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May 28, 2017

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Hong Kong embracing the forms but not laws of Western democracy

The appearance in the Hong Kong legislature of filibustering — the practice of allowing one or more members to delay or prevent a vote on a proposal by limitless speechifying — signals the danger that the former British colony may embrace extreme forms of democracy without the rules and regulations that Western parliaments have developed.

Until discussion was cut off last Thursday by Jasper Tsang, the president of the Legislative Council, a handful of pro-democracy legislators had staged marathon sessions for two weeks to prevent passage of a government proposal that lawmakers who resign midterm cannot stand in a by-election within six months.

This is a proposal on which reasonable people may differ, but is it really appropriate to dub the proposition "draconian," as some radicals have done? Should elected legislators be free to resign and run for the same seats repeatedly, at great cost to the taxpayer? The bill is an attempt by the government to plug what it sees as a loophole.

There is a danger that pan-democrats in Hong Kong, which is scheduled to hold its first elections for chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017, will reject anything they see as contaminating the purity of democracy.

Thus, they are calling for the abolition of all elections by a limited franchise, such as the current system of "functional constituencies" under which, for example, lawyers elect a lawyer, teachers elect a teacher and bankers elect a banker to serve as legislators.

Some democrats are also opposed to a bicameral system as somehow less democratic. Certainly, the Canadian system, under which members of the upper house are appointed rather than elected, would never pass muster in Hong Kong.

While filibusters have historically been held in certain countries, various parliaments have taken action to limit the right of a tiny minority to frustrate the will of the majority of legislators. Australia, for example, has adopted rules on how long legislators may speak, thus making it impossible to filibuster.

In the United States, filibustering not allowed in the House though it is allowed in the Senate. However, even in the Senate, filibustering can be halted by a vote by three-fifths of all senators, or 60 out of 100.

Hong Kong, however, has no rules regarding how a filibuster can be ended. Such rules are clearly needed.

But Hong Kong's radical democrats have charged headlong into the filibustering exercise without first working out the rules of the game.

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