Is Beijing's political reform proposal acceptable or not? Let the people speak

Albert Cheng says the government should show it is guided by public opinion by including a referendum of sorts in the next phase of consultation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 September, 2014, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 1:45am

Hong Kong's long and winding road to greater democracy has apparently ended down a blind alley, after the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress imposed a set of rigid parameters on the chief executive election in 2017.

The nominating method as prescribed by Beijing is so restrictive that the pan-democrats in the legislature have pledged to vote against it en masse. Should that happen, the city will be trapped in a political stalemate for at least another decade.

There is so much at stake that the best way out is for both sides to take a few steps back and let the people decide in the form of a referendum.

The constitutional framework of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region under communist China does not provide for any plebiscite or referendum.

However, if the government really respects the voice of the people, there should be some sort of referendum built into its upcoming public consultation exercise to map out the next steps of reform. Failing that, the official findings of this second round of consultation are bound to be dismissed as unrepresentative.

As shown in past Legislative Council polls, pan-democrats have managed to gain the support of nearly one million voters. Some 800,000 people took part in Occupy Central with Love and Peace's informal referendum. The organiser of this year's July 1 rally estimated that 510,000 people had marched that day for democracy.

Nevertheless, it does not follow that these active democracy supporters also endorse the Occupy movement.

Feng Wei, deputy director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said the biggest contributors to democracy were often not those who chanted the loudest slogans. He went on to claim that "the central government is the biggest democratic camp in Hong Kong".

His arrogance reflects how removed Beijing officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs are from the pulse of the city. Yet Feng might have a point when he said mainstream public opinion was against Occupy Central.

Hongkongers are, in essence, materialistic and tend to avoid conflict. Radical protest action is not our cup of tea. The so-called silent majority of both the middle and working classes have led a fairly decent life. The terms stability and prosperity have been etched into the collective consciousness.

Even though many aspire to a truly democratic system, most are not convinced that Occupy Central is the right tool for this end. The consequences would be too costly to bear.

The irony is that the anti-Occupy coalition is hardly popular either.

The counter-movement claimed that as many as 1.5 million people had joined its signature campaign. But the figure was inflated, as tourists, mainland Chinese and foreign domestic helpers were seen signing up.

The group further claimed that 193,000 people took part in its march on August 17. The participants were mostly mobilised by the Beijing-friendly groups. Residents actually opposed to Occupy Central might simply have stayed away from these dubious associations.

It is hard to gauge how many among the silent majority are opposed to Occupy Central. It is equally uncertain how many would like to "pocket" what has been offered by the NPC.

No doubt, opinion surveys will be done in the weeks ahead. The problem with such polls is that they are often challenged as biased or not representative.

The fairest and simplest way to find out what the people really want is to put a straightforward proposition to them in a referendum - "How should the Legislative Council members vote on the election method for the chief executive in 2017 as prescribed by the NPC Standing Committee: in favour, against, or abstain?"

And let the people speak.

Both camps insist that they have public opinion on their side. The most honourable way to resolve the deadlock is to defer to the collective choice of the people.

Of course, it will be almost impossible to convince Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to seek out and then follow mainstream public opinion.

If an official referendum isn't possible, the next best option is a roundabout one. At present, there are five lawmakers returned through the District Council (Second) constituency, which covers all registered voters in Hong Kong except a small number who already have a vote in the other functional constituencies.

Three of these so-called "super legislators" are from the democratic camp. One of them can resign to trigger a by-election, which would focus on the single issue of whether to accept the NPC election framework. The outcome of the by-election would be seen as a popular mandate for whichever side wins.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.