Real dialogue on electoral reform gets going, finally

Alice Wu is heartened by the signs of progress in our march towards electoral reform, not least by some willingness to give way

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 4:28am

In the face of strong headwinds, constitutional reform may seem a dreadful subject. There's also a déjà vu element; my mind is transported back to 2010, when then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen launched his "Act Now" (in Chinese, "Anchors Aweigh") reform campaign. His message - the urgent need to break new ground, arrive at a consensus and the need for compromises and sacrifices - has a familiar ring.

We are now at a crossroads again and we'll need every bit of Tsang's "good politics", which he said consisted of "dialogue, co-operation and pragmatism". They may not be dynamic words, but they are important; they make up the thankless but crucial work involved in politics.

Pragmatism seems to have largely prevailed, most notably among the academics hard at work hammering out plausible, though not "ideal", plans. Public recommendation seems to be a clever way of skirting a brick wall. However one may feel about the "middle way", one has to admit that the discussion has more depth and breadth this time. There is more wiggle room now than in 2010. That should speak volumes about the way our politics has evolved: it's roomier and more sophisticated.

Dialogue, which has somehow got a bad reputation, seems to have improved among our lawmakers. Credit needs to go to those who were uneasy over the lawmakers' Shanghai trip. It's petty to criticise pan-democrats for taking their time to mull over the invitation. It wasn't an easy decision to make, and we have to give them credit for treating it seriously.

Perhaps too little has been said about the cost involved in compromising so that politics can actually work. The rift in the pan-democratic camp in 2010 over reforms is one such cost. Another, more painful one, is for some to be branded "traitors" by radicals simply for being willing to talk and make compromises in the face of the political realities. Being burned just four years ago and being put in pretty much the same position again must have played a huge role in the Democratic Party's Shanghai trip decision; understandably so.

At the end of the day, small gestures make a difference in contentious situations. We saw the good politics of co-operation at work with pro-establishment lawmakers' offer to "excuse themselves from a meeting" to give pan-democrats an exclusive audience with Beijing officials. That may be a small gesture, but it points to a willingness to co-operate across party lines that will be crucial later on.

The skirmishes (especially the recent one over Article 23) may sometimes be hard to ignore, but there are convincing reasons to remain hopeful. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor may have expressed her pessimism over electoral reform, but she must also have noticed the occasional glimmers of hope.

More people are fighting for wiggle room, trying to build bridges and pushing the boundaries of the possible. Some elements of Hong Kong's politics have changed for the better. Lam must do everything in her power to foster that.

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