Pragmatism will help Hong Kong reach deal on electoral reform

Joseph Wong says the contentious points laid out for public consultation make it clear that electoral reform won't happen unless all parties involved, including Beijing, keep an open mind

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 6:20pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 4:02am

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor successfully launched the public consultation on the arrangements for electing the chief executive in 2017 and forming the Legislative Council in 2016. This was no easy feat, given the politically charged background of calls for the public nomination of chief executive candidates, as well as the threat of Occupy Central if arrangements for electing the chief executive do not meet international standards of universal suffrage.

In her Legco statement, Lam urged political parties and the public to adopt a rational and pragmatic approach, as well as an inclusive attitude, in order to forge the biggest consensus. The call for pragmatism and inclusiveness is absolutely right. Let's hope that Beijing, which has the ultimate say on the electoral arrangements, shares this attitude.

The primary focus of the consultation will be on the arrangements for returning our next leader by universal suffrage in 2017. If we fail to achieve that, then, in the words of Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, Legco president and an unquestionable patriot, Hong Kong would become ungovernable.

If we do reach this "ultimate aim" - as stipulated in Article 45 of the Basic Law - in 2017, then it will be more than 30 years after Beijing first started to consult Hong Kong people on drafting the Basic Law, and 20 years after the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This historical perspective reminds us that Hong Kong people have waited long enough for the right to elect their leader and are not prepared to again accept a chief executive handed down from above or a small pool of candidates chosen by a group of apparently patriotic but unrepresentative people who make up the overwhelming majority of the present Election Committee.

There is much to discuss. Take the committee to nominate chief executive candidates, as set out in Article 45 of the Basic Law, which is arguably different in nature from the Election Committee stipulated under Annex 1.

In 2007, Qiao Xiaoyang, the then deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, said the nominating committee may be formed "with reference to" the current provisions regarding the Election Committee(which presently comprises 1,200 members from four sectors, each of 300 members). However, the government's consultation paper carries a footnote that says the term "with reference to" is legally binding, meaning that its composition should be more or less the same as that of the current committee, albeit allowing room for adjustments.

In response to public queries, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung conceded that Qiao's view was "binding to some extent". This is one example of the devil being in the detail.

Another is when the consultation paper refers to the "democratic procedures" to be used by the nominating committee; it interprets the term to mean "organisational nomination" (or collective nomination), which is another quote from Qiao, not to be found in the Basic Law or the Standing Committee decision. Thus, while the government may be sincere in seeking public views without preset limits, it has certainly taken full account of the views of certain Chinese officials.

But we should not regard these "legal" constraints as sacrosanct. The Hong Kong government and Beijing know full well there is no way Hong Kong people will accept an arrangement under which the nominating committee is the Election Committee by another name. Nor should we accept that the so-called "organisational nomination", according to Li Fei , chairman of the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee, must reflect the "collective decision" of the nominating committee.

The "broadly representative" Election Committee has an electorate base of about 250,000 voters, fewer than one-tenth of the three-million-plus eligible voters in Hong Kong. In the 2011 Election Committee election, members of 14 subsectors were returned unopposed. A number of sub-sectors have 100 or so voters, including corporate voters. In political terms, the Election Committee is designed to ensure the pro-Beijing camp accounts for more than 80 per cent of the total membership.

The present nominating procedure of allowing 150 members to put forward a candidate enabled a pan-democrat to run for chief executive in the last election. But a nomination reflecting the collective decision of the nominating committee will almost certainly "screen out" any candidate not to Beijing's liking.

It is important to clarify the issue here and now. Universal suffrage is not about allowing or not allowing a pan-democrat to run for election. It is about giving voters a genuine choice of candidates who command a fair amount of support in the community. This is the main argument behind public nomination.

But it is clear from the general thrust of the consultation paper and the comments made by Lam and her teammates that the proposal for public nomination does not meet at least two of the three principles laid down for the final electoral arrangements, namely, legal conformity and practicability.

One of the keys to Hong Kong's success is the pragmatism displayed by its people. For example, they accepted the "one country, two systems" arrangement when there was no precedent in history. Credit went to Deng Xiaoping for this innovation. Three years ago, the Democratic Party accepted a compromise arrangement which enabled the 2012 electoral reform package to go forward. Credit also went to the central government for agreeing to a pragmatic proposal which allowed five functional constituency seats to be returned through "one person, one vote".

Now, we face another test of this pragmatism.

The title of the consultation paper is "Let's talk and achieve universal suffrage". In my view, the main talking point should not be the law or how to ensure candidates are patriotic.

It should be focused on two key issues: first, how to compose a nominating committee that meets Hong Kong people's reasonable demand that the vast majority of its members are their genuine representatives; and second, how the process of nomination can have due regard for public opinion and would not screen out potential candidates who are respectable and popular members of the community.

To achieve universal suffrage, all parties - Beijing in particular - should play ball, not talk about legal points or indefinable patriotism.

Joseph Wong Wing-ping, a former secretary for the civil service, is a political commentator