No harm gathering ideas and proposals from all sides

If the democrats won't step into the liaison office, then Beijing's man will go to them

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 4:51am

For the first time since the handover, Beijing's top representative in the city will tomorrow enter the Legco building and have lunch with all lawmakers, regardless of their political views.

Not all 70 lawmakers are expected to be present - a few have decided against meeting Zhang Xiaoming, the director of the central government's liaison office, and one of the most experienced Beijing experts on Hong Kong affairs.

While some are calling tomorrow's affair an "ice-breaking" gathering, to expect the meeting to lead to warmer ties between Beijing and the pan-democrats would be wrong. What the sit-down does mark is the beginning of Beijing's shift towards a more proactive approach in dealing with universal suffrage.

Both Zhang's office and Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing have tried hard to keep expectations in check, warning the public against hoping for too much to emerge from a single lunch. Tsang has stressed it would be only a "social" event.

Zhang last week reiterated that the "time has not yet come" for an official public consultation on arrangements for the 2017 election of the chief executive. But there are people unwilling to wait much longer: the Alliance for True Democracy released three controversial proposals last Wednesday; while the chairman of the Basic Law Institute, Alan Hoo, will today announce his proposal and urge the government to launch a consultation soon. Hoo is a figure who carries weight within the pro-establishment camp.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has so far resisted pressure to move quickly on the topic. When he attended Legco's question-and-answer session last Thursday, he was bombarded by pan-democrats asking why a public consultation was still not on his agenda.

Leung said an early consultation would not mean universal suffrage being adopted ahead of time.

In a related development, the government's head of constitutional affairs, Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, met the key drafters of the three proposals from the Alliance of True Democracy last Friday. But he only "listened" and did not express any views. Leung will meet a group of academics early next month to also "listen" to their views.

It appears that "no official public consultation" does not mean "no public discussions". Beijing realises this and must accept the fact.

This is the message echoed by various sectors, including Beijing-friendly groups: public consultation can be delayed but public sentiment and impatience can't be ignored.

Zhang's unprecedented offer to sit down with all lawmakers may not have been much of a choice, after all.

In 2010 key members of the Democratic Party went to the liaison office's Sai Wan building for talks about the constitutional reform proposal being discussed at the time.

Both the Democratic Party and the liaison office felt the party itself could act as representatives of the entire pan-democratic camp.

The assumption has been proven wrong. The Democratic Party has been under heavy attack from other parties, especially the radical groups, eroding the front's unity. Beijing must ask itself: who or which party should it, or even can it, talk to?

Without a single party claiming itself as the "voice" of the pan-democratic camp, and without anyone from the camp willing to step into the Sai Wan building, it falls to Zhang to go to Legco and sit down with them all: to eat, listen, talk or debate.

It does no harm for the government and Beijing to welcome more non-official proposals from various sectors, parties and organisations. Proposals, as they are called, are ideas for further discussion; the collective wisdom of the public can surely inspire the government's drafting of its own version for universal suffrage.