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  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 5:55am
Universal Suffrage
CommentInsight & Opinion

Faced with Beijing's political reform decision, pragmatism must guide legislators

Simon Young calls on legislators to weigh carefully their response to the harsher-than-expected NPC decision on universal suffrage, to gain maximum advantage for Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 September, 2014, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 8:29am

One cannot but be left feeling shocked, disappointed and cheated by the National People's Congress Standing Committee's decision on universal suffrage. Who was there to speak on behalf of Hong Kong people's interests in the Beijing meetings last week? Not the Hong Kong deputies to the NPC who were only observers with their own interests to protect. Deputies are elected by a body made up primarily of members of the same committee that has nominated and will continue to nominate chief executive candidates; surely deputies would not want to see any major change to the make-up of this committee.

Then there was the chief executive's report and consultation report, but these presented a wide range of public views in a misleading and selective manner. The Basic Law Committee, which has six Hong Kong members, was not formally consulted. This leaves just one Hong Kong member, out of the 175 members making up the Standing Committee. Compare this to the committee that drafted the Basic Law in the 1980s, whose composition had almost 40 per cent Hong Kong members.

One needs to get over the initial shock in order to think clearly on the question of what remains possible. Is veto of any proposal a virtual certainty? Are mass protests the only answer? To make any progress here, one has to place to one side the ideal world and "international standards". Pragmatism kicks in.

The main question becomes, even with the Standing Committee's constraints, can there still be a package of reform that, when implemented, will give us a better system of executive government, an executive more accountable to the people of Hong Kong? Would such a system get us closer to a more democratic system of universal suffrage than if we stood still in 2017 and tried again for 2022? I urge legislators to ponder these questions seriously in the coming months and, in doing so, take into account the following considerations.

First, the Standing Committee's decision does not address the first stage of nominations that decides who can go before the nominating committee for the 50 per cent vote. Legislators should insist upon a low threshold here, maybe even requiring public endorsement, which has not been ruled out. Getting in the door is important, especially if there will be public debates with candidates who appear to be favoured by Beijing.

Second, do not underestimate the final power of the people to accept or reject the candidates presented to them. Hong Kong voters are intelligent and pragmatic. They will readily see through a candidate who is merely a puppet of Beijing. They will also see which candidates they would rather have as outspoken legislators than as the top political leader.

Where only one candidate is nominated, legislators should insist on a high approval rate (for example, 60 per cent) of all registered voters. If there is more than one candidate running, the winning candidate should still obtain more than 50 per cent of all votes casts (even if it requires two rounds of voting). Voters should be allowed to cast blank votes to show their disapproval of the candidates on offer.

These safeguards will send a strong message to Beijing that it cannot easily manipulate the nomination process and that it will be necessary to strive to find candidates who have the confidence of Hong Kong people. If opinion polls were prescient, the current chief executive would not be re-elected.

Third, even if the Standing Committee allowed a lower threshold, Beijing's ultimate appointment power means that, realistically, political parties will seek to field candidates acceptable (or potentially acceptable) to Beijing. This game of finding "acceptable candidates" continues with the 50 per cent threshold, as Beijing's influence on the decision-making of the future nominating committee remains constant. Given the need to have candidates that have the confidence of the people, Beijing's alleged list of acceptable moderate pan-democrats could well gain priority status if reform is approved.

Fourth, in negotiations with the government, legislators should use the opportunity to bundle together other desirable reforms. A list of demands might include the following: allow the chief executive to maintain political party affiliation, abolish corporate voting to pave the way for its abolition in the legislature, reallocate nominating committee subsector seats more rationally and fairly, widen the electorate base of the subsectors, abolish ex officio district council members, and so on. Most importantly, a commitment to a post-2017 review of the system should be obtained.

Hong Kong looks set to undergo a dark period in the final months of 2014. Sadly, reform activities may overflow into the criminal justice system, which will be tested and pushed to its limits. Independent and impartial decision-making must prevail to prevent that system from showing a mean and ugly side.

We will probably need to wait until early 2015 before any meaningful discussion on reform can take place. Will legislators be able to think strategically and see the great political disadvantage of having no reform? Those who see the current crisis as an opportunity will stand a chance of forming the ruling party someday. Having no reform will continue to see legislators marginalised and the endless cycle of protest and political stasis.

