Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

Judging by our youth, Hong Kong is ready for democracy

Mike Rowse says a debate on Occupy Central shows why change is needed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 2:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 2:46am

The Foreign Correspondents' Club organised an interesting debate last week on the subject of Occupy Central. I wish the chief executive and chief secretary could have attended - they might have learned something.

Three rather jaded former or serving journalists were pitted against three members of the schools debating team, which represents Hong Kong in international events. To spice things up, the "oldies" were arguing in support of Occupy Central as a way to secure universal suffrage, while the young radicals were making the case against.

Several important points emerged from the debate.

The first was evidence of an overwhelming desire by all sides for universal suffrage to be introduced for the next chief executive election without further ado. It is a right possessed by all Hong Kong people and it has been denied them for too long. No one attempted to argue that voters were not ready, or needed more time to mature.

Secondly, no one really wants to sit down physically in the street when the time comes (if it comes). What about practical matters like food and ablutions? Being carried away by sweaty police officers will not be pleasant for anyone whatever the time of year, and there is always the danger of being "accidentally" dropped.

Nonetheless, it was generally recognised that the growing frustration over prolonged denial of democratic rights was bound to show itself in some form of protest action. The discussion was only about whether Occupy Central was the right or best way.

There was general agreement on all sides that the organisers of the movement had played their hand clumsily. The emphasis should have been on all the other tactics they could try first rather than on the "nuclear bomb" of shutting down one of the world's top business districts. Putting that in the shop window right from the outset had made it too easy for others to attack.

Yet despite these errors and missteps, to an extent Occupy Central has already succeeded because it has forced a serious and prolonged debate on political reform. The "antis" have been obliged to organise their own referendum to rebut the "pros" just weeks after criticising use of the device and claiming it was not a legitimate political tool and the outcome would carry no weight. This latter argument faded away roughly around the same time as the number of votes against exceeded those in support.

Senior political leaders on the mainland have had to be wheeled out to beat down various reform options. The subject has dominated the headlines for weeks on end with no respite in sight. It sometimes seems our chief secretary can talk about nothing else. In fairness, it must seem like that to her, too.

The most powerful impression left after the debate was about the calibre of our young people. These assured, impeccably groomed teenagers put forward their arguments in measured tones within a coherent structure. They had co-ordinated closely in order to cover all the ground and they had clearly rehearsed answers to the main arguments they expected to be deployed by their opponents so that they could counter them.

The surprise is not that the students won the debate (by a single vote after my own two children voted with their peers and tipped the balance against us) but that anyone seriously believes they are not ready to lead our society in their turn. Hong Kong has a very bright future, if only we remove the obstructions to "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong".

It would be unforgiveable for the administration to make a mess of political reform.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.