If Carrie Lam wants to heal the rifts in Hong Kong, it starts with political reform
Sonny Lo says the chief executive-elect faces many challenges in uniting the city’s politics and society, but a focus on cross-aisle dialogue, reducing the wealth gap and affordable housing could be key first steps
The victory of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was widely expected, but the Hong Kong chief executive election demonstrated the lasting effect of political wounds left by the 2014 Occupy movement and the failure of the political reform package in 2015. How to heal these wounds remains a challenge for Lam.
Although the election outcome has not been welcomed by the pan-democrats, it is actually the result of their rejection of the 2015 political reform package – initiated by the Hong Kong government and supported by Beijing. If pan-democrat legislators had accepted the political reform model within the parameters of the August 31, 2014, decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, this election could have seen a more competitive campaign among the three candidates, especially between John Tsang Chun-wah and Lam.
Sadly, the pan-democrats refused to accept the proposal and insisted on a “genuinely” democratic model. Arguably, if any “genuine” democratic model of election exists, it must stimulate the participation of more citizens to elect their chief executive. The 2015 proposal provided a golden opportunity for mass participation in the 2017 election, but the pan-democrats rejected the need for any Election Committee to screen candidates.
The political controversies over the best model for electing future chief executives, especially approaching 2022, will continue to haunt Lam.
So, how can she best go about healing the wounds and rebuilding political trust between the government and pan-democrats?
First, though Lam said in her election campaign that political reform would not be a policy priority, her think tank has to consider a middle-of-the-road alternative. If the pan-democrats insist on a model of citizen participation and nomination, and if Beijing insists on the need to observe the 2014 Standing Committee decision, a number of compromises can still be considered. One option is to allow chief executive candidates to obtain a certain number of citizens’ signatures, to be nominated by Election Committee members in 2022. In other words, civic nomination could be considered in a revised reform package, but such nomination would fall under the parameters of the 2014 NPC decision.
Watch: The highs and lows of the chief executive campaign
The second option to heal the wounds, as Lam mentioned during her campaign, would be to repair the damaged executive-legislative relations via regular communication. This could be done in at least three ways: one, by creating an office similar to the Office of the Members of the Executive and Legislative Council of the British era; two, by assigning political appointees, especially deputy secretaries and political assistants, the crucial task of regularly communicating with legislators across political spectrums. A third and bolder option is for the new chief executive to appoint a few moderate pan-democrats to the Executive Council, so as to ensure more inclusive policymaking.
Another important task is be to speed up the appointment of committee on tax reform, to study ways towards a progressive tax system – long overdue given our widening income gap. Lam mentioned such a reform initiative in her manifesto. Progressive tax can help redistribute wealth in a moderate way. But the challenge of introducing such a system is convincing the business sector that it will not undermine Hong Kong’s economic prosperity and the investment climate, and that it will address social inequity.
Finally, housing and land policy will have to be revised to address the concerns of ordinary citizens who cannot afford to rent, let alone own, a home. A more ambitious plan of rebuilding public housing estates, a revived policy of expanding the Home Ownership Scheme, and a more proactive policy of dialogue with land developers must be the focus so that livelihood issues are tackled effectively.
In this way, class harmony between the rich and the poor, rather than class tensions among them, will hopefully be accomplished.
Thus, Hong Kong’s political wounds can be healed with optimistic but realistic solutions in the coming years.
Sonny Lo is a political commentator