July 1 march

Political reform can rally Hong Kong to rise to its challenges

Joseph Cheng says that while a democratic government is no panacea forHong Kong's ills, political reform can nevertheless rally the people to meet the serious challenges ahead

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 8:11am

All concerned parties will be watching the turnout for today's July 1 protest rally with great interest. This is a concrete indicator of the community's grievances and an evaluation of the performance of Leung Chun-ying's administration. Hong Kong people understand that any chance Leung has of being re-elected, or indeed of completing this term, will depend on Beijing's perception of his performance. So, like their counterparts on the mainland, one way for them to show their anger to the Chinese leadership is through the media.

On political reform, the Hong Kong government has had little to say. It has also been slow to respond to the Edward Snowden saga. Conservatives in the pro-Beijing united front have increasingly blamed demands for democracy and the Occupy Central campaign on "collusion" with external forces and the "landmines" left by the British colonial administration.

Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists and Hong Kong people are treating Snowden as a hero and have not hesitated to criticise the US administration. The pro-Beijing media has even given space to the pro-democracy camp's views, an extremely rare occurrence.

Since 2003, the July 1 protests have fully demonstrated that Hong Kong people cherish their right to articulate their grievances, but they also appreciate that there are limits; they have no intention of damaging the city's stability and prosperity.

If the government respects the right of the people to protest, then these annual rallies and the Occupy Central campaign can uphold the good image of Hong Kong people's moderation. The fears in recent months about protests getting out of control have come from the so-called patriotic groups. The fear-mongering may damage the reputation of the pro-democracy movement and give the administration an excuse to clamp down.

Yet, the much more serious concern is surely the likely failure of reaching agreement on political reform. In short, this would hurt Hong Kong badly. The incumbent chief executive and the person elected in 2017 would still lack legitimacy in the eyes of most people, and he or she would not have the mandate or political support to implement badly needed reforms. Effective governance may be difficult.

The pro-democracy groups would not benefit from such difficulties. They would in all likelihood be divided and would be unable to play any constructive role. Such worries have generated renewed talk of emigrating, which had subsided after the mid-1990s, especially among young professionals.

The administration's refusal to release a timetable for consultations is therefore highly irresponsible. Failure to reach agreement on political reform will leave very little room for the government to focus on livelihood issues. The flaws of the existing system are crystal clear: most recently, the administration could not even persuade enough pro-establishment legislators to support its landfill plan for garbage treatment.

The old arguments that political reform has to be gradual and that conditions may not yet be right have, by now, lost all credibility. In the eyes of most Hong Kong people, political reform have become the endgame.

The widening gap between rich and poor, the decline in opportunities for young people to move up the ladder, the worsening housing problems, and the increasing inadequacy of our pension and health care systems not only exacerbate the community's frustrations and grievances, they also make people realise the administration lacks the political support needed to tackle such issues. Worse still, people don't believe the administration can get back this support.

The business community has its own problems to deal with, from divisions within its ranks to the worsening "hate the rich" attitude of ordinary people.

Hence the turnout for the July 1 protest rally is even more significant this year.

If big businesses still cling to their usual strategy of lobbying Chinese leaders to protect their interests, they will not be interested in political reform. But is this a viable long-term strategy? Obviously the weight of Hong Kong's contribution to China's economic development has been in decline; and with China's major state-owned enterprises wanting a larger and larger share of the city's market, they are becoming the more influential lobbyists in Beijing.

Business leaders in Hong Kong should realise that the best way to promote their long-term interests is to follow their counterparts in Western democracies and form effective political parties to win elections. They have the resources and the talent to do so, especially given the relative weakness of the pro-democracy groups.

A democratic government cannot solve all of Hong Kong's problems; no one has ever claimed it could. But at this stage, a Hong Kong government that is not democratically elected will not have the legitimacy to face the challenges ahead. Any legitimacy achieved through performance has been almost completely eroded; high-level corruption cases, perhaps the last straw, have seen to that.

July 1 this year is an occasion for serious thinking about Hong Kong's future. The larger the turnout for the protest rally, the more prominent the warning signs.

The current trend of political polarisation and fragmentation has to be arrested. This calls for an abandonment of sectoral and narrow political interests and a spirit of respect for different political views. The Leung administration has so far been unable to demonstrate this quality of genuine leadership, so only the Hong Kong people can help themselves now.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong, is convenor of the Alliance for True Democracy