Rulers of Hong Kong must effect change before it's forced on them

Stephen Vines says Hong Kong needs a way out of its contradictions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 3:12am

Is there a way out of the current political malaise? This puts the question rather innocuously, as others are describing what's going on as a political crisis; they warn about violence and paint all manner of gloom-and-doom scenarios.

Let's just summarise where we are: the chief executive has public opinion poll ratings going through the floor, a number of high officials are either on trial or stand accused of a variety of corruption offences, and triad criminal gangs have been reintroduced into local politics.

Meanwhile, the impasse over democratic reform remains and signs of an agreement appear as far removed as ever. Indeed, positions are becoming polarised before formal consultations have even begun.

We have a system that is not working, and it won’t be made to work by tinkering around the edges

Does all this sound too gloomy? Maybe, but for many people, life goes on pretty much as usual despite the political fireworks. Having said that, we cannot ignore that life as usual for an astonishing 17 per cent of the population means struggling for existence on the poverty line.

However, a harsh fact of political life is that the poor are rarely a priority and the really poor rarely revolt; they may provide the ground troops for a revolt but those who effect change are rarely drawn from the bottom of the pile.

History teaches us a number of other things about how change comes about, but the prime lesson is that, in failing systems, those in charge tend to wait too long to reform and even if they do act, they tend to be too late. There are exceptions, notably the foresight of the former South African president F. W. de Klerk, who realised that the privileged position of the white minority could end in disaster if he did not accept majority rule and seize the incredible opportunity of having Nelson Mandela as a counterpart for negotiations.

Closer to home is Taiwan's former president Chiang Ching-kuo, who realised that the only way for his Kuomintang party to survive was to relinquish one-party rule and embrace democracy.

Neither de Klerk nor Chiang are typical. Generally speaking, those who preside over authoritarian governments live in terror of their people and believe that, if they do not exercise some sort of terror over their subjects, they will perish.

In Hong Kong, we have no-party rule as opposed to one-party rule, or maybe what we have is one-party proxy rule. And then there's the contradiction of a high degree of liberty counterposed by a low degree of democracy. The bottom line is that we have a system that is not working, and it won't be made to work by tinkering around the edges.

Remarkably in these circumstances, the staunchest defenders of the status quo and their mealy-mouthed friends who pretend to favour reform insist it is the opponents of the status quo who need to draw up plans for change and need to be more flexible if reform is to work.

This is balderdash; Hong Kong's powerful ruling elite can make progress only by making sacrifices. As all power is firmly concentrated in their hands, a dilution of power can only come from them; yet, incredibly, the pro-government camp demands that the powerless should be making concessions.

History shows that the options for those presiding over fatally flawed systems of government are either to await chaos or come up with real alternatives.

However, the government here cannot act on these matters without Beijing's approval and everything we know about Hong Kong leaders says they only tell their bosses up north what they want to hear. Clearly, the leadership of a one-party state does not want to be told of the wonders of democratic government and so they formulate policy through the prism of how they operate in the rest of China.

Frankly, things simply cannot go on as they are. The worst fears of chaos may be realised, but it is not too late to avert a crisis.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur