National education in Hong Kong

In the absence of universal suffrage, public consultations play a vital role

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2012, 2:32am

The government stalled release of details of the public consultation on national education in schools because of privacy concerns. The eventual release of about 500 submissions to the Post revealed that contrary to official insistence that the subject had widespread support, public opinion was divided. This is an issue in its own right, but it raises the broader question of the role and efficacy of public consultations in Hong Kong's governance.

In the absence of elected government they serve an important function in keeping officials in touch with public opinion. They date back to colonial times, when the government consulted hand-picked advisers. These days they at least embrace different opinions, but remain prone to domination by stakeholders and non-government organisations - national education being an exception. As a result they can be a flawed representation of community-wide sentiment. An embarrassing example was a seemingly uncontentious public consultation on the demolition and replacement of the old Star Ferry pier to make way for reclamation, which left the government unprepared for a public outcry. The consultation failed to tap into a predominantly young internet community capable of rapid consensus, which showed up in force at the demolition site.

The government's handling of the national education issue did nothing to enhance public confidence in consultations. But they remain important to confidence in government. They must take account of the fact that social media has roped a new generation into the community conversation. Executive councillor Bernard Chan has urged the government to extend consultation on new policies to online social networks, to reach more people and avoid endless debate on projects such as new towns in the northeastern New Territories and proposed reclamation for new developments. This should not call for a consultation. But if it seems more trouble than it's worth, perhaps that is an argument for universal suffrage.