Hong Kong is at last having the discussion that it has long needed. Qiao Xiaoyang, the chairman of the National People's Congress Law Committee, has laid out conditions for the chief executive election in 2017. Pan-democrats have articulated demands. It is early days and the sides are as far apart as could be, but for our city's sake the opposing sides have to find common ground.
A mere two months have passed since Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's failure, in his maiden policy address, to mention a consultation on universal suffrage sparked campaigning by democracy supporters. A premature plan to disrupt traffic in Central next year was unveiled, lawmakers weighed in and, last week, pan-democrats joined forces to form the Alliance for True Democracy. That led Qiao at a weekend meeting of pro-Beijing legislators to expand on earlier comments by Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng that only people who were patriotic and loved the nation and Hong Kong could lead our city.
Qiao's hint that a screening committee should choose who can run for chief executive has alarmed the pro-democracy side. To prevent a candidate unacceptable to Beijing from emerging, he suggested a three-stage process involving a nominating committee, the people of Hong Kong voting and the central government's approval. A candidate would have to have the committee's majority backing to win nomination. There is nothing untoward in such procedures: Article 45 of the Basic law calls for a "broadly representative" nominating committee to decide candidates to face a popular vote in accordance with "democratic procedures".
What is at issue is interpretation; Article 45 lays out a template, but is not specific. Qiao, as the most senior mainland official to offer a viewpoint, has given insight where there was previously only speculation. The alliance, responding to his comments, objected to the idea of a screening process. Its position on universal suffrage is unambiguous, being based on all people of voting age being able to decide their leaders.
It is good that positions have been laid bare. There are realities to be faced, chief among them being the need to interpret the Basic Law's provisions on the mechanism for universal suffrage and the necessity for the central and Hong Kong governments to work together smoothly. All involved have to be transparent, open to negotiations and flexible.