Universal suffrage

Hong Kong can’t make the most of its political limits by antagonising Beijing

Jennifer Eagleton says Hong Kong's quest for political freedom has more chance of success if it can convince Beijing that it won't leave the nest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 9:11pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 2:25am

Hong Kong's bird market is at once a troubling and compelling place to visit. On the one hand, it is distressing to see large numbers of formerly wild birds caged and for sale. On the other, it is touching to watch elderly men take their pet birds for a "walk" in exquisitely crafted cages.

In many respects, Hong Kong is like these birds in cages. It has an owner, "Ah Yeh"; its "cage" is the "one country, two systems" framework; and the birds are being allowed to be taken on a "walk" towards universal suffrage. This is not total freedom, since Hong Kong birds do not have full autonomy to fly around by themselves.

The walk so far has been rather slow and uneven because the "road map" to be used - the Basic Law - is rather vague.

Early on in the life of Hong Kong as a special administrative region, there was discussion about how to achieve universal suffrage as soon as possible. The interpretation of the Basic Law in 2004 made Hong Kong's "cage" somewhat narrower. We were told that what was needed was not only the "actual situation" and "gradual orderly progress" but also "balanced participation".

A short while later, things such as the promotion of capitalism, substantive appointments, and the executive-led system were said to be needed before the best cage could be found to suit Ah Yeh's small apartment.

Some birds talked about making the best of the current space by helping to decorate their existing cage, and trying to make things better by feeding and watering the existing functional constituency birds. However, this made the latter so satiated that they didn't want to move out of the now rather comfortable cage.

Hong Kong birds had the chance to discuss a "road map" and "timetable" for their new cage in 2005. However, the purchase was put on hold because agreement on its size and shape was not forthcoming.

In July 2007, the government released a green paper. Ah Yeh and his relatives gave the local birds a choice about their new cage, but the options in the bird market were too mind-boggling and so no decision was made. They could try again in 2017.

The latest consultation has just begun. Ah Yeh has allowed his Hong Kong relatives (the chief secretary, justice secretary and secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs) to lead the consultation, hopefully making the choices for the new cage more suitable to local conditions, although Ah Yeh's friends back in his hometown have had their say about how he should treat the birds under his care.

The key is making the most of the cage that Hong Kong birds are in. Ah Yeh will not treat his birds well if they endlessly criticise him about his care of them and keep him awake at night with their squawking. They need to focus on local conditions rather than their bird-cousins to the north.

We have to convince Ah Yeh to trust that Hong Kong birds will try to suggest viable alternatives, so he will find the means to obtain a bigger, more roomy cage and maybe even open the cage door ever so slightly - so that the Hong Kong birds can fly around and he can be sure that they will always return.

Dr Jennifer Eagleton, whose PhD was on how Hong Kong talks about democracy, is an adviser to the University of Hong Kong's "Designing Democracy" website