Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

Lay groundwork now if Hong Kong wants popular vote for leader in 2027, former minister says

Ex-secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs Raymond Tam says it’s too late to achieve universal suffrage by 2022 poll, and government should focus on national security law instead

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 9:31am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 9:30am

Hong Kong’s officials should start laying the groundwork instead of kicking the can down the road if they aim to achieve a popular ballot for the city’s leadership by 2027, according to a former minister in charge of the issue.

Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, who on Tuesday was elected as a deputy to China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, said that in terms of political atmosphere and timing, it was impossible for the government to reform the system for the chief executive election to allow universal suffrage in the 2022 poll.

The former minister said that rather than trying to push a political reform package through the Legislative Council, it was more practical for officials to enact national security legislation after the legislature’s general election in 2020, as Beijing had already signalled its impatience at Hong Kong for making no progress on the matter.

Tam, 53, was secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs from 2011 to June this year. In October 2013, Tam, along with Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was then chief secretary, and justice secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung kicked off a two-year process aimed at achieving a popular ballot for the 2017 chief executive election.

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But Beijing handed down a stringent framework on the issue, triggering the 79-day Occupy protests in 2014, a year before the government’s electoral reform package was voted down in Legco.

Speaking to the Post in an interview on Wednesday, Tam suggested it was likely the next chief executive poll in 2022 would again be decided by the 1,200-member Election Committee, a panel dominated by business elites, professionals and politicians.

“It’s difficult for the government to start constitutional reform in the next two to three years,” he said.

Tam explained that with ongoing court cases involving Occupy protesters and last year’s Mong Kok riot, it would be difficult to create “a suitable atmosphere” for debates on sensitive issues.

Asked whether universal suffrage could be achieved by 2027, Tam said he believed that would depend on the “groundwork” laid by Lam’s government.

“From going to the mainland for more exchanges to lining up Beijing officials [to engage] individual political parties behind the scenes, these all are the groundwork,” Tam said, adding that it was hard to tell whether the reform process could be relaunched until officials and lawmakers had sat down to talk.

While President Xi Jinping is widely expected to lead China for at least five more years, the next leadership reshuffle in Beijing in March will see some state leaders, including Zhang Dejiang, currently the top official overseeing Hong Kong affairs, retiring.

Tam said that with a new state leader taking over the role, he believed there would be opportunities for Beijing officials and pan-democrat lawmakers to meet for talks or mainland visits.

While the pro-democracy camp is asking the Hong Kong government to introduce democratic reforms, the administration is also facing increasing pressure from Beijing to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which states that the city must establish its own law to protect national security.

In light of the calls from the pro-Beijing camp, Tam believed that Lam could include national security legislation as one of her priorities in the latter half of her five-year term, which ends in 2022.

“If I were her, I would also choose to kick-start [Basic Law] Article 23 legislation rather than constitutional reform,” Tam said.

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He said a good time to enact national security legislation would be after the Legco polls in 2020, as the newly elected lawmakers would be the ones to vote on the bill after a public consultation exercise.

In April, shortly after Lam was elected chief executive, Tam famously hinted that he would leave the government, saying that “perhaps my pace and Lam’s were slightly different”. The remarks sparked speculation over whether Tam was implying a disagreement with the chief executive-elect.

But Tam insisted in the interview with the Post that he was saying only that “it was normal for the paces of officials in the cabinet to be different”.

Asked to compare the current and former governments, Tam said the paces of incumbent ministers “seemed more united and synchronised”.

Tam is currently a senior executive of the New Frontier Group, a business collective founded by his former boss, Antony Leung Kam-chung. Tam was press secretary during Leung’s tenure as financial secretary from 2001 to 2003.