‘For Things To Remain The Same, Everything Has To Change’

(From Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’)


For nation states, radical constitutional changes usually follow revolutions occasioned by the bankruptcy of government, defeat in war, the retreat of empire or a combination of two or more of these three. Otherwise, constitutional changes occur incrementally.

In the UK in the early 19th century women were banned from voting. In 1872, a national society was formed to promote women’s suffrage. Only in 1918 were women allowed to vote but just those over the age of 30. Finally, in 1928 they got the vote at 21, the same as men. These were slow steps to confer rights that in democracies are now regarded as indisputable.

In Hong Kong, those demanding universal suffrage, ‘true democracy’ cannot be regarded as revolutionaries, even though the Basic Law does not accommodate their aspirations. However, those advocating independence from China, either explicitly or under the guise of localism, appear to be seeking an outcome that is revolutionary. Hong Kong being neither bankrupt nor at war, but manifestly a region of China, few people regard independence as a credible policy objective. What the localist electoral success does confirm is the frustrated aspirations of many people in Hong Kong. They believe that their social, political and economic concerns are either ignored or not treated with an appropriate sense of urgency. The frustrated have a point.

Whatever the inclinations of the Government, the policies they pursue and the conduct of their administration are shaped by the fact that Hong Kong is constitutionally designed to be an oligarchy, ruled by the few, rather than a democracy.

Thus the functional constituencies ensure that certain special interests and professional groups are represented in Legco, thereby contributing to the majority in the chamber of pro-establishment members. Despite this inbuilt bias to vested interests, Legco’s democratic functions are further limited by its inability to introduce legislation.

Pro-establishment members are also appointed to the Executive Council, the body created to assist the Chief Executive of the HKSAR. It meets weekly.

Companies hiring retired civil servants, some of whom were previously engaged in regulating those companies, have traditionally reinforced close governmental links to business groups. However, it must be noted that this is a practice by no means unique to Hong Kong.

Public concerns about the nature and the extent of oligarchic influence were recently aroused by the Government’s deferment of part of the Wang Chau property development in Yuen Long.

But no discussion about Hong Kong’s governance is complete without consideration of the role of Beijing. It is written into the Basic Law that the Chinese Government appoints the HKSAR’s Chief Executive after a vote presently confined to an electorate of 1200 people. But beyond this critical role, the intervention of Beijing in Hong Kong’s internal affairs is perceived to have increased in recent years and continues to do so.

Whether this process is the outcome or the cause of Occupy Central and the emergence of localism is open to debate; the reality of the booksellers incident, previously referenced, or the involvement of Chinese representatives in seeking to influence the outcome of the September Legco elections is worrying irrespective of how the process began.

But the outcome of the Legco elections suggests that the present Beijing approach, both conspicuous and heavy handed, has failed. So, what to do next? This is no doubt a subject of much debate in Beijing, the outcome being difficult to predict.

Of course, it would be helpful to prediction if one knew their policy objectives for Hong Kong. A purely personal guess would be: a quiet life. If Hong Kong would just quiet down and shut up, they would probably be happy. There are many other issues including, but not limited to, the state of the economy, their claims in the South China Sea, the North Korean nuclear tests, and relations with the USA that they must regard as more important.

But as in any policy debate anywhere in the world, there will be different strands of opinion, vested interests and personal bias involved. Political parties and governments are fundamentally groups of people of conflicting views who unite in service of a common agenda in pursuit of power.

A factor in the outcome on this occasion will be conditioned by the Government’s traditional response to dissent. Repression. On the other hand, it could be argued, as above, that present interventions are not having the desired effect. Doubling down may be a poor policy option.

However unwelcome to Beijing may have been Occupy Central and the election of localists to Legco, Hong Kong remains a highly civilized city in which political violence is rare. The Mongkok riots were a widely deplored exception. If this peaceable state is to continue Beijing will need to alter radically its approach to Hong Kong.

First, it should take comfort from the fact that few people in the city regard independence as a serious issue. It is not a threat to Chinese territorial integrity. The newly elected localists may be talented young politicians but they will either mature into a more conservative political group or they will fade from public view.

Second, to seek to stuff public life with pro-establishment figures possessing abrasive personalities and minimal political skills is not a sensible policy. This is particularly true in respect of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.

Third, despite Occupy Central and the rise of localism, Beijing should recognise that Hong Kong people, if left to manage their own affairs in respect of those issues defined by the Basic Law as their area of legitimate discretion, are generally capable of making sensible decisions.

Fourth, although oligarchy in Hong Kong is not going to disappear any time soon, all those responsible for Hong Kong’s government must understand that the interests of the wider community must take preference over the interests of the richly entrenched few.

Such changes would not resolve all the policy problems of Hong Kong. Wide income gaps, for example, are an international phenomenon. But change would provide hope of better policy outcomes for Hong Kong people and radically reduce their collective frustrations. Many things have to change if Hong Kong is to retain its claim to be a highly civilized community.

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