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What Hong Kong election reform tells Taiwan

Yesterday marked a historic day in Hong Kong politics and one that will have substantial impact on China's difficult relationship with democracy. Lawmakers of Hong Kong's Legislative Council Thursday and yesterday passed two parts of the government's controversial plan to reform the 2012 elections of the chief executive and lawmakers.

Supporters of the reform package hailed it as a step forward to more democratic elections. Detractors dismissed the plan as a compromise that betrays the Hong Kong citizens' demand for universal suffrage.

However, the most important aspect of the reform package is not its content but rather the way it was passed. The events that led to yesterday's vote revealed either a rare willingness from China to work with some fraction of the democrats to keep the radicals at bay, or a sophisticated tactic to divide and weaken the city's democratic camp in the long run.

Either way, decision makers from both the pro-China and pro-independent sides in Taiwan should give another look to Hong Kong's election reform to better understand China and devise smarter ways to deal with the People's Republic.

Hong Hong's Basic Law, its constitution from the handover to China in 1997, promises its residents a high level of autonomy; including the right to select their own chief executive and lawmakers.

However, the law neither denies nor guarantees the rights for Hong Kong's citizens to elect their leader directly. It instead provides two possible ways of choosing the chief: by election, or through consultations held locally and appointed by the Beijing government. Currently the chief executives are selected by the latter.

People in Hong Kong are also unable to elect all of their lawmakers directly. Half of them are chosen by the “functional constituencies,” professional or special interest groups, in a system which originated in colonial times.

Any change of election methods for both the chief executive and the lawmakers should be made according to Hong Kong's “actual situation” and in “gradual and orderly process,” the Basic Law states without much specification.

The pan-democratic camp had been calling for “double universal suffrage,” the right to pick the chief executive and the lawmakers directly by public vote, in 2012. The reform passed yesterday does not guarantee that, or even universal suffrage in general.

The new reform package adds ten more seats to the legislature, for a total of 70, and modifies the election process for functional constituency seats. Another part of the plan passed on Thursday increases the number of the chief executive's election committee members from 800 to 1,200.

The reform passed thanks to the support of a group of moderate democrats after their amendments concerning functional constituencies were accepted by the government. The group believed that such changes, while not directly leading to universal suffrage, enhance the level of democracy for the 2012 elections.

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