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Hong Kong reform vote

No mystery about who murdered Hong Kong's reform plan

Mike Rowse says calm reflection on all sides should end in a resolution to rediscover the art of working together, in pragmatic Hong Kong fashion, to achieve democracy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 5:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 June, 2015, 5:01am

The end, when it came, was almost merciful. The sick child that was Hong Kong's political reform package was finally put out of its misery by lunchtime of the second day of what might have been a three-day Legislative Council debate. We were all spared the agony of prolonged suffering once the pro-establishment side realised the pan-democratic line had held firm.

We do not need to waste a lot of time on the autopsy. All parties involved contributed to the death of the universal suffrage babe in arms before it could leave the crib, let alone grow into a sturdy teenager.

Beijing began from the position that citizens of one of the world's most politically sophisticated cities - most of whom are very proud to be Chinese - could not be trusted not to elect someone who would confront the central government. The prospects of that happening were so remote that a mature visionary leadership in the capital would have taken a calculated risk and let the cards fall where they may, secure in the knowledge that the ultimate safeguard - the right not to appoint the "winner"- was in their hands.

It is difficult to discern what active role, if any, was played by Hong Kong officials. They must surely have pointed out to Beijing that such a rigid electoral framework would not stand up to scrutiny, and that at the very least there would have to be a major overhaul of the manifestly unrepresentative nominating committee of the previous elections. If they did make such arguments to the central leadership, there is certainly no evidence that their voices were listened to.

As for the pan-democrats, well, they just played their hand wrongly at every stage of the process, except maybe right at the end when they could not be swayed by pressure of various kinds to deviate from principle. But the scars from their earlier missteps in offering only three unacceptable civic nomination options, and then declining to suggest more moderate compromises, will take a long time to heal.

Have we all learned our lesson? Are we all ready to pick up the pieces and start building again? For, surely, that is what our community must now do. Let us start by accepting in principle executive councillor Bernard Chan's argument that universal suffrage by itself would bring a new dynamic to the whole process of identifying someone to be our chief executive. In other words, what goes before the voting by five million eligible Hong Kong voters exercising their democratic rights need not be perfect before the package as a whole can represent a major step forward.

That is true, but let us all also accept that when companies and organisations instead of people are allowed to vote in the 21st century, then the system is warped and needs urgent correction. When the fishing industry is deemed to be three times as important as the financial services sector in one of the world's major business centres and China's only international financial centre, then someone needs to take off their blinkers.

If the argument that what we do with our lives is as important as where we live - academic Michael DeGolyer's explanation of why there might still be a place for functional constituencies - then that is not a reason why there cannot be significant improvement in making all such representatives much more - well, representative. This principle applies to both the Legco and chief executive elections.

The most urgent need now is for a period of quiet reflection in all camps. People of goodwill on all sides - and I believe there are many such - need a period of time to cool down and for wiser counsel to prevail. They need to rediscover the art of talking to each other, not at each other. And they need to work together to find a way forward.

All need not be permanently lost if only the headbangers on both sides can be quietly shuffled off stage while the adults get on with pragmatic business. In the traditional Hong Kong way.

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