Simon Young Ngai-man is professor and associate dean in the Faculty of Law, at the University of Hong Kong


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This article is now closed to comments

Dai Muff
You Commies keep saying this, but Hongkongers were happier and felt safer under British rule.
Captainlui, please do not use all capital letters. There is no need to shout to make your point.
You are right that there was little democracy under the Brits (although more than is remembered). But that was 17 years ago under a colonial power. We are part of China now, and what matters is what China does now, not a comparison to what the colonial Brits did or did not do years ago.
If you look at the wording of Art. 45 of the BL, Beijing has not violated it. The provision does say that the CE must win the support of a nomination committee made up of members selected through democratic procedure. What the pan-democrats should have done at the first place is to examine ways as to how members of this committee could be more democratically represented. Instead they kept insisting on public nomination.
and it may get out of hands.
Even the United States has the most sophisticated legal system. However, there is a limit freedom of speech or protest. The US constitutionality protected right to engage in peaceful protest in traditional public forums. However, US government can impose time, place and manner restrictions on speech, for example the US government may require permits for large protests or prohibit unreasonably loud demonstrations that disturb other. These restrictions are generally permissible as long as they are reasonable and not based on contents.
**Final** Pg.1/2
Jennie PC Chiang/江佩珍 09/02/14 美國
Beijing's decision is a shocking disappointment but let's look at the pan democrats' actions. They know Beijing is an authoritarian state and cannot tolerate any challenge to the rule by CCP. They also know Beijing will crack down on these challenges. Yet the pan democrats engage actions that win favour with some HK people but not with the powers in Beijing. By filibustering, throwing glass in Legco chambers, by threatening occupation of Central, by DEMANDING universal suffrage etc the pan democrats have antagonised Beijing to the extent that we now have the shocking result. The pan democrats should consider a change of tactics and not be so confrontational.
Mr. Simon Young where were you! And if you were old enough, then, did you ever speak on behalf of Hong Kong people's interests in the Britain under the colony of Britain in SCMP? Or you were chickened out, like most of Hong Kongers, a silence of lamb and let British did whatever their desires or dominated your life.
Why did Great Britain never make Hong Kong a democracy? Why didn’t it do this in the 1960s or 1970s or even 1980s? Why did it continue appointing bland British bureaucrats, who had never lived there and knew nothing about the place, to run Hong Kong? It seems that this failure has something to with the continuing British nostalgia of empire.
Again, if Great Britain had had the option of ruling Hong Kong as long as it pleased, would Hong Kong today be a full democracy? Maybe not. Probably not. Why those the activists in Hong Kong had never asked for their basis human rights and democracy under British rule. They are like a silence of lamb and let British did whatever their desires or dominated their life. I wonder if those few Hong Kongers holding British passports or foreigners try to create chaotic Hong Kong under the name of democracy.
My suggestion to Hong Kong or Central government is that government should clean up or crack down immediately, like how NY ex-mayor, Mr. Bloomberg, cracked down Wall Street protestors, before foreign power involved in an occupied central demonstration .
Jennie PC Chiang/江佩珍 09/02/14 美國
Prof. Young's deserves high praise for brilliantly, intellectually, tearing down each of the elements and finding potential democratic toe-holds at various levels. But, sadly, there are no platforms for the launch of democracy on the stony cliff-face presented by the CCP. All that remains is to tear it down, holus bolus.
Compromise and moderation are all well and good in most cases, but in the current case such efforts were severely slammed both by Beijing and the government. Under such circumstances will coming to the table to discuss such minor measures simply spell the doom of the democratic camp? It may be better to organize legal protest that Hong KOng people can get behind than to surrender their final cards under circumstances where chances of gain are slim. Beyond legal technicalities going forward there are also strategic considerations that need to be considered carefully. A show of weakness may not be the best move. Likewise, Hong Kong people may be reluctant to get behind illegal protest.
"Where only one candidate is nominated, legislators should insist on a high approval rate (for example, 60 per cent) of all registered voters. If there is more than one candidate running, the winning candidate should still obtain more than 50 per cent of all votes casts (even if it requires two rounds of voting). Voters should be allowed to cast blank votes to show their disapproval of the candidates on offer." - All well and good in theory/ dreamland; but there is absolutely no guarantee of such conditions being set. And given what's happened of late, I'd say there's more chance of hell freezing over than such conditions being set. Not seen a "Re-Open Nominations" on a ballot in Hong Kong before and don't expect to see this in 2017 - woe betide anyone gets permitted to express dislike of what the self-proclaimed vanguard imposes on the people of Hong Kong!
Can't the pan-democrats sometimes compromise their political agenda or manifesto? For example, instead of using "end one party rule", can't they change it to something like "aiming to build a democratic China" or "aim to endorse the three principles of people of Sun Yat-Sen" to unify China? In its ruling, the NPC did not actually say pan-democrats cannot run for the CE, all it said was that a candidate must get 50% support from the nomination committee. If changing your political slogan or agenda slightly can win you support, why not? Besides, given that HK is a major financial centre, are politics the only issue at an election? Can't they mention other economic or social issues that affect people's livelihood on a daily basis?



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