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  • Sep 17, 2014
  • Updated: 3:34am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Can Hong Kong find order amid the chaos of its constitutional change?

Regina Ip says we need to weigh objectively how the goal of universal suffrage, implying popular participation in public affairs, can improve or fit into our system of governance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 2:46am

Despite the government's inertia, not a week passes by in Hong Kong without one group or another putting forward proposals for democratic reform. The latest addition is one from legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah to elect the chief executive in 2017 by the alternative vote method, as a way to bargain for a lower threshold for nomination.

Doubters and sceptics continue to question whether electing the chief executive by universal suffrage would cure all the structural, social and political problems facing Hong Kong. If a pro-China candidate is installed as leader, the pan-democrats in the legislature would use the filibuster to obstruct. If a democrat is elected, the pro-establishment legislators would do likewise.

Our proportional representation electoral system precludes the emergence of a majority party. Moreover, although de facto party politics exist, rule by the majority party, or a coalition of political parties in the Legislative Council, as in countries which practise a parliamentary system, would go against Hong Kong's constitutional status as a special administrative region of China.

Our constitutional reform is seemingly stuck in a dead end even before the formal, government-led consultation starts.

At this point, it is timely to think hard on what changes are necessary to cure Hong Kong's ills and restore this vibrant city to political health. Uncomfortable though it may be to the many advocates of universal suffrage, it is never too profane to re-examine what universal suffrage is, why it is important and what else is necessary to make a political system work.

Universal suffrage is, by definition, the universal and equal right to vote. As Wikipedia tells us, universal suffrage initially meant universal adult male suffrage. Many countries took a long time to achieve universal suffrage for all. It would surprise many Hong Kong people to know that although France was one of the first countries to elect its legislative assembly by giving the right to vote to all males aged 25 and over in 1792, it did not give its women the right to vote until 1944.

Indeed, women in Britain and the US acquired the vote only after the first world war, and after a bitter struggle. The UK trod cautiously, extending the right to vote to women in stages and granting the right to all women aged 21 and above only in 1928.

Discrimination on the basis of gender, literacy and property ownership, as well as electoral calculations, all played a part in delaying the grant of the right to vote to all adults. Advocates of universal suffrage argue that Hong Kong, benefiting from the experience of the West, can progress much faster. Western experience certainly helps. But it also means that Hong Kong needs to deal with, within the span of a decade or so, all the problems concomitant with building a democratic polity which Western countries took hundreds of years to resolve.

As for the right to run for elected office, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights upholds the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs, but allows "reasonable restrictions" to be imposed, other than distinctions based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, and so on.

This has not prevented many countries from imposing tougher requirements for candidates for the highest office. The US Constitution, which pre-dates the covenant, requires the president to be a "natural born citizen" of the United States, a resident of 14 years, and 35 years of age or older.

Possibly taking a leaf from the US Constitution, Hong Kong's Basic Law stipulates that the chief executive shall be "a Chinese citizen of no less than 40 years of age who is a permanent resident of the Region with no right of abode in any foreign country and has ordinarily resided in Hong Kong for a continuous period of not less than 20 years".

The successful implementation of the Basic Law, which entrenches international human rights covenants, would fulfil the ultimate goal of extending the right to vote for the chief executive to all. While that would no doubt exponentially broaden popular participation in the conduct of public affairs, and meet the procedural requirements of a democratic polity, a big question mark still hangs over whether broadened popular participation would deliver good governance.

As Samuel Huntington observed in his provocative book Political Order in Changing Societies, published 45 years ago, quoting intrepid public intellectual Walter Lippmann, "there is no greater necessity for men who live in communities than that they be governed, self-governed if possible, well-governed if they are fortunate, but in any event, governed."

Recent confrontations between supporters and abusers of the police, and between supporters and critics of the chief executive, fully illustrate how difficult it is for people to be self-governed.

As more participate in politics and public affairs, Hong Kong faces a daunting challenge of assimilating the new social forces into its political institutions. The task of building a new political order must proceed hand in glove with the broadening of the franchise. The question is: can that be done in time for Hong Kong to avoid being embroiled in turmoil?

