Hong Kong in the mood for democracy

Anson Chan calls on the government and its supporters to stop vilifying pro-democracy campaigners, and instead address Hong Kong people's urgent desire for constitutional reform

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 4:39am

The torrent of criticism unleashed upon Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting's initiative to "Let Love and Peace Occupy Central" is truly astonishing. Leading the charge are the China Daily and local pro-Beijing newspapers which have been publishing an unrelenting stream of articles and opinion pieces, accusing those who support the movement of being determined to break the law just for the sake of it.

Then there is the carefully orchestrated campaign by some chambers of commerce and other bastions of vested interest. They have taken out full-page advertisements in the local press, predicting that Occupy Central will cause economic mayhem and irrevocably tarnish Hong Kong's image as a global business and financial services centre. A number of high-profile figures, who frankly should know better, have also jumped on the bandwagon: speculating that the blocking of roads in the heart of Central could prompt intervention by the People's Liberation Army to restore law and order!

Much of this alarmist invective would be laughable were it not for some sinister undertones. Demonising Occupy Central provides useful cover for a more general attack on the aims of the democracy movement. It also provides a convenient way of avoiding the main issue, namely, how to move forward - as a community - to achieve genuine universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive in 2017 and all members of the Legislative Council in 2020.

What we need are constructive ideas on how to build a consensus and a willingness to engage in rational discussion. Instead, we have a concerted effort to vilify and intimidate potential supporters of the campaign, simply because they feel passionately enough about the cause of universal suffrage to risk arrest.

Let's put aside the scaremongering and focus on facts. The fundamental reason the Occupy Central movement is gathering momentum is because many people - and not just those already in the pro-democracy camp - have simply lost confidence in the government's determination to deliver genuine universal suffrage by the relevant target dates. Frustration over the government's refusal to indicate when public consultation will begin is being compounded by a growing sense of disillusionment with the performance of the chief executive and his team.

The mood of the community is reflected sharply in the results of two recent polls conducted by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme. One poll shows that trust and confidence in the Hong Kong and central governments have fallen to the lowest levels since 2003, when 500,000 people took to the streets on July 1. A second poll, to gauge public satisfaction with current economic, livelihood and political conditions, found that by far and away the greatest net dissatisfaction rate (43 per cent) was with the current political condition.

These findings should set alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power, both here and in Beijing. However, far from appearing concerned at his abysmal popularity ratings, our chief executive seems detached from current political realities.

Hong Kong used to be able to take pride in the personal and professional integrity of its senior officials but, sadly, this reputation is now in serious jeopardy. The recent wave of scandals and alleged improprieties has engulfed two unofficial members of the Executive Council and no less a person than the former commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, someone whose conduct should be beyond reproach.

When senior officials increasingly behave as though they are accountable to no one and when cronyism is increasingly taking the place of competence and integrity as the basis for appointment to top public sector posts, can the public really be blamed for becoming increasingly cynical and impatient for change?

No one wants to see thousands of people resorting to a campaign of civil disobedience because they feel there is no other way of getting their voices heard. But if the government ignores majority opinion and moves to implement an electoral system that does not measure up to the international standards embodied in the Basic Law, then this is where we may end up.

Professor Tai has made clear that a decision to physically "occupy Central" will be taken only as a last resort - when all other efforts to achieve genuine universal suffrage have failed - and only if this course of action is endorsed by a city-wide referendum. It is my sincere hope that this final step in his campaign proves not to be necessary. To avoid it, the government must urgently get a grip on constitutional reform and formulate a package of proposals for universal suffrage that measures up to internationally accepted standards.

Far from reassuring Hong Kong people that the promises made to them in the Basic Law and by the central government will be fulfilled on time, in 2017 and 2020, our chief executive has cast doubt on this timetable in press interviews given during his recent trip to the US. He has also issued a blunt warning that the civil disobedience being planned by Occupy Central would be tolerated by neither the government nor the courts.

No one likes to be bullied. Such tactics usually strengthen rather than weaken the resolve of those being threatened, as well as create new converts to the cause. Recent attacks, by persons unknown, on supporters of the democratic movement are particularly troubling because they are attacks on the basic freedoms of thought and speech that underpin "one country, two systems".

It is vital that all parties and all shades of opinion, from the chief executive down, recognise that the campaign for universal suffrage in Hong Kong is rapidly reaching a tipping point. Hong Kong people are in no mood to be fobbed off, yet again, with half-baked proposals for constitutional change and the sort of phoney public consultation process that has been the norm in recent years.

Something has to give - and soon - if social turmoil is to be avoided.

Anson Chan Fang On-sang is convenor of Hong Kong 2020