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Hong Kong political reform

Block of Hong Kong political reform plan only a temporary setback on road to universal suffrage

Cliff Buddle says the voting down of political reform should nonetheless usher in a renewed push for democracy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 1:09pm

Today should have marked a new era for Hong Kong, one in which long-held hopes of universal suffrage were finally realised.

We should be celebrating the passing by lawmakers of an acclaimed package of democratic reforms, supported by pro-establishment figures and democrats alike, which - with Beijing's blessing - would allow the city's permanent residents to freely choose their own leader.

Sadly, the reality is different. The government's reform package, voted down in farcical circumstances, was never going to be democratic enough to win the crucial votes needed from democrat legislators. The community was split on whether or not the proposals - which would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for democrat candidates to stand - should be passed. The result is that no progress has been made.

This is a depressing end to a process which began eight years ago when China's legislature first agreed that universal suffrage would be possible in 2017. It means the Basic Law's "ultimate aim" will still not have been realised 20 years after the handover.

The voting down of the government's proposal must prompt reflection by all concerned about how we can move forward.

It is instructive to read an editorial published by this newspaper the last time a reform proposal was voted down, in 2005. The Post criticised the government for failing to make meaningful concessions, for insisting that its proposals enjoyed majority support, and for generally not doing enough to achieve a consensus. It also urged democrats to reflect on the fact that voting down even modest reforms risked slowing the momentum for change. Ten years on, precisely the same points can be made. Lessons have not been learned.

But we can take heart from what followed the 2005 deadlock. The reform process did not stall, as some had predicted at the time. Only two years later, the National People's Congress Standing Committee laid down the timetable for universal suffrage, with 2017 as the date. Further reforms were passed for elections in 2012.

The Basic Law requires progress to be made towards universal suffrage, and, more to the point, the city's disjointed political system is badly in need of reform. The process must continue. The political environment, however, is less conducive to reaching a consensus now than at any time since the handover. Our society is more divided than ever, and Hong Kong is changing. In the months since last year's Occupy protests, we have seen students burning copies of the Basic Law, the national anthem booed by Hong Kong fans at football matches, protests against mainland tourists and parallel traders, and the emergence of a "localist" movement which shuns the mainland altogether.

These are worrying developments. Hong Kong's future is, unquestionably, as a part of China. And the "one country, two systems" concept, implemented through the Basic Law, makes our city special. It preserves our freedoms and way of life. It protects our separate system, at least until 2047. It is not perfect - no system is - but it is the best deal Hong Kong is going to get.

The Basic Law does not rule out a system which allows Hong Kong people to freely elect their own leader. Yes, there has to be a nominating committee. But it is possible to meet that requirement while ensuring candidates from across the political spectrum have a fair chance of election. Various proposals for achieving that - or at least getting close to it - were put forward during the government's consultation process last year. But the NPC Standing Committee's decision in August, citing national security concerns, imposed a much more restrictive nominating process, which is reflected in the current proposals.

That decision effectively killed any prospect of a consensus being reached. The Occupy protests followed, opinions on both sides hardened and we were left with the current stalemate.

It is not easy to be optimistic. But we need to bring about change. The timetable for universal suffrage was laid down because it was recognised that the conflict over democratic reform was distracting us from other important policy issues which needed tackling.

Then there is the question of governance. Our chief executive, lacking an electoral mandate, is likely to continue to be unpopular and to face difficulties getting his or her agenda through Legco. We can expect more protests and divisions in society.

The long road to universal suffrage has seen Hong Kong lurch from leaps of faith, hoping the central government will give us full democracy, to despondency and despair when this does not occur.

What is needed - and it has been needed all along - is the building of trust on all sides, notably between the democrats and Beijing. There is a need to work together if universal suffrage is ever to be achieved.

The existing reform procedures must be reviewed. They do not work well. A public consultation, often held later than it should be, results in a report by the chief executive which tends to tell Beijing what he thinks it wants to hear. The NPC Standing Committee then permits reforms to be made, but imposes restrictions on them which do not find favour with democrats. The Hong Kong government is left scrambling to try to win over enough democrat lawmakers to get its package through. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it does not.

We need a more inclusive and thoughtful process, in which people from all sides are able to work together to establish a proposal which can genuinely be presented to Beijing as the city's recommended model. Efforts must also be made to ease the central government's concerns.

The Hong Kong government is right to say the majority of Hong Kong people want universal suffrage. But most want it in a form that is more democratic than the package that has been voted down. Rather than ending the drive for universal suffrage, the voting down of the proposals should mark a new beginning and act as a catalyst for future reform.

Cliff Buddle is the Post's editor, special projects