Can talks on electoral reform bridge the divide?

Frank Ching says with talks on electoral reform now starting in earnest, all sides willing to engage must nevertheless keep an open mind

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 4:42am

The chairman of the National People's Congress Law Committee, Qiao Xiaoyang , ignited a firestorm when he said the Hong Kong chief executive must be patriotic. On the positive side, he sparked discussion on the 2017 election even before a public consultation has begun.

No doubt, there are decision-makers in Beijing who want to screen out candidates they don't like. But, from a tactical standpoint, it makes more sense for Beijing to have as many pro-democracy candidates as possible on the ballot. That way, the pro-democracy vote will be divided, enhancing the chances of pro-establishment candidates. Screen them in, not out.

Actually, anyone who spends some time thinking of the role of the chief executive will conclude that confrontation with Beijing is virtually inconceivable.

The chief executive's job is to govern Hong Kong for the well-being of its people. Today, our well-being cannot be separated from the mainland's development. Whoever is chief executive will want good working relations with local and provincial governments as well as the central government. There is no other way to govern Hong Kong.

Democrats ought to acknowledge that it is not the chief executive's job to change the mainland. "Confronting" Beijing is a theoretical right no chief executive in his right mind would want to exercise. So while it is wrong to insist that candidates should be "patriotic", it is equally wrong to insist that someone who wants to overthrow the mainland government should be on the ballot.

Four months after Qiao's speech, proposals on how the "broadly representative nominating committee" prescribed in the Basic Law should be formed are now the subject of much debate.

The Alliance for True Democracy has put forward three ideas, which were immediately rejected by some as being inconsistent with the Basic Law. However, at a time when the conversation on electoral reform is just beginning, it is more constructive to examine the details of each proposal rather than to pour cold water on them.

On the pro-Beijing side, the Basic Law Institute has also come forward with a proposal. One of its ideas - including all district councillors on the nominating committee - is similar to one of the alliance's proposals, so there is now at least the emergence of common ground.

Last Friday, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen met representatives of the alliance to listen to their proposals. Yesterday, the head of the central government's liaison office, Zhang Xiaoming , had lunch with legislators, including those from the pro-democracy camp, for the first time. And in two weeks, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is expected to meet academics, some of whom drafted the alliance proposals.

Momentum is building. Such dialogue should help the government devise an electoral model to further focus discussion. A positive attitude on all sides is vital.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1