A protest banner hangs from the window of a flat in 2016, saying “I want real elections”, complete with a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the 2014 Occupy movement, then Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy demonstration. Photo: Nora Tam
by Mike Rowse
by Mike Rowse

Hong Kong desperately needs political reform to make Legco and the chief executive accountable

  • Far from ripping Hong Kong apart and deepening divisions, political reform will allow a more representative government to better deal with controversial legislation, whether on extradition or national security

It is clear from radio talk shows, interviews on the street, letters to the editor – everywhere ordinary people can put their views across – that most of us are feeling a kind of helpless weariness.

We see young people throwing bricks at policemen, many of them our friends and relatives, and whom we rely on to keep us safe. And these young people are our sons and daughters, who carry the hopes of our community. Why are police marksmen kneeling down to take aim with rifles and shoot them, albeit luckily only with rubber bullets and beanbag rounds? It is becoming obvious to everyone that we are all facing the consequences of a colossal political failure.
Our young people feel, with some justification, that they have been betrayed by an administration that is not protecting their long-term interests. While our policemen feel that they have been left to take responsibility on the streets for coping with public anger. Literally everyone feels powerless.

It is against this background that I listened incredulously to the comments of former Central Policy Unit head Lau Siu-kai earlier this month that political reform would deepen divisions and rip Hong Kong apart. That means what we have now is a big unifying success?

It would be wrong to place the blame for the current situation wholly on the recent extradition debacle. The roots go back to the failed political reform saga of 2013-2015.
Pro-democracy supporters gather in Admiralty on October 10, 2014, to push for universal suffrage. Photo: AFP
From December 2013 to May 2014, the government conducted a public consultation on methods for selecting the chief executive in 2017 and for forming the Legislative Council in 2016. In 2007, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress had ruled that election of the chief executive by universal suffrage should precede introduction of the same method for Legco. But that did not preclude other reforms for Legco. The same ruling had decreed that all reforms should reflect “gradual and orderly” progress.
It is worth recording that the 2010 reform package, which was approved by Legco with support from the Democratic Party, had covered both the chief executive and Legco. Hence the increase in the size of the chief executive election committee from 800 to 1,200 members and the decision that the five new functional constituencies should be general ones with a broad electorate.

Carrie Lam is now a liability, as is Hong Kong’s leadership selection process

In the event, the summary paper produced by the administration on the outcome of the 2014 consultation exercise focused principally on the chief executive, and the many suggestions for amending the Legco arrangements were ignored. This was surely wrong. While it was correct that changes to the chief executive election arrangements had priority, that did not mean we had to come to a complete halt on changes to Legco.

Recommendations along these flawed lines were arguably a contravention of the 2007 NPC ruling. When it comes to progress, zero is not the same as gradual.

This sleight of hand found its way into the report in mid-May to the NPC. Not surprisingly, the NPC decision of August 31, 2014, ploughed a shallow furrow approving a formula for the chief executive election at the conservative end of the spectrum and no change for Legco. Severe disappointment with the package unveiled led directly to Occupy and the 79-day civil disobedience exercise. The bitterness that festered on all sides from the unsuccessful effort to secure meaningful political reform is still with us today.

Not surprisingly, the meagre package failed to secure sufficient support in Legco when put to the vote in 2015.

The 2016 Legco election was conducted under unreformed procedures so the outcome was unrepresentative. The 2017 chief executive election took place without universal suffrage, hence the elevation of former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to the top post came at the behest of Beijing and was not endorsed by popular vote.
Which brings us up to the present day. The intervening years have seen several controversial issues arise from time to time – the Palace Museum at West Kowloon, the proposed East Lantau metropolis, for example (both of which I support by the way) – but nothing struck a chord quite like the substantial changes being suggested to our extradition arrangements triggered by the Taiwan murder.
I am not going to repeat all the aspects of the government’s mishandling of the case because I have written about the subject before as have many others. The climax was surely the spectacle of Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung telling the Bar Association and the Law Society that they did not understand the law. Whatever was he thinking?

But we must come back to Professor Lau and the suggestion that we should not take up the cudgels again on political reform. If Legco is to make a new law on a controversial subject like extradition, it must be a reformed, more representative assembly. If the chief executive is to play a major role in dealing with individual extradition requests, the post must be held by someone accountable directly to the people of Hong Kong.

As a community, we do need to deal sensibly with this important subject and indeed the parallel one of a national security legislation. But we need political reform first.

Inaction is far from the best course, and we desperately need firm decisive action urgently. In its submission to the task force on political reform, the Democratic Party said that if the community’s hopes for universal suffrage for chief executive election were dashed, “Hong Kong will become ungovernable and the situation would be unthinkable”. Seen from my chair, that looks and sounds pretty prescient.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises