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Hong Kong Basic Law

Don’t give up on democracy for Hong Kong just yet

Mike Rowse says a recent discussion between prominent political figures from the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps provides some hope that Hong Kong can work towards achieving national security legislation and, ultimately, more democracy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 11:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 6:54pm

I wonder if there might be a way forward for democracy in Hong Kong after all. A panel discussion on May Day organised by RTHK inevitably brought up issues where opinions differ. But visible through the mist of polite dissension were the outlines of possible compromises, so by the end I was not totally discouraged. 

Perhaps it was the stature of the main participants – executive councillor Ronny Tong Ka-wah, long-time pro-administration legislator Junius Ho Kwan-yiu and rising star from the pro-democracy camp Senia Ng Sze-nok – perhaps it was because there was a studio audience, and the event was carried live on the radio with film coverage via Facebook; perhaps it was because the proceedings were conducted entirely in English. Whatever the reason, the debate was calm and serious, with none of the histrionics we have become so familiar with in the Legislative Council

It was taken as obvious that there needs to be dialogue between the pan-democratic camp and Beijing, with the Hong Kong government acting as a kind of buffer. There has to be mutual recognition that the genuine concerns of all parties need to be addressed. A major problem is the almost total breakdown of trust. Beijing sees the pan-dems playing footsie with the independence movement, and the pan-dems have not recovered from what they view as the ultra-conservative political reform package put forward in 2014. The ill feeling from Occupy Central and the Legco disqualifications still lingers. 

The key issues discussed were advocacy of independence, the requirement under Article 23 of the Basic Law for Hong Kong to enact national security legislation and the promise – also in the Basic Law – of movement towards a more democratic system for electing the chief executive and Legco members. 

Hong Kong must remain a beacon of freedom of expression as China, and the region, cracks down on critics 

Tong dealt with the independence question emphatically. It is an absolute red line for Beijing, and those who advocate it or even tolerate consideration of the option can play no part in determining Hong Kong’s constitutional development. There is an important lesson here for the pan-dems and their willingness to entertain the self-determination policy put forward by Demosisto. It is that, although self-determination sounds innocuous, if one of the options for Hong Kong people to consider is to be independence, then there is no meaningful difference between self-determination and independence. It is no good for the Democratic Party and others to say they do not believe in independence if they are still prepared to stand by advocates of self-determination. 

There is an important point of principle here which Benny Tai Yiu-ting also needs to take on board. You can say as often as you like that you don’t personally support Hong Kong independence, but if you keep discussing the idea in public – indeed, even flying to Taiwan to take part in a conference organised by a pro-independence political organisation there – sooner or later, even fair-minded people are going to start doubting your denials. 

Opposing China’s socialist system flouts Hong Kong’s Basic Law

The Basic Law spells out the different aspects of national security Hong Kong needs to legislate on. The laws should prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition or subversion against Beijing or theft of state secrets, prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in Hong Kong and prohibit local political organisations from establishing ties with foreign political bodies. 

Some of these issues are already covered by the common law or by old colonial legislation. There is a compelling case to modernise the legislation and to plug any gaps not covered. Tong argued that we should be doing this now as it is the only card we had to play with Beijing. Ng wanted democracy first to ensure that any new laws were administered in accordance with Hong Kong values. The problem is that Beijing can live without democracy in Hong Kong, but it cannot – and will not – live without proper national security legislation. 

In response to a question from the floor, Tong confirmed that the original draft Article 23 legislation in 2003 had undergone considerable improvement during the consultation phase, although there were still some aspects which he thought were unacceptable. In any event, the bill was withdrawn. 

Article 23 national security law in Hong Kong could help win more democracy, government adviser Ronny Tong says 

It is accepted that most Hong Kong people want democracy. It is also accepted, including increasingly by the pan-dems, that this is more likely to be via a process of incremental steps rather than the “all-or-nothing” approach some had previously advocated. 

Out of all this debate, can we see ways in which progress might be made? How about by producing a draft bill which covers two or three aspects of national security – at a minimum, knock the independence nonsense on the head. If political reform can be incremental, perhaps national security can be, too. If the two packages went forward in parallel and were implemented, work could begin on a second, then a third and final phase. Do we know any lawyers familiar with the subject who could take the task on? There were three on the panel on May 1.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]