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Rocky Road to Political Reform

(Letter to Hong Kong - 2004.1.4)

Before I begin this very first Letter to Hong Kong for the year 2004, I sincerely wish that all of you will enjoy a very happy, healthy and prosperous new year.

Hong Kong has always been a place of paradox. That is why different shades of views and culture can blend so well together in harmony. However, this is not a state of affairs that we can always take for granted. This balance of constant changes and stability is delicate and fragile, and that the people of Hong Kong are intelligent and sensitive. They know when the Government may not be serving their best interests and that their views are being manipulated. It is also a great place that thrives on changes, provided that changes are well accepted by the majority, professionally managed and gradual.

Despite of the faster than expected pace of economic recovery, the community is evidently still looking for changes in the political structure. I believe too that such reforms are essential as there are already worrying signs that one day, if they are still left unresolved, may undermine the long term stability of the community.

Firstly, the growing economic inequalities between the affluent society group and the grass-roots, the latter group are, at the same time, increasingly gaining in political influences. Although one may argue that a major economic restructuring that is taking place now will inevitably exacerbate an uneven distribution of wealth. But when the economic powers and the political powers of a community are growing completely unchecked in different directions, it becomes a sure formula for society conflicts, confrontation and instability.

Secondly, the administration was unable to secure a widely based support for its many controversial policies over a sustained period of time. It has now deteriorated to a stage that any politician or political groups siding with the Government on any issue will automatically be tagged with a negative label by some sector of the mass media. This tactic may be unethical and unfair but it can certainly inflict incalculable damages to the political parties concerned and will further hamper the effectiveness and leadership of Government.

Thirdly, the poor handling of the unpopular article 23 issues has already provided the reformist with the much needed focus of attention and the best votes catching machinery. A passive and evasive attitude towards political reform is no longer a defensible option.

Any one of these issues, if not dealt with properly, are potentially divisive for the community and might fuel calls for more drastic changes than is really necessary. So far, the Administration has remained intolerably evasive and much valuable time has already been lost. However, as all sensible people would agree that there must be a trade off between the pace of political reform and stability. The key question to ask is then how fast can we go without compromising the needed stability, in which the support of the reforms by our Central Government is a crucial factor for consideration.

I believe that there could be many shades and colours of political views amongst the professional middle income group like the accountants of Hong Kong. From my own contact with them, many would like to be offered a range of views to pick from. Before that happens, the true views of the accountants would remain a moving target. However, what is being debated now appears to be only the extremity of views i.e. no change or go right away to universal suffrage. A more balanced middle ground is still lacking and I see little harm for the community to give it a try. At least, any alternative proposal is better than none and although we cannot hope to get it right in the first round, it will certainly help to trigger off some rational debates.

The Alternative Political Reform Proposals

I believe that a possible approach for gradual change is to take a phased program to political reform under a pre-determined time-table. The time-table could then be short circuited by a regular poll of public attitudes and if the views collected show a two-third majority, same as the votes needed in the Legislative Council for a change in political structure, is in support of an immediate change.

The Legislative Council

First Phase (2008 &/or 2012): simply add 30 more geographically elected seats. This will give the universally elected members a much greater say in especially rejecting unpopular Government policies. However, the remaining 30 seats of Functional Constituencies can still be effective in vetoing some of the more drastic initiatives of the reformists rather like a Upper House of most developed democracies e.g. Senates of the U.S.A. and the  House of Lords of the U.K. The design is a more conservative check and balance structure to allow time for the parties to adjust to the not insignificant changes.

Second Phase (2012 or 2016): turn the remaining 30 FC seats into Nominating Committees to elect no more than 3 candidates each who must then obtain the mandate from the people of Hong Kong in a universally held direct election. This will effectively narrow the gap between the views of the lawmakers from different electoral processes.

Third & Final Phase (2016 or 2024): all 90 seats are opened for universal suffrage.

The Chief Executive

First Phase (2007): turn the 800 members Election Committee into a Nomination Committee and elect no more than 3 candidates for universal suffrage.

Second & Final Phase (2016 or 2024): universal suffrage at the same time as the Legislative Council.

The Basic Law has already incorporated one of my earlier ideas back in 1988 to recognize universal suffrage as the ultimate goal. However, the mini constitution is silent on when can this be achieved. It could then be as early as 2007 or as late as 2047. Naturally, this will put the pace of reform as the most crucial question to decide.

The alternative proposal that I have suggested for discussion is somewhere right in between, i.e. 2016 to 2024. A gradual change seems more in line with the spirit of the Basic Law and gives a clearer time frame for all the parties concerned to be prepared for the future. However, I do also recognize that fixing a rigid time-table has its limitations as we may not be able to judge political moods and sentiments too far in advance. That is why I have built in another polling mechanism in every election to short circuit the time table through the most peaceful and civilized means. However, I must emphasis that the poll is not a referendum as it is not conclusive in making the final decision. The move towards universal suffrage has still got to make its way through the procedures as prescribed by the Basic Law, i.e. the Legislative Council passing a Bill by a two-third majority and the endorsement by the Chief Executive and the final blessing from the Central Government.

The advantages of my proposal can be manifolds:

1)     It provide a clear and certain middle course for survey and discussion purposes;

2)     It is very easy to modify e.g. numbers of seats and nominators and the timing of the change in stages can be adjusted to satisfy individual preferences;

3)     It allows time for the Central Government to indicate its disapproval of specific candidates at the nomination stage and thus avoiding the even greater constitutional crisis later i.e. electing a Chief Executive which may risk being rejected or cold shouldered by the Central Government;

4)     The regular polling device allows for a peaceful and rational escape route for a rigid time-table and at the same time, rendering disruptive demonstrations unnecessary; 

5)     The move towards universal suffrage for both the Executive and Legislative branches of the Government is synchronized.

I hope that by venturing out in this manner, I can provide the community with another viable option to choose from. It is also my hope that if the community can settle this matter once and for all, then the July 1st and the New Year marches would have served their useful historical role.


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