What Hong Kong election reform tells Taiwan

Sunday, June 27, 2010
The China Post news staff

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.

Their views are not shared by hard-line democrats, who believed that by making a deal with the government the moderates slowed down the democratic process and legitimatized the functional constituency system.

They expressed their opinions strongly. A hard-line legislator clashed with security guards and was evicted from the Legislative Council chamber by security guards yesterday in protest of the reform. Another yelled, “Today is the darkest day for democracy in Hong Kong. Functional constituencies' seats will last forever,” the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post reported.

The reform showed for the first time that the Hong Kong government, and by extension Beijing, is beginning to work with the more “moderate” pro-democratic lawmakers in election issues.

It can be read as a sign that China has begun to “cave in” to strong public opinion for fear that “the rise of radicals and the demise of moderate democrats would destabilize Hong Kong,” as the South China Morning Post described.

However, less optimistic opinions saw the move as a political maneuver to divide the democratic camp, isolate the radicals and render them as an obstacle to progress.

Taiwan should watch out for the “divide and rule” strategy China used in Hong Kong. It's conceivable that they could employ it against the pro-independence camp in Taiwan. The Democratic Progressive Party's Tainan Magistrate Su Huan-chi decided not to show up at to DPP rally against a major cross-strait economic agreement after returning from a China trip to promote Tainan's fruits. There are other members from the DPP who saw a degree of cooperation with China practical.

China will no doubt zero in on this group of DPP “moderates.” The important thing is: how should the DPP respond? Should the party decide to consolidate its anti-China rhetoric, it might cause further division and possibly isolation. Interaction with China without careful plans, on the other hand, might result in the gradual blurring of the DPP's core values.

The outcome of the compromise between Hong Kong's government and the moderate democrats is yet to be seen. It is a development Taiwan's leaders from both parties should scrutinize in order to devise a strategy that sees cooperation with China not as an exchange of sovereignty for economic survival, but as a way to push China to “cave in” and interact with Taiwan's democracy.

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