Hong Kong democracy must be a balancing act

Regina Ip says balancing Beijing's reasonable demand for a say in electing the chief executive with people's desire for the vote won't be easy, but it's necessary if we are to progress

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 3:24am

As predicted, Hong Kong's democratic debate entered a new phase shortly after the July 1 mass protest. On July 9, the Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of pro-democracy activists, put forward three proposals for electing the chief executive in 2017.

The first option involves forming a 1,500-strong nominating committee by adding all district councillors to be elected in 2015 to 1,200 members to be returned by a body similar to the existing Election Committee that selects the chief executive.

Apart from meeting the qualifications for standing as a chief executive candidate as provided in Article 44 of the Basic Law, the nominating criterion will be one-tenth of the votes of all members of the nominating committee, or 2 per cent of the votes of all registered voters, amounting to between 70,000 and 80,000 voters.

The second option involves dividing Hong Kong into 20 geographical districts, each returning 20 representatives to form a 400-strong nominating committee.

A candidate would need to garner one-tenth of the votes of members of the nominating committee, apart from meeting Basic Law requirements for candidacy.

The third option involves forming a 500-strong nominating committee comprising all district councillors and legislators.

Nomination criterion will be one-tenth of the votes of members of the nominating committee or 2 per cent of the votes of all registered voters, apart from meeting Basic Law candidacy requirements.

Article 45 of the Basic Law requires that the chief executive must be nominated by a "broadly representative" nominating committee in accordance with "democratic procedures".

Senior officials have thus far failed to explain what "democratic procedures" would entail.

Given that appointment by the authorities in Beijing and nomination by a "broadly representative" nominating committee are unavoidable requirements in the Basic Law, democracy advocates such as the Alliance for True Democracy have attempted to circumvent Beijing's control by seeking to form the nominating committee by staging universal, free elections, or stacking the committee with representatives returned by such elections.

As a Post writer, Debasish Roy Chowdhury, pointed out in a recent article, in political science literature, holding periodic, universal, free elections merely satisfies the "formal" or "procedural" aspects of democracy.

According to Aristotle, the essence of democracy does not lie in expanding political rights. The essence of democracy is freedom, which, along with the rule of law, acts as a safeguard against the abuse of power and tyranny.

To the extent that Hong Kong has always enjoyed a high level of personal and civic freedoms, robust rule of law (in accordance with which runaway American spy Edward Snowden was allowed to leave Hong Kong last month), and a strong, independent judiciary, Hong Kong is already mostly free, well before the onset of universal suffrage-based democracy in Hong Kong.

All that remains is granting the political right to elect the chief executive ultimately to all eligible voters, as promised in the Basic Law.

It is easy to slam all defenders of the Basic Law and the substantive power of the authorities in Beijing to have the final say on the selection of the chief executive as anti-democratic.

But it is equally important to ask whether it is unreasonable to deny Hong Kong's sovereign power a decisive say in the selection of the city's highest ruler, and whether handing all power of choosing the chief to the people is in keeping with Hong Kong's political reality.

The city is, after all, no more than a special administrative region of China with a high level of autonomy, not an independent country.

Constitutional reality apart, Hong Kong being part of China and strategically located at its southern gateway, it is reasonable for the central government to want to ensure that Hong Kong will be run by someone who will bear its interests in mind, apart from being accountable to the people of Hong Kong.

Viewed from Beijing's perspective, if things turned sour in Hong Kong - for example, if it needed an economic relief package from the mainland, or protection in the face of foreign aggression - then the city would need to turn to Beijing for rescue.

Or, in a worst-case scenario, if an incompetent or disloyal chief executive elected by the people badly messed up the governance of Hong Kong, and indirectly the well-being of the nation, China would be stuck with the consequences.

This is not to say, however, that an appointment system relying on a selection body largely controlled by Beijing would be less likely to end up producing the wrong chief.

Or to suggest that it would be a simple task to reconcile the demands of those who run the nation with the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong.

Indeed, this baffling conundrum is arguably the greatest historic challenge facing Hong Kong.

It is a battle China, including Hong Kong, cannot lose if the nation as a whole is to move forward and prosper.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party