Political reform process needs Beijing's input early on

Alice Wu says the visit by two Basic Law Committee officials is a small but key step in getting discussion on political reform up and running

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 4:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 4:32am

Two legal heavyweights from Beijing flew into town late last week to get dialogue about Hong Kong electoral reform started, but no one is sitting on the edge of their seat.

That's no surprise, since, at this point, there is little to say except for some discussion on ground rules, and possibly shedding some light on Beijing's bottom line.

But let's not overreact - or underreact - to the visit by Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei and vice-chairman Zhang Rongshun. It was significant, because the two represented the often-publicly-"silent" party in the city's political reform process. Beijing has rarely voiced its thoughts on the matter, at least in the open, either for fear of being charged with the "crime" of "interference", or because it feels it is just too messy to deal with political altercations outside the shelter of a state-controlled media.

It made sense to have the officials here and say what Beijing's Basic Law Committee needs to say at this point. Otherwise, either we have more people reading the tea leaves and getting it wrong, or we're left in the dark; neither has done any good before.

But let's not exaggerate the significance of their visit either. It isn't a "make or break" event for our political future when the first round of public consultations hasn't even started.

"One country, two systems" means we are all stuck with this three-legged stool when it comes to Hong Kong's political reform, whether we like it or not. The three legs - the SAR government, the Legislative Council and Beijing - all have to agree on it or nothing happens. Cutting any one of these legs off from the process would guarantee disaster.

The role of the Hong Kong government is to officially initiate the process, which for better or worse, it is doing now. To not involve Beijing, which holds the ultimate veto power, would be a non-starter, while ignoring the legislature would ensure there is nothing to be vetoed in the first place.

So there lies the reason we're having this political song and dance right now. The government's role is to facilitate progress so that the three-way discussion can at least get off the ground. It was a good start for the chairman and vice-chairman of the Basic Law Committee to come to Hong Kong to meet the secretary for justice, the Bar Association and the Law Society. If we have to work within the parameters of the Basic Law - and it seems to have been Beijing's key message for months now that any reform must adhere to the city's mini-constitution - then the process must start with the legalities.

Whatever happens next, we should be prepared for surprising twists and turns.

For Hong Kong's sake, all parties should really try to restrain themselves when it comes to the old habits of name-calling and knee-jerk reactions. There is no reason to suspect that any leg of the stool wants to sabotage political reform.

The best thing to do may be for all parties to leave their cynicism (and egos) at the door, buckle up for the bumpy ride ahead, and avoid derailment at all costs.

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