Thursday, July 1, 2010

Hong Kong gets more democracy, on China's terms

IN recent weeks, things have happened in Hong Kong that never happened before.

For one thing, the Chinese government agreed to hold unprecedented talks with various pro-democracy organisations in Hong Kong, which they had previously kept at arm's length.

Then, last week, Beijing accepted a controversial proposal on how certain seats in the legislature, to be chosen in 2012, should be elected.

The proposal was made by the Democratic Party, the biggest such group in the Legislative Council, which the Chinese government had always regarded with repugnance because of its calls not only for democracy in Hong Kong but for an end to one-party rule in mainland China.
But politics is a strange thing. The emergence of groups more radical than the Democratic Party, such as the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats, made the democrats appear moderate by comparison.

And when, in May, the Democratic Party decided not to take part in a campaign by the other two groups to hold a "de facto referendum", its stock went up in Beijing's eyes.

The Liaison Office met leaders of the Democratic Party, including its chairman, Albert Ho, and vice-chairman, Emily Lau. They and many of their colleagues are persona non grata in mainland China, where they are not allowed to visit because of their political stance.

In the talks, Ho and his colleagues proposed a drastic revision to a political reform proposal made by Chief Executive Donald Tsang.

The chief executive had proposed that the legislature be expanded in 2012 from 60 to 70 seats.

However, Beijing had decided in 2007 that if there is any increase in numbers, the current ratio must be preserved, that is, 50 per cent elected by geographical constituencies and 50 per cent elected by functional constituencies, which in Hong Kong traditionally meant narrowly based interest groups.

Tsang proposed that the five new functional seats be created by having the roughly 400 elected district councillors choose five of their own members to sit in the legislature.

For the purposes of this election, the district councils, which are responsible for such things as swimming pools and parks, would constitute a functional constituency.

While district councils currently have one representative in the legislature, the proposal would add five more.

The government pointed out that this form of functional constituency would be far more democratic than traditional functional constituencies, which represented special interest groups such as real estate, banking and finance.

However, democratic legislators of all persuasions announced that they would vote against the package, which include other measures, such as increasing the size of the committee to elect the chief executive from 800 to 1,200 persons.

Such a move by the 23 legislators meant certain defeat for the package, which required a two-thirds majority, or 40 or the 60 legislators.

The Democratic Party proposed that legislators representing district councils should be elected not by the 400 district councillors but by the 3.2 million voters of Hong Kong. If this proposal were accepted, they said, they would support the package, ensuring its passage in the legislature.

Officials in Hong Kong and Beijing expressed doubt that this proposal was consistent with the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution enacted by China's National People's Congress, as well as with China's 2007 decision.

On June 17, Tsang debated Audrey Eu, leader of the Civic Party, on television. The idea was to win public support for his proposals and increase pressure on legislators to support them.

However, Eu, an experienced lawyer, made minced meat of the chief executive. More people turned against the political proposals.

Defeat in the legislature appeared imminent. Coming on top of a similar defeat five years ago, it would have made the viability of the Tsang administration questionable.

In this environment, Beijing stepped in. It decided that the Democratic Party's proposal was not inconsistent with either the Basic Law or the 2007 decision. With Beijing's support, the amended package passed easily.

Now, there is a new political landscape in Hong Kong. The democratic movement is fractured and Beijing is likely to prefer to keep it that way.

But while Beijing may see this as an opportunity to divide and conquer the opposition, increasingly savvy politicians in Hong Kong may be wily enough to turn it into a game of good cop, bad cop, with Beijing having little choice but to accept what it considers the least offensive of the democratic proposals.

It is a new game with rules yet to be devised. Frank Ching, New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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