Occupy Central

Government will have only itself to blame for Occupy Central turmoil

Occupy Central can be avoided if local and central administrations meets their obligations and introduce genuine universal suffrage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 5:13am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 6:33am

Condemnation has recently been hurled at the Occupy Central movement, accusing its organisers of setting out to foment turmoil. Critics argue that their proposed civil disobedience will damage Hong Kong and warn of the potential for the central government to step in.

Make no mistake; if non-violent protest is judged to have caused turmoil, responsibility will lie on the government's shoulders. When government fails to keep constitutional commitments, responsibility for non-violent protest lies with the government, especially if it uses heavy-handed tactics to contain the protest.

Universal suffrage is one of the most solemn commitments in the Basic Law. While universal suffrage comes in various forms, its core ingredients, embedded in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), are the rights "to vote and to be elected on the basis of universal and equal suffrage".

Under the Basic Law, universal suffrage could have been implemented by 2007 and is surely imperative a decade later [for the 2017 chief executive election]. The government's attempt to hide behind British colonial reservations on the covenant concerning democracy is to no avail, as the ICCPR Human Rights Committee holds that such reservations no longer apply.

Any attempt by the Hong Kong government to put forward and the central government to approve a model to screen out democratic candidates, denying the city a fair and lawful vote, would clearly give rise to public protest.

The Basic Law provides for selection of chief executive candidates "upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures". Some government and pro-government critics have tried to discredit democratic demands by attacking popular calls for civil nomination as violating the mini-constitution.

This is surely a bogus distraction. If the government comes forward with a democratic proposal that provides for a truly representative nominating committee with fair and equal access to be nominated and presented to voters, does anyone believe Hongkongers will still clog the streets in protest?

A public-spirited government might want to include a civil nomination component, where candidates with a sufficient number of public signatures, perhaps 100,000, would be assured a place on the ballot by the nominating committee. Such a formula would accord with the Basic Law requirement and yet satisfy public demand for an inclusive approach. A run-off could be used to narrow the field if no candidate got 50 per cent of votes in the first round.

The other path to government-caused turmoil would be a dismissive and repressive government attitude. Hongkongers showed a low tolerance for such behaviour during the Article 23 debate, where popular outrage was clearly driven by the government's arrogant, dismissive attitude.

In the event of peaceful civil disobedience, the police and prosecutors should show restraint.

Finally, we are told it is necessary to ignore public demands because Beijing leaders cannot risk having a genuine democratic leader in Hong Kong. A recent global survey by the Pew Research Centre reveals the form of government in China meets with near-universal disapproval and yet it still thrives. Would a democratic leader in Hong Kong pose any greater challenge, or would such a leader even want to risk his administration trying to undermine the central government?

Professor Michael C. Davis, of the University of Hong Kong, is a constitutional law specialist