A new government consultation document on constitutional development muddies the debate and obscures the truth.
Photo by Derrick Chang
The Hong Kong government’s continuing charade that the people here have the determining voice in the territory’s constitutional development has found its latest expression with the publication of a Green Paper – a consultation document – on possible paths to the supposed ultimate objective of universal suffrage.
The nature of the exercise can be judged from the fact that though the government insists that the community needs to come to a consensus on the way forward, the Green Paper offers the public no less than 486 possible answers to the issues put before it.
For instance on the issue of whether the chief executive should be elected by universal suffrage, instead of the simple “yes” or “no” logic might suggest, the paper gives three different options – in 2012 (the date the next chief executive is chosen), 2017 or “after 2017.” The same choice of dates is applied to the election of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage. Other questions with multiple-choice answers relate to the composition of the legislative council and changes to the number and size of the so-called functional constituencies insider special interest groups in the legislature.
There is also a question about the size of the nominating committee, which is effectively a device for weeding out candidates for chief executive deemed undesirable by Beijing or the local elite of big business and top bureaucrats. There are also multiple choices for the size and composition of (largely powerless) district councils.
Although democratic forces will do their best to generate the most favorable public response to the key questions of dates for universal suffrage and abolition of the functional constituencies, the way the questions have been put effectively enables the government to deem that its eventual proposal represents the consensus. Hence it will argue that democrats who decline to accept it, as they did the tiny advances in representation offered in 2005, are acting contrary to the interests of the community at large.
The government has several reasons for wanting as little change as possible. First, Beijing dislikes any progress towards representative government, but will allow the minimum it thinks necessary to keep Hong Kong’s citizens from mass demonstrations of the size seen in 2003 when some 500,0000 people marched for democracy. Second, the bureaucratic elite that dominates the government despises the legislature and resents being questioned by legislative committees. It finds directly elected legislators particularly troublesome. Third, many of the functional constituencies help preserve a cozy relationship between big business and the bureaucracy, enabling the mutual back-scratching that is tantamount to institutionalized corruption.
The Green Paper is just the latest in a series of long-winded reports produced by the government’s Constitutional Development Task Force. The last of these, the Fifth, was issued in late 2005 and covered almost all the same ground and asked almost the same questions as the Green Paper. It came to no conclusions, but noted the diversity of opinion on almost every subject with phrases like “many believe x” but “many also believe y”. Instead of examining the merits or consolidating choices into a manageable number of options, the Green Paper has sought to muddy the waters even more.
The government’s hypocrisy on the question of democracy has been exposed by none other than Wu Bangguo, the head of the National Peoples Congress. He was recently impolitic enough to tell the city that Beijing, via the NPC, alone decides Hong Kong’s degree of autonomy and freedom to choose its own electoral process. While Hong Kong always understood that Beijing had ultimate veto power, Wu implied that it also now has a hand in the details of constitutional development. Other Beijing-linked figures have delivered similar messages.
Not that this Green Paper is any more dishonest than some of its predecessors. Exactly 20 years ago the colonial government concluded, after conducting a survey exercise decreed in a Green Paper that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Hong Kong people did not want direct elections. That fraud was devised by Colonial Governor David Wilson, who was later sacked, a diplomat trying to appease Beijing.
In 20 years, neither Beijing attitudes nor those of the local elite have changed very much. But Hong Kong’s expectations have changed. They may not go to the barricades to get it, but every credible opinion survey shows that the majority wants universal suffrage as soon as possible. If their wishes were heeded, that would mean now. But as it is, never is the more likely outcome, notwithstanding the pretenses of Donald Tsang, a worthy successor to the craven Wilson.