Government's electoral reform report leaves hopes for democracy in tatters

Joseph Wong says Leung's report to Beijing is so out of touch with the political realities in Hong Kong that it offers people little comfort in their long struggle to achieve universal suffrage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 5:25am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 5:25am

To those unaware of recent events in the Legislative Council or the increased political tension in society, the two recently released government reports on political reform convey the following impression: that Hong Kong people are satisfied with the present composition and performance of Legco, hence no reform is needed; and that most of them agree to the general principles laid down by Beijing for electing Hong Kong's chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017.

Such an impression bears little relation to the political reality Hong Kong faces today. And it offers little comfort to the democratic aspirations of the Hong Kong people, particularly the young and politically active.

It is true that during the consultation period, the public focused on the method for electing the chief executive and did not have much to say regarding the 2016 Legco election. But it is far-fetched, bordering on being dishonest, for the government to deduce a "no need to amend" consensus from the lack of public response.

In fact, the pan-democratic parties, which received more than half of the votes cast in the 2012 election, proposed substantial changes to the method for forming the legislature in 2016, such as by increasing the proportion of directly elected seats (presently fixed at 1:1 with functional constituency seats). Although these views are mentioned in the report, they do not seem to carry any weight when the government makes its own conclusion.

This conclusion of public opinion is conveniently used by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in his report to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. On that basis, he recommends that the Standing Committee take no decision to amend the existing composition of Legco. This recommendation is flawed in two respects.

First, one principle laid down by Beijing is that the ultimate aim of electing all lawmakers by universal suffrage must be achieved through "gradual and orderly progress". The 2007 Standing Committee decision says this can only happen after the implementation of universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017.

The next Legco election after the 2017 chief executive election will be in 2020. If there is no progress in making the 2016 Legco election more democratic, particularly in reducing the number of "small-circle" functional constituency seats, it would only add to the suspicion that the promise of universal suffrage is no more than a carrot on a stick.

More importantly, the way functional constituency members exercise their disproportionate voting power, as seen in the recent case of funding for the northeast New Territories development project, has damaged the credibility of what is supposedly a people's institution. The filibuster acts of some radicals, coupled with the tug of war between the pro-establishment and democratic camps, have brought normal working relations between the government and Legco to breaking point, something only Leung refuses to acknowledge.

If nothing is done to redress this structural imbalance in Legco, I foresee more bitter infighting, and the next chief executive, however elected, would be unable to deliver his policies effectively. This would lead to more social instability.

The government's standstill recommendation in respect of the 2016 Legco election may be an indication that the arrangements for 2017 would ultimately remain as before. Here's why.

The chief executive's report says that it is "the mainstream opinion" that the power of the nominating committee "should not be undermined or bypassed directly or indirectly". This effectively rules out any form of civic nomination of candidates, which is embodied in the three most popular "non-mainstream" proposals.

The report also says that "the community generally agrees that the chief executive should be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong" without mentioning the glaring lack of consensus on how such love could be validated objectively. If the Standing Committee attempts to turn patriotism into a practical requirement, it will stir up a major controversy.

In highlighting certain views expressed during the consultation, the chief executive's report lends support to the stance adopted by various Chinese officials on the likely composition and working of the nominating committee.

First, the report says that "relatively more views" agree that the composition of the committee should be decided by reference to the existing method of forming the current Election Committee, that is, composed of four sectors in equal proportions. Likewise, "quite a number of views" prefer to keep the size of the nominating committee the same as that of the Election Committee - 1,200 members - or no more than 1,600.

Second, the report says that "quite a number of views" agree that the nominating procedures should reflect "majority rule", and meet the requirement of the nominating committee to nominate as an organisation. This is set in contrast with "some" or "other" proposals that aim to allow the participation of candidates not endorsed by Beijing.

Leung has formally commenced the five-step process of political reform in a politically correct manner, highlighting the so-called "mainstream views" while underplaying the strong views expressed by the hundreds of thousands of people who cast their votes in the Occupy Central "referendum" or participated in the July 1 march.

He has effectively halted any further democratisation of Legco, with, I fear, dire consequences. He has also made it easier for the Standing Committee to lay down the parameters for a China model of universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive.

Most Hong Kong people would find it hard to accept that universal suffrage means no more than choosing one person from a list of candidates decided collectively by an unrepresentative nominating committee. This arrangement would be perceived as no better and probably worse than the previous small-circle election of the chief executive: its nominating procedures at least did not exclude the participation of "unpatriotic" candidates.

Hong Kong people have waited a long time for universal suffrage, a promise laid down in the Basic Law which was passed almost a quarter of a century ago. People of my generation remember the following lyrics from a Beatles song, "… The many ways I've tried, But still they lead me back, To the long winding road." So we can understand why the younger generation does not want to wait any longer.

Let us hope reason will prevail when the Standing Committee hands down its decision on the way forward.

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