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Is Hong Kong 'ready' for democracy?
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Is Hong Kong ready for democracy? This is a question that is periodically raised by Beijing loyalists and editorial writers in state-owned media. Their answers predictably provoke outrage, ridicule and derision here at home.
But the two sides are shouting past each other, using the same words but giving them very different meanings.
By any conventional measure, Hong Kong is ready, if there is such a thing. On the UN's human development index, our socio-economic status is ahead of more than 100 full democracies. We are ahead of South Korea, Israel and Germany. Our per capita income, adjusted for inflation, is double or triple that of Spain in 1975, and that of Taiwan, Chile and South Korea when they made the transition to full democracy from the mid-1980s.
But this is not what "pro-Beijingers" mean, and the view of the more thoughtful ones should not be dismissed. Under this view, Hong Kong is "ready" only if there is a "consensus" among key sectors of society on the election methods to be used for the chief executive poll in 2017 and for the Legislative Council in 2020 or thereafter.
This means that under the Basic Law we need a constitutional reform package that can win the support of at least 47 lawmakers - from both pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps - in the new legislature.
A new package will have to be proposed by the government, but it is so weak that it can only serve as a middleman or agent. The key players, as always in such transactions, are the seller and the buyer. The pan-democrats need to sell a version of democracy that the pro-Beijing forces in the legislature can buy. Otherwise, Beijing can block full democracy indefinitely, but at the price of the Hong Kong government's loss of credibility and ability to govern.
The Democratic Party recognised this reality and compromised on the 2010 reform package. Fearing radicalisation within the pan-democratic camp, Beijing reached out at the time. But the pan-democrats still spawned more radical splinter groups, many of whose members now sit in Legco and for whom any negotiation means surrender.
For Beijing, if no one can make a deal it just means that, by definition, Hong Kong is still not "ready".