The case for reforming our chief executive elections

February 01, 2021 09:51
Photo: Reuters

Much ink has been spilled lately over the selection mechanism for the Chief Executive.

On one hand are voices calling for a fundamental overhaul to the electoral system – the optimal arrangement, they posit, rests with a consultative-cum-deliberative procedure that would select the one King that rules us all – our Aragorn – through the mystical, mystified, and certainly mercurial entity that is the consultative assembly. On the other are fervent advocates that Hong Kong remains steadfast in committing to an electoral system – one that has been trialled, tested, and arguably yielded varied success in yielding an administration that serves all Hongkongers.

I had a hypothetical thought – one that had brewed at the back of my mind throughout my years of initiation and coming-of-age (i.e. 2014 – hopefully that’s not too much of a giveaway of my age), and had gradually developed into a consistently nagging voice throughout the past twenty four months. Given the existing political constraints, what would be the mythical X that Hongkongers would trade off in exchange for universal suffrage? – noting, of course, that the demand for the latter had remained perennially relatively high, though non-overwhelming (the numbers peaked at 60-70% at the height of the 2019 protests).

The Pro-Establishment camp seemed to be sold – or at least was compelled to sell themselves into thinking – that X constituted solutions to the socioeconomic inequalities that run rampant in this city of 7.4 million and nearly a million living in poverty. I reckon they may well be more correct than their PR team gives them credit for – though one must ask, are hand-outs and short-termist solutions truly the practicable proposals that could ameliorate problems such as downward mobility, housing shortages, lack of economic diversification, on a structural and fundamental level? I remain skeptical.

The Pan-Democrats had started off with a noble goal – of securing democratic and accountable governance in the aftermath of the hand-over, but also in building, not burning, bridges with the very individuals whose support they needed to win over. For many in the camp in the run-up to 2010, X constituted universal suffrage – a healthy and reasonable diagnosis, as well as robustly democratic norms and institutions. One could term these asks a tall order in light of the unique political environs Hong Kong is enmeshed in – yet there was nothing unreasonable at large with these demands. Except, plausibly, the cliché that universal suffrage is not a panacea – but then again, nothing is.

A small yet precipitously vocal fringe within the democratic movement saw X rather differently from the democratic mainstream. To them, the old Pan-Dems were colloquially known as “Old Seafood” – Quixotic individuals that had struggled to keep up with the times. X, these individuals insisted, rested with solutions that lie fairly and squarely out of anyone’s reasonable reach in the city. Thus we are presented with a paradox: on one hand, it seems all but unclear as to what localists’ understanding of X constitutes; on the other hand, such X was doomed from the start – it was a no-go option, which only became a battering ram, a recurrent trope, and a discursive weapon in the hands of those who are eager to see Hong Kong completely politically assimilated and rendered devoid of its distinctive institutions and value systems.

I have a modest proposal. The identity of X is a compound substance – it is a combination of accountability, transparency, and professionalism. Hong Kong needs accountable governance – accountable to both Beijing and the Hong Kong public. It also needs transparent bureaucracy and policymaking. All that most of the public are asking for, is to be heard, and to be seen as being heard. Professionalism is of paramount significance, especially in ensuring that our institutional strengths, as a financial center and legal nexus for the region, are not eroded.

There is therefore every need for genuine though prudent changes to the electoral system – ones that are gradualist-in-kind yet substantively progressive, and certainly ones that are cognizant of Beijing’s admittedly tightening baselines, whilst upholding the core interests of Hongkongers. Hong Kong and Beijing need not be at loggerheads with one another. From expanding the number of electors on the Chief Executive electoral committee, to shifting the exact composition of each respective sector, to potentially reaching a compromise over the threshold required for successful “admission” into the race.

These may well be dismissed as piecemeal changes – as the pretense of a façade system. Yet these piecemeal changes could make a huge difference to how accountable, to how responsive, and to how successful our Chief Executive leadership could be. I do not enjoy jumping to brash conclusions, although the impulse to write grandiosely on unrealisable objectives is indeed potent and tempting. Universal suffrage should well be, and must be, our eventual goal – yet in achieving it, we must find solutions and positions that are cognizant of Beijing’s concerns, and reflective of Hongkongers’ needs, simultaneously.

Do I support scrapping our Chief Executive elections?

No, no, and no.

Do I think there’s a case for reforming it to adapt it to our times?

Absolutely yes.

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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