The pros and cons of consensus politics for Hong Kong

Simon-Hoey Lee says compromises can undermine the best solutions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 3:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 3:35pm

The government's announcement of the consultation report and proposals for electing the chief executive by universal suffrage has inevitably set off a new round of public discussion. However, most of this is focused on how it will operate; there is little discussion about the implications of the jurisdictional changes behind the reform.

Hong Kong has, from the first days of its history under British rule, relied on a governance model based on meritocracy. Top-down decision-making and policy implementations are based on results from professional, scientific analyses, which are trusted to be the best solutions. From the governor during the colonial era, to the Election Committee after the handover, the social elite dominates, and the system of meritocracy has remained unchanged. However, the introduction of universal suffrage will immediately alter the governance model, with popular politics coming to the fore; Hong Kong's five million voters will decide who will serve as chief executive.

There are a few changes that an era of mass politics will bring in: different interest groups will start to debate and bargain for their own interests within the electoral system. This will lead to the emergence of think-tanks and the setting up of organisations for different interest groups to form their own policy opinions.

Meanwhile, to promote these ideas and seek greater bargaining power in the course of the electoral game, more political public relations specialists will emerge. In other words, a new industry relating to politics and the policy-formulation game will develop, alongside the existing structure of political parties in Hong Kong.

In mass politics, the public can more actively engage and participate in the political games, to express and pursue their aspirations, and hence improve the sense of participation. This is critical for a highly educated society, as the interests of the majority of communities may also be better served. But we also need to understand that, as policies become the result of consensus and compromise, the most rational, optimal solution may not always win out.

The government's reform proposal is actually a mixture of the two systems. As the ideologies behind the two systems are quite different, the question is how to balance them. If we cannot find a consensus point, it will be difficult to quell the current arguments on both sides.

Specifically, the Election Committee, composed of a majority of social elite, is inclined to a consensus culture, because members have many factors to consider. On the other side, mass politics tends to opt for electoral campaigns.

There are two core issues at variance. First, some Election Committee members have different backgrounds and experience from the mass public and, therefore, think differently when dealing with social and livelihood problems. This is especially so in today's Hong Kong, where severe inequality exists.

Second, the Election Committee tends to respect and attach greater importance to the central authorities' stakeholder role in political reform, whereas part of the public wishes to see less involvement from the central government in local affairs, given that Hong Kong-mainland conflicts have intensified.

Mass politics and meritocracy naturally have different perspectives, especially amid increased social tensions, and conflicting attitudes on the role of the central government as a stakeholder. So, it's easy to see that obtaining a consensus will be a difficult task under such a complicated situation.

Dr Simon-Hoey Lee is a member of the Basic Law Promotion Steering Committee and Curriculum Development Council of the Hong Kong government and a consultant on the programme on International Financial Systems at Harvard Law School