Beijing's reform model reflects a very different view of the situation in Hong Kong

Cliff Buddle says despite a Basic Law requirement, Beijing's electoral reform framework fails to reflect the actual situation in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 4:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 September, 2014, 1:58am

"The method for selecting the chief executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region…" Article 45 of the Basic Law.

What is the actual situation? This question demands an answer because any reform must reflect that situation. The National People's Congress Standing Committee, when laying down strict limits on the nominating process for candidates to be elected by universal suffrage, seemed to see Hong Kong's situation as being one in which the city is vulnerable to foreign intervention, subversion and instability.

But there is another way of viewing it.

The city faces many challenges. Future chief executives must strive to narrow the wealth gap, prepare for an ageing population, and provide young people with hope and opportunity. All this, while maintaining the city's competitiveness in an uncertain economic environment. To face up to these challenges, we need a political system that works. The one put in place by the Basic Law, modelled on the colonial system it replaced, has simply failed to deliver.

The system does not make life easy for the chief executive, who lacks a mandate from the electorate and is almost guaranteed to become unpopular. We only have to look at how the first three have fared to see that.

And there is not much point in the chief executive looking for help from the Legislative Council. Our lawmakers have just enough power to frustrate the government, but no meaningful role in shaping policy. Relations between the chief executive and the legislature have not been good.

Meanwhile, the people have become increasingly vocal and confrontational, frustrated by the inability to elect the chief executive or vote him out of office. Government policies are, instead, resisted through protests, court actions and media campaigns.

The result of all this is that little gets done. Policies stagnate and difficult decisions are not taken. Society has become increasingly divided.

This is a very different "actual situation" to the one envisaged when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed 30 years ago, to prepare for Hong Kong's return to China. And it is this situation, rather than any civil disobedience threatened by the Occupy Central movement, which poses the real threat to Hong Kong's business environment.

The promise of universal suffrage offered a valuable opportunity for change. It was a time for the central government to reach out to moderates in the democratic camp so that a consensus could be forged which would take the reform process forward. A system which allowed candidates from across the political spectrum to stand was needed. Hopes that this could be achieved have been shattered by the Standing Committee's decision.

Sadly, we are now likely to be stuck with this "actual situation" for some time to come. We need meaningful democratic reform not only to give people the right to vote, but also to ensure good governance. All we can do is continue to strive to bring that about.

Cliff Buddle is the Post's editor, special projects