Does Beijing have the stomach for change?

Emily Lau hopes the historic lunch with the liaison office head can open the door to dialogue but, first, Beijing must stop interfering in local affairs and honour its pledge of universal suffrage for the city

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 3:14am

The director of the central government's liaison office, Zhang Xiaoming, will meet all legislators, including those from the pro-democracy camp, at a lunch meeting hosted by Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing tomorrow. This is the first time mainland officials will attend a formal function held in the Legco complex.

However, as the saying goes, one swallow does not make a summer. The historic event does not necessarily mean a rapprochement between the pro-democracy camp and Beijing, but I hope relations between the two sides will normalise.

It is the Democratic Party's position to have rational dialogue with all members of society, but relations with the central government have become strained since the June 4 massacre in 1989. Many members of the party, including all former and current chairpersons and others in leadership positions, have been banned from visiting the mainland.

Mainland officials have never before attended any formal functions in the Legco building, because they did not want to have contact with pro-democracy legislators. Neither did the central government wish to give recognition to the constitutional status of political parties, so much so that they would not allow the chief executive to belong to a political party.

When the news of Zhang's visit to Legco broke, a retired senior government official called me to complain that the visit signalled "one country, two systems" is dead and mainland officials will unabashedly interfere in Hong Kong affairs. Such concern was echoed by others.

Such violent reaction to Zhang's visit is understandable. After the big march on July 1, 2003, which aborted the government's attempt to legislate on Article 23 of the Basic Law, Beijing lost confidence in then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Consequently, the central government sent many emissaries to Hong Kong to report on the situation here and interfere in our affairs.

For many years, officials from the liaison office have played a key role in Hong Kong elections, co-ordinating the strategy of the pro-Beijing camp. They have also intervened in Legco affairs. Demonstrators who went to the liaison office to present petitions to Beijing were given short shrift.

Such a hostile attitude has caused anger and projected a negative image of the liaison office. I hope Zhang will respect Hong Kong's culture, engage in dialogue with all sectors of the community but refrain from interfering in Hong Kong affairs.

His visit to Legco has raised expectations that the central government may wish to engage the pro-democracy camp in talks on constitutional reform. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has been severely criticised for his failure to consult the public on the direct election of the chief executive in 2017 and the election of Legco in 2016 and 2020.

For Hong Kong to move towards universal suffrage, there should be trust and consensus. The reason my party supports the Occupy Central campaign is that we do not believe Beijing will honour its undertaking by allowing Hong Kong people to elect the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017.

We believe the people have waited too long for democracy; the election in 2017 must be by universal and equal suffrage. We will not hesitate to resort to civil disobedience, including occupying Central, to achieve our goal. I will tell Zhang we do not wish to do it. But if Beijing goes back on its promise, we will have no choice, and we will take responsibility for the consequences.

Since there will not be much time to talk to Zhang over lunch, on behalf of my party, I will give him a letter addressed to President Xi Jinping , outlining our concerns and aspirations. I will tell Xi of our desire for universal suffrage and urge the central government to honour its undertaking to the Hong Kong people. I will urge the mainland authorities to abide by the "one country, two systems" policy and refrain from interfering in Hong Kong affairs.

I will also call on Beijing to implement constitutional reform, fight corruption, respect the people's human rights and the rule of law, investigate the atrocities of the June 4 massacre and vindicate the victims and their families.

There has been no contact between the pro-democracy camp and Beijing for more than two decades and one lunch will not turn foes into friends. In 2010, we supported the constitutional reform package, which enabled Hong Kong to break the impasse and moved forward in the chief executive and Legco elections in 2012.

Since Beijing has insisted that political reform in Hong Kong must be by gradual and orderly progress, the limited reforms in 2012 have satisfied that requirement. Thus, Beijing declared that Hong Kong people can elect the chief executive in 2017 by universal suffrage. After that, all members of Legco will also be elected by universal suffrage.

Now that the dates for universal suffrage are fixed, the struggle is to ensure that the elections by universal suffrage are genuine. Beijing must understand that the election must be free and fair and no one should be barred from standing because of his political belief. I hope our meeting with director Zhang will usher in an era of dialogue, but I have no illusion about the difficulties that lie ahead. After all, we know that democracy will not fall, like manna, from heaven.

Emily Lau Wai-hing is chairwoman of the Democratic Party and a Legislative Council member