opinion in a fair and proper manner if it is to convince two-thirds of legislators to accept its reform proposal.

However, the consultation report reveals its inability in this regard. There are repeated references to "the mainstream opinion" without an explanation of how the opinion has been ascertained or defined. Where sources are cited, it is selective in finding support for the so-called mainstream opinions.

For example, why should the Heung Yee Kuk, Hong Kong Professionals and Senior Executives Association, the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, Savantas Policy Institute and others be said to hold the "mainstream opinion" on the future size of the legislature, while groups such as Hong Kong 2020, Alliance for True Democracy, the Hong Kong Council of Social Service and others are said only to hold "other views"?

There is an indication that, since 94 per cent of the written submissions were in the form of questionnaire-type or pro-forma submissions, less weight was given to all the written submissions. Greater weight appears to have been given to the views of those individuals and groups which the task force chose to meet. How can the views of this self-selected class be representative of public opinion generally?

The report also appears to be unmoved by repeated public calls for adherence to international standards and a genuine choice of candidates.

On the issue of the political affiliation of the chief executive, the report is disingenuous in stating that "there was not much discussion focusing on the issue", because the December consultation document reserved the topic for later consultation.

Third, the hope that the government might seek a more conciliatory approach to the public demand for civic nomination now seems dim. In saying the task force did not comment on specific proposals during the consultation period, the report's pretence of neutrality goes too far.

The report tees up the Standing Committee to rule out civic nomination and leaves no hope of nominating committee and civic nomination hybrids becoming feasible. Reference to the hybrid of civic recommendation is only to the effect that it may not be practical. There is no outlet to channel the growing pressure for more civic participation in the nomination process.

Fourth, in saying so little about the next steps in the reform process, there is no reasonable prospect of achieving any reform. The report to the Standing Committee has left the door open for it to impose any limitations on reform to "narrow the differences amongst different sectors".

It may also, inadvertently, hold back the democratisation of the Legislative Council until 2024, if we skip a gradual and orderly step in 2016. By taking the 2016 Legco election off the table, the government has severely limited its bargaining power with legislators. We are told that a second consultation is coming. It was not mentioned in the December consultation document, and we are left wondering what is the point.

Having received thousands of submissions already, many very detailed, conducting a second consultation now can only send the message that "we have not heard you" or "we are waiting until we get the right consultation results". From the 2010 experience, we saw that Beijing's bottom line may well be more flexible than that which appears in the second consultation document. Whether this will be the case again remains unknown.

It is time that we seriously reflect upon not only the possible models of reform, but also the process of reform.

Professor Simon N. M. Young is associate dean (research) in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, and co-editor of Reforming Law Reform