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
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