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


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You need Satan -- China. That's OK by me.
You talk as if you know the CCP. Honestly, I don't believe you are aware of an iota of China's meritocratic system, the spectrum of ideas and checks and balances within one party, let alone shared duties among provincial, local governments and Beijing.
Rome is not built in a day. China is barely at the threshold of a middle income nation. Although its institutions, processes and rule of law still lag behind the advanced countries, China is much better off in this department than many richer countries. In governance dynamics, there is almost none that could match China insofar as effectiveness of policy implementation and execution is concerned.
In designing an organizational structure, two key variables are span of control and functional areas, with both multiplying exponentially as population increases. The reason? If a manager has 20 people reporting directly, he has only time to sign expense vouchers. More functional managers, more interfaces.
With 1.3 billion people and 105 million - bigger than any EU country - in Guangdong alone, only a religious lunatic fails to see CCP's achievements, despite much tyranny in an earlier era.
Democracy cultists are missionaries. One of the proselytizing tools is to demonize. HKers like you have tried to convert me to your faith with tales of Chinese corruption. EVERY Chinese will vote with his feet if given a choice, so they insist.
Sorry, I don't fall for your religion.
jpn in situ
You have no idea what's meant by parliamentary
For your education, see wiki
Is the US' imported legislative system "parliamentary"?
A parliamentary legal system?
Now you’ve learnt from wiki to discern some superficial differences
With due respect, study more and think harder
before displaying your “knowledge” or insights
which while popular among scholarism
are, for the better informed, quite ludicrous
What’d you call those who preserve imports
and worship them as unchangeable heritage?
Everybody imports
imports must adapt for local relevance and efficiency
Open your eyes and recognize how the CCP
has been applying a modified western utopian ideal
with evolving Chinese characteristics
to give it contemporary relevance
Follow your own counsel
and learn to appreciate CCP
realistically with today's objective
circumstances and standards
Why is it always necessary to point to deveoped countries and what they did 100 or 200 years ago and then make assertions that today the same is necessary? Has the world not changed? Are international standards not differernt now? Is not the conduct of nations in the past often not acceptable now? Today is today and what people and socities do must be judged by today's standards, not some standard from decades or centruies ago.
Nonetheless, Hong Kong is Western modeled society, it does not mater who lives here or what the CCP lovers say. It's legistaltive system is parlimentary as is its legal system, both of which are British imports.
"Has the world not changed?" Of course it has! Failed and dysfunctional democracies are everywhere, but you're still sticking with dogmas and theories that can't keep up with human adaptability, science and technology. One-man-one-vote will soon be as good as Lazarus rising from the dead and other miracles.
I'm open-minded about proposed improvements on the one-man one-vote model of democracy or similar. If you're suggesting the CCP governing model as an improvement on the various forms of democracy operating in today's world, I'll pass on that, thank you.
RI is in every aspect and matter
much much much better than RT
Something's wrong with the editor
showing us the photo of the inferior
PCC: I agree with your words
if only you knew what they mean
Indeed it’s 2013 which to me is C.E.
a transitional marker for people smarter than us in the future
to find a universal reference for human history
For now 2013 nonetheless
it’s time slow-learners learned from the learnt
in whymak’s words:
“Democracy had seen its better days.
Its practices are becoming dysfunctional at this point in time.”
We shouldn’t be afraid of history
Indeed "it took the West hundreds of years to" invent telephone line
But now we have optical fiber
who but fools would want to build an electrical switchboard
“sacrificing Hong Kong's political and civic freedoms
to a bunch of lawless gangsters in black hair dye”?
Meaningless destructive noise, a sign of soulless tempers
typical of scholarism kind of democrazy
whose understanding of politics and freedom
is entirely phonetic
"...a sign of soulless tempers
typical of scholarism kind of democrazy
whose understanding of politics and freedom
is entirely phonetic "
It's 2013, FFS. Can we please stop with the "it took the West hundreds of years to...." excuses? If you're in favor of sacrificing Hong Kong's political and civic freedoms to a bunch of lawless gangsters in black hair dye, just say so!
Good piece, Regina! But you're not entirely free from the yoke of some Western political dogmas.
Human societies are all endowed with self-organizing behavior, a consequence of survival and herding instincts. Together they form the drivers behind our adaptive tendencies. However, the human intellect resident in individuals and groups tend to arrest such excesses. Reason and punishment for crimes act as stabilizers in political and economic systems.
However, when unpredictable herd instinct grows by leaps and bounds due to exogenous events and media propaganda, social system will evolve inexorably toward criticality, i.e., chaos, despite the ever present stabilizer. The same is observed in extinction of biological species, war outbreaks and market collapses. Most interestingly, catastrophes could be better explained by precise language of nonlinear dynamics.
When historians and political scientists assign "causes" leading to catastrophe, e.g., assassination of Archduke Ferdinand as the direct cause of WW 1 or a list of others, they are no more than a series of triggers. Their disciplines have no tool to analyze self organizing behavior -- herding, the main driver, let alone being able to gauge quantitatively the progression toward catastrophe.
Unless we arrest this herd instinct, Hong Kong is doomed.
Democracy had seen its better days. Its practices are becoming dysfunctional at this point in time. This is the inevitable course of self-organizing systems.


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