Political deadlines matter in Hong Kong as much as in America

Alice Wu says in HK, a government expected to deliver electoral reform by 2017 will do well to honour deadlines, as Washington did

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 3:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 3:23am

My love-hate relationship with deadlines is perhaps the blandest thing in the world to write about. But the fact is that people can't get through life without them.

The more disciplined - or masochistic - among us can live with self-imposed deadlines but most of us need them to be pushed down our throats. This is even truer in politics.

The 16-day government shutdown in the US, that took a whoping US$24 billion out of the American economy, erases any doubts about that. For the first half of that game of political brinkmanship, absolutely nothing happened in terms of getting the government up and running again. While national parks were closed, federally funded employees sent home and millions of American lives were interrupted, talking heads from both parties simply kept themselves busy by heaping rhetoric upon hyperbole, and continued talking past one another.

It was only when the federal government's borrowing authority deadline loomed, when Wall Street finally warned against default and its colossal collateral damage to the US and the wider world, that the implications began to penetrate those thick political skulls.

While blame is shared by all in Washington for the grandest display of political dysfunction - and idiocy - of recent times, the default deadline saved the day because it upped the ante. Even then, the end to this partisan showdown only came at the 11th hour.

But unlike, say, a project cut-off date, political deadlines bring only short-term relief - a temporary ceasefire, a semicolon in the continuum of vengeful political strife created by those who ignore the people they are supposed to serve. A little over four months from now, the world may witness a re-run of this psychodrama.

So let this debacle be a reminder that while political systems are inherently imperfect, they can only be broken by people who are set on doing so.

And let it be a cautionary tale for the Hong Kong government, which is cutting it fine with the electoral arrangements for the 2017 chief executive election.

It is good news that it has finally committed itself to some sort of a date - before the end of the year - to launch formal public consultations. But it must remember that if the plan it puts forward sidesteps the contentious issues that have been orbiting for months in the public sphere, then the consultation will only widen division, fuel uncompromising rhetoric and create political deadlock.

The ultimate cost will be epic - for the people, for the government and for Beijing.

On the US government shutdown, Warren Buffett gave us the best sound bite: "Creditworthiness is like virginity, it can be preserved but not restored very easily." Buffett may have been referring to the US defaulting on its bills, but it also applies to the here and now.

With virtually no time left, the Hong Kong government has only one chance, and if it "defaults", then major political showdowns are sure to loom. Deadlines in politics can be game changers, but they can also be double-edged swords.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA