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