23 October 2016
Pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong display placards and a banner which reads "Say no to fake universal suffrage", during a Legislative Council meeting on April 22, as the government unveiled a long-awaited blueprint for the 2017 chief executiv
Pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong display placards and a banner which reads "Say no to fake universal suffrage", during a Legislative Council meeting on April 22, as the government unveiled a long-awaited blueprint for the 2017 chief executiv

HK political reform package: Why it deserves a chance

The Hong Kong government’s political reform package, unveiled last week, contained few surprises. But there are some positive features.

For one thing, the establishment of a low threshold for those who want to run for chief executive in 2017 by requiring only 120 members of the Nominating Committee to “recommend” them – 10 percent of the 1,200 members – makes it quite easy for pan-democrats to enter the race. The prohibition of any candidate from seeking more than 240 recommendations means that at least five candidates will be recommended.

This is very different from the situation in 2002 and 2005 when first Tung Chee-hwa and later Donald Tsang were able to prevent the emergence of any competitive candidate by getting virtually all members of the Election Committee to nominate them. The cap on the number of recommendations each candidate may receive prevents such a situation from arising again.

To be sure, the question is not just who will be able to secure 120 recommendations. It is, more importantly, the question of who will be able to become one of the two or three formal candidates, one of whom will be chosen by the five million registered voters of Hong Kong to be the next chief executive.

The Nomination Committee will be a copy of the current Election Committee and so, we already know, its members will be inclined to support pro-establishment rather than pro-democracy candidates.

But this divide is really not very helpful because whoever is the chief executive will have to work for the welfare of all the people of Hong Kong, which means that he or she has to be both pro-democracy and pro-establishment.

No chief executive would possibly want to oppose the establishment, namely the Chinese government, because he cannot do his job that way. At the same time, he would have been chosen through a democratic process and so cannot be against democracy.

Whether the proposed system will work depends to a large extent on the period between recommendation and nomination. Those weeks and, preferably, months should see all the candidates actively campaigning.

These chief executive aspirants will have to answer questions like whether they support the continuation of the annual June 4 candlelight vigils, what their position is on issues such as Article 23 legislation, mainland tourists and national education. They will have to take a position on sensitive issues, knowing that both the Hong Kong public and the Chinese government are listening.

If each recommended candidate issues detailed election manifestoes, answers questions fully and holds televised debates with other candidates, there will certainly emerge one or two who will top the opinion polls.

All this, of course, presupposes sufficient campaign time and resources for this segment of the process. This point is crucial.

If the Nominating Committee’s final list of two or three formal candidates coincides with public opinion, then the government blueprint and the decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee last August determining how candidates are chosen will have been vindicated.

If, on the other hand, the most popular candidates are not nominated, then the Nominating Committee, by its own actions, will stand condemned in the eyes of the public and the chief executive chosen will likely not have the necessary mandate to govern.

The pan-democrats right now are caught between a rock and a hard place. They can veto the package, thus in effect voting for the perpetuation of the Election Committee, which they had always opposed as a “small circle election”. Or they can pass the package and see how well it works.

If in 2017 it is shown that the provisions in the package don’t work, then legislators, and the public at large, will certainly call for changing the system in the next election.

Such a call will be so strong that whoever is chief executive will have little choice but to report this to Beijing and ask for the initiation once again of China’s five-step mechanism for political reform in 2022.

To ignore public opinion will not be an option since it would simply make Hong Kong ungovernable. No government that even pretends to govern with the consent of the public will be able to withstand such pressure. Further reform will be inevitable.

The reform package, while not ideal, is certainly an improvement over what exists today. It is necessary to put it to the test to see how well it works.

To give the reform package a chance, it is necessary to pass it first.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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