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Find Electoral Reform That Works for Hong Kong and Beijing

Oct 16, 2014

As a native New Yorker, I don’t have much respect for most other places that call themselves cities. I lived for too many years in Washington, DC, a second rate town at best, and went to school near San Francisco, a pretty place with an overblown sense of its own importance.

When I moved to Hong Kong in 1995, I quickly realized I’d landed in a city worthy of the term. I intended to leave after six months, but I stayed, became a permanent resident and even wrote a novel, Hong Kong On Air, that I consider a love letter to my adopted hometown.

The current debate over the electoral system for Hong Kong’s chief executive is part of a broader political contest brewing even before the 1997 handover, frequently characterized by missteps and mistrust on all sides. I hope an injection of trust and good faith can help resolve this impasse in the best interests of Hong Kong and the Central Government in Beijing and find a way forward toward the future they share.

As the debate has heated up, I believe that rather than Occupy Central, Hong Kong’s advocates for greater democracy should Occupy the Process. They should work within the system to get the best deal possible for Hong Kong. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has declared nominations for chief executive should be determined by a nominating committee that Beijing’s interests dominate, but Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying insists that isn’t the final word. “There is still room for discussion in regards to the issue in Hong Kong legislation,” he said following the NPC ruling. Let’s hope he’s right. Electoral reform requires comprehensive public input and negotiation, it can’t be a take it or leave it proposition.

The next stage in the reform process will play out in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Hong Kong voices need to be heard clearly there, not just on the streets. Hong Kong people need to talk to our legislative representatives and the government at large about alternatives to the NPC Standing Committee proposals and put them on the table. We should focus on getting an election bill that meets our aspirations for leadership that represents us and protects what makes Hong Kong special. “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” was the promise of the 1997 handover, and that’s what all we want. Otherwise, there will be no end to political conflict in Hong Kong.

The issue at the core of the demonstrations and the issue matters to Hong Kong people not on the streets, who continue to go their offices, open their shops, play the stock market and strive for better lives for their families, is that the current system produces a chief executive that does not represent them. Hong Kong’s GDP has grown 50 percent in the last decade while median incomes have risen only 10 percent. Most economic benefits have accrued to the very top of the pyramid in a town with world’s highest proportion of billionaires. Many ordinary people feel the system is rigged against them, with the current electoral system a glaring example of it.

The proposed reforms will not solve the problem of unrepresentative government but perpetuate it. The 1,200-member election committee for the chief executive, which would become the nominating committee under the NPC Standing Committee proposal, is supposed to be “broadly representative” of Hong Kong, but it is not. It is “broadly representative” of the interests of Beijing and of Hong Kong’s tycoons who have benefited disproportionately from their privileged position. These tycoons, whether Western, Chinese or something else, have for decades stood in the way of real representative government in Hong Kong. Universal suffrage cannot produce representative government without candidates on the ballot representative of all of Hong Kong’s 7.2 million people, not just an elite slice.

Only real representative government can respond to the problems facing Hong Kong. People have to believe that the chief executive stands up for our concerns and us. To be effective, the chief executive must have a mandate from the people of Hong Kong, be accountable to us and represent our interests, not just those of billionaires and Beijing. That sort of leadership may be what the Central Government is afraid of, but it shouldn’t be.

There is no inherent conflict with Hong Kong’s chief executive being accountable to the people of Hong Kong and to Beijing. Both sides essentially want the same thing, a prosperous, safe and secure Hong Kong as part of a thriving China. Even before the handover, people in Hong Kong have been committed to working cooperatively with Beijing toward that end. A chief executive with genuine legitimacy between both constituencies will facilitate that process tremendously, advancing both our city and the nation. It’s ludicrous to think Hong Kong can’t be trusted to choose a leader who reflects our views while recognizing the ultimate authority of Beijing, through an electoral system free from the guiding hand of outsiders.

In most countries, it’s commonplace for local leaders to have political affiliations different from the national ruling party. Despite those differences they manage to work together for the greater good of both local constituents and the nation as a whole, local leadership recognizing the primacy of national law and working within the political space granted to them under it. Surely that can happen between a representative chief executive of Hong Kong and the Central Government.

In fact, we have a special name for this brand cooperation between Hong Kong and China, a term created by Deng Xiaoping – “one country, two systems.” Now it’s up to all of us, in a spirit of mutual respect and trust, to demonstrate the wisdom of Deng’s inspiration and make Hong Kong a shining example of the principle in practice. For Hong Kong to be the kind of place that won me over two decades ago for decades to come, there is no alternative.

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