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Hong Kong reform vote

Reform package's defeat is a time for hope, not despair, in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 1:36am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 1:36am

A chapter has closed on Hong Kong's fight for universal suffrage following the defeat of the government's electoral reform package in the Legislative Council yesterday. But as we turn the page, an even more daunting challenge looms. The disputes over the past 20 months have deeply divided the community. We need to put aside the political differences, build bridges and find a way to move forward.

The government's failure to get the reform package passed was a foregone conclusion. The 27 pan-democrats and an independent lawmaker kept to their script and voted against it. What was surprising, though, was the farce within the pro-establishment camp. In what is believed to have been a colossal strategic miscalculation to delay the death knell for the package, most Beijing-friendly legislators deliberately stayed away from the chamber while the five-minute voting bell rang. The package was eventually rejected with just eight votes in favour.

The drama may have added spice to what otherwise would have been an uneventful debate. The shorter-than-expected proceedings might also have helped avert the gathering of large crowds outside the Legco complex. Although emotions ran high occasionally, the rallies staged by the opponents and supporters of the reform package were, thankfully, largely peaceful.

WORK TOWARDS RECONCILIATION

The almost comical end to the debate in Legco, however, has done nothing to remove the uncertainties that we now face. Not only has the opportunity for greater democracy - however flawed - been wasted, the city's governance and relations with the central government are also left in doubt. It is unclear whether Beijing will further tighten control over the city. Since the landmark July 1 protest in 2003 against national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Beijing has widely been seen as having dropped its softly-softly approach towards Hong Kong's affairs in favour of a tougher stance. But the change in tack has apparently backfired, as reflected in the strong show of discontent during the Occupy protests last year. If opinion polls are any reference, public trust in the central government remains low. It is in the interest of both sides to improve relations.

Yesterday's outcome does not spell the end of Hong Kong's quest for universal suffrage. People's aspiration for democracy will not disappear because of this setback. It is good to hear that the central government remains committed to implementing universal suffrage in Hong Kong and upholding the one country, two systems principle.

The pan-democrats immediately called for a fresh start to the electoral reform process but a relaunch in the next two years seems unlikely. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has already said his administration will focus on improving the economy and people's livelihood during his remaining term in office. Given the political setback, the chief executive may think this is a sensible way forward. But whether the government can achieve much is another matter. The filibusters and non-cooperation campaign by some pan-democrats have already hampered effective governance. The situation may even take a turn for the worse if the animosity continues. What is needed now is reconciliation and cooperation.

But this cannot be achieved without a resolution to the long-standing schism between Beijing and the pan-democrats. The electoral reform episode has exposed serious mutual distrust and hostility. Both sides should reflect on their stance and find a way to foster dialogue and cooperation, without which a consensus on universal suffrage can never be reached.

STOP THE BLAME GAME

The reform process, for now, has come to an end. But the blame game continues. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office swiftly hit out at the pan-democrats for acting against public opinion, saying they blocked the city's democratic development in favour of their own, narrow interests. The chief executive echoed those sentiments, but said the government would maintain dialogue with the pan-democrats.

Finger-pointing does little to unite the community; it only fuels animosity. But the question of who should shoulder responsibility for the failure of the reform process will inevitably linger. It may even turn into an issue in the district council elections in November and the Legislative Council polls next year. Whether the pan-democrats and pro-establishment camp will face any backlash at the ballot box will affect the balance of power after 2016, which in turn will have an impact on governance and the success of future democratic reform.

Hongkongers have been struggling for democracy for decades. Having weathered bitter disputes over the past 20 months, the community is understandably frustrated by the lack of progress. While yesterday's outcome was disappointing, we should not despair. As long as we learn from this experience and move towards consensus, universal suffrage can surely be realised.