22 October 2016
Demonstrators gather outside the Central Government Offices in Admiralty during last year's Umbrella Movement. Photo: HKEJ
Demonstrators gather outside the Central Government Offices in Admiralty during last year's Umbrella Movement. Photo: HKEJ

Why election bill shouldn’t be a matter of life and death

Except for those trying to exploit the disarray and fish in troubled waters, most Hong Kong people with no foreign residency could be feeling stuck.

They’re mainly senior citizens and businessmen who have strong ties with China and still recoil at the thought of last year’s protests.

Younger people are lucky. They were spared from the riots and poverty that gripped Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s and rampant corruption that marred the 1970s.

Nor did they experience the uncertainty over the Sino-British talks in the 1980s in the run-up to the change of sovereignty.   

Compared with the mainland, Hong Kong is an affluent, stable society where citizens enjoy freedom and rule of law.

Our young people think that civil disobedience is a way to achieve genuine universal suffrage and safeguard our rights and core values.

Their elders see them as troublemakers who offend Beijing and ruin livelihoods.

Such a polarized viewpoint, coupled with a gridlocked political system, traps Hong Kong in ineffective governance, stalled economic development, worsening social problems and contentious public sentiment.

What is even more disappointing is that the SAR government, with all the powers and resources at its disposal, has done nothing to make society a little more harmonious.

Quite the contrary, either for the sake of defending its authority or to show allegiance to Beijing, the government has been antagonistic toward its own constituents.

The leaders in Beijing have decided that previous policies on Hong Kong have been too soft and want a tougher hand to deal with it.

In a nutshell, the status quo is not a blessing to Hong Kong, nor is the situation conducive to China’s long-term national interests.

I will try to offer my views on constitutional development, the economy and livelihood in this column and in subsequent articles.

Election reform gridlock

I want to start with the impasse over the election reform proposal.

The consensus is that the 2017 election bill marks a watershed that could determine whether or not Hong Kong can restore effective governance.

Thus, there have been repeated calls from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying that pan-democrats assume their responsibility at “an important and historical moment”.

Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang has said he is ready to resign from his post so he could vote for the bill.

Meanwhile, some pan-democrats have been leaning toward the “pocket it first” camp to stop Hong Kong from sliding deeper into political instability.

From my perspective, the first thing we have to do is ditch the idea that the election bill is a matter of life and death.

National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang set the tone earlier this year when he said passing the bill is “a top task that must be accomplished”.

That means four votes from pan-democrats are needed, on top of Tsang’s vote, to achieve that goal.

I won’t be surprised if four or more pan-democrats ultimately switch sides and back the bill under Beijing’s urging.

That said, the question is whether the election winner will have the mandate to govern if half of the population and 70-80 percent of young people refuse to accept Beijing’s pre-screening of candidates.

It’s not enough to simply get a few pan-democrats to support the proposal. Reconciliation between the opposing camps has to take place in order to break the political deadlock.  

Failing that, the only outcome is a turn for the worse.

Supporters of the bill say Hong Kong has more to lose than it has to gain if the proposal is not passed. There’s no guarantee Beijing will offer anything better next time.

Judging from experience — 1,200 made up the 2012 election committee compared with 1,600 proposed in 2005 — I agree that their worry is not groundless but history doesn’t simply repeat itself.

More importantly, young people are going to be the most affected by the outcome of the bill. Without their support, the proposal will only alienate them from lawmakers who vote for it.

My advice to Beijing and the SAR government is to soften their tone, so that no untoward incident will happen if the bill is rejected by Legco.

Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong, has said the “the sky will not fall” if the proposal does not pass.

Pan-democrats need to make room for discussion with the government on non-political issues and show goodwill toward Beijing on future constitutional reform.

The truth is, if the reform is vetoed, the present election methods for chief executive and the legislature will stay, at least for five more years.

That, however, does not mean the next chief executive selected by the old method will not be accountable to the people, nor will Hong Kong be unable to make  progress in non-constitutional aspects such as governance, economic development and people’s livelihood.

I will give my other proposals in detail in my next column.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 15.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]


Pan-democrat lawmakers, holding yellow umbrellas, have vowed to veto the 2017 election bill which is due for a vote in June. Photo: Bloomberg

Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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