2017 election is part of China's march to modernity

Bernard Chan says poll arrangements must be guided by common sense

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

I spent the first two weeks of March in Beijing, attending the National People's Congress session, alongside the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. This year was special, in that we saw election formalities for the new leadership. In other respects, it was similar to previous years.

The media had a field day. I found myself answering some pretty harsh questions about Hong Kong's two-can limit on infant milk powder. Many mainlanders consider the penalties harsh. They do not understand that the two-year prison term is a maximum, unlikely to be used much, if at all, in practice.

We were aware of the uproar in Hong Kong about a "preliminary election" as a "screening mechanism" for chief executive candidates in 2017. This followed remarks from officials in Beijing about how candidates should love China and love Hong Kong, and many in Hong Kong wondered whether this was also a comment from within the central government.

I hadn't heard any senior official say such a thing. Essentially, it was a storm in a teacup, but it underlined the importance of Hong Kong's coming debate on constitutional reform.

In his policy address in January, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said he would leave public consultation on political reform to later. Given the number of other policy issues on his plate, this is understandable. It also makes sense, given that society is so polarised at the moment. As the "primary election" fuss showed, people are in a jumpy mood.

We should look calmly at the task ahead: to decide on a system to elect the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017. As with milk powder, we might see this as simply a local issue, but it is more than that. Universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2017 would be a landmark event for the nation. In giving Hong Kong people the right to directly elect their leader, with all the powers of a special administrative region at his or her disposal, the central government is taking a big step.

I have not heard any officials in Beijing mention specifics about the election arrangements. We know that the Basic Law requires a nomination process. Common sense tells us that there has to be some sort of threshold, if only to ensure the number of candidates is manageable.

Common sense also tells us that whoever becomes chief executive must be someone Beijing trusts. I cannot imagine Hong Kong voters choosing anyone else. Ideally, it would be someone with experience of working with province-level and other mainland officials.

But, of course, that will not be enough. Whoever becomes chief executive in 2017 will have to demonstrate that the people of Hong Kong trust him or her. Someone who is hostile to Beijing clearly will not be fit to do the job. But someone who is not supported by the people of Hong Kong will not be acceptable either.

Whatever the nomination system, this is part of a bigger process of development. Not just development of the Hong Kong political system, but development of the country as a modern society.

The Chinese government is planning full convertibility of the currency at some time in the future. Officials are openly discussing the need to strengthen the independence of courts.

These imply a major relaxation of long-standing controls at the centre. Universal suffrage in Hong Kong should be seen in this context; 2017 will not necessarily be an end point where our political development is concerned.

The upside, if we can broadly agree on election methods acceptable to Beijing and Hong Kong, is a leader who has sought and gained a popular mandate - something we have never had before. As for a downside, I really can't think of one.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council