The path to a vote for all in Hong Kong begins with dialogue with China’s Communist Party

  • Brian YS Wong says having open and competitive elections in Hong Kong serves the interests of both the city and the mainland’s Communist leaders
  • To reframe the political discourse of division and conflict, Hong Kong politicians must have the courage to choose the moderate path of engagement
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 1:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 6:46pm

Recent political developments in Hong Kong have been underpinned by two prominent undercurrents. The first is a general disillusionment with what is perceived to be continued encroachment by China’s Communist Party on Hong Kong’s autonomy. The second is rising frustration at the sheer ineptitude and futility of zealous localists who prioritise ideological posturing over pragmatic dialogue with the party.

Both undercurrents point to the value for Hong Kong to restart the search for a mutually palatable compromise with the Communist Party on universal suffrage. There is no reason why Hong Kong and mainland China’s interests should be viewed as a zero-sum game: granting Hong Kong universal suffrage in its choice of chief executive would, in fact, be in the interest of both Hong Kong and the party. 

Such a move would serve China’s interests because it would foster a more stable and cohesive Hong Kong for China. At the core of many Hongkongers’ disillusionment with the status quo (barring those at the political fringes) lies a vibrant desire for the ability to truly self-govern, to take part in what democratic theorists term “semi-participatory democracy” – where they can hold their leader to account through open and transparent elections.

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The issue with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s administration is perhaps not so much a matter of objective failure: Hong Kong’s economy has largely improved, with key infrastructural projects and transformative youth policies implemented, since she took office. Instead, it lies with a subjective perception that Lam does not care for or answer to the Hong Kong public.

Regardless of whether this is true, a lack of buy-in with the Hong Kong government is harmful for both the local government and the Communist Party; the latter needs the support of the Hong Kong public to achieve its goal of maintaining stability and facilitating economic growth.

It is also in China’s interests to ensure meritocracy and accountability in Hong Kong’s governance. Hongkongers are well equipped to make qualified decisions about who should govern – the city has been endowed with elections of various forms since the 1950s colonial era. An open and competitive election for chief executive would allow the Communist Party to weed out candidates who are unqualified for the demands of the position – maximising the interests of Hong Kong citizens under the framework of “one country, two systems”.

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Additionally, it creates incentives for candidates to identify and pursue proposals that reconcile Hong Kong and mainland China’s interests. Universal suffrage thus provides a natural selection mechanism that chooses individuals who are capable of aligning Hong Kong’s interests with that of mainland China, without sacrificing either party.

A more affluent, egalitarian, and open Hong Kong is a net win for China, in demonstrating the compatibility of the mainland political system with a plurality of other political systems, as well as the political acumen of the party leadership.

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What then is a realistic path that would lead towards universal suffrage in Hong Kong under the framework of “one country, two systems”? The answer lies not with radical calls for secession, but with politicians who have the courage to choose the path not taken: to engage in open-minded dialogue with mainland officials. The path of moderate pragmatism is not an easy one – it is often branded as ideologically inconsistent, if not contradictory; yet such smears should not stop us from attempting it.

If we persist with the discourse that frames the mainland and Hong Kong’s interests as intractably incompatible, then we risk trapping ourselves in a quagmire of embittered arguments over slogans and ideologies. Only by identifying proposals that are mutually amenable to both China and Hong Kong could we maximise the interests of both. Being able to elect our own chief executive is not merely a political right, it is a progressive step forward for both the Communist Party and Hong Kong.

Brian YS Wong is a Master of Philosophy student of politics (political theory) at Wolfson College, Oxford