Letter to Hong Kong

Dear Stepmother,

This is your stepson Michael writing from Hong Kong.

You probably weren’t expecting to hear from me again so soon after my last letter as I have not been the most reliable of correspondents over the years.

But so much has been happening here during the last few weeks that I knew you would be interested in an update.

Today is Sunday 9th September and it’s election day. Hong Kong holds an election for its legislative assembly, which we call the Legislative Council, or LegCo for short, every four years.

This time around, 35 out of the 70 LegCo members will be chosen by direct elections from geographical constituencies. There is universal suffrage, that is to say, everyone eligible gets a vote. Unlike in the UK where each constituency elects one person on a "first past the post" basis, here in Hong Kong each constituency gets to choose several members, the exact number varying in proportion to the number of eligible voters. So the smallest gets five seats and the two largest get nine seats each.

We also apply a list system, that is a group of candidates join together and run as a team. The person at the top of the list obviously has the best chance if his party gets support, but the prospects of success fall as you move on down the list, so that the last named is really there just to make up the numbers and help attract more votes to assist the number one.

Up to now, a little bit complicated, but probably understandable even from as far away as Cornwall.

But then comes a special Hong Kong twist: there is nothing to stop any political party running more than one list in a constituency, and the major ones do so in the constituencies returning a large number of seats. Apparently, experience has shown that they stand a better chance of getting two of their candidates elected if they are both number one on different lists rather than numbers one and two on the same list. Something to do with the maths, I suppose.

By now you are probably thinking the system was designed by a chimpanzee who’d had too much to drink. But wait until I tell you about the functional constituencies.

In Hong Kong we love democracy so much that it’s not one man, one vote, it’s one man two votes. Everyone gets a second vote in one of these functional constituencies, but unlike in the geographical constituencies the votes do not count equally.

Of the total of 35, 30 are basically rotten boroughs with relatively small electorates. The bankers elect one, the doctors elect one, the engineers elect one and so on. Altogether there are only a couple of hundred thousand voters in all these FCs added together.

The real excitement is in the newly invented "super seats" in which over 3 million voters, who did not get a second vote in one of the other FCs, will get to elect just 5 members.

I know what you’re thinking: at some point the chimpanzee must have had one for the road.

Enough about the voting system, what are the major issues this time around.

A very good question. Every household has been on the receiving end of a small mountain of campaign literature, and in fairness most candidates have taken the trouble to put at least part of their manifesto in English.

The first thing to strike any casual reader is the very large degree of overlap. Almost everyone seems to be talking about the same subjects and to have similar remedies.

Property prices are too high, resume the assisted home purchase plan, build more public rental housing units, put more government land up for sale. Find ways to help the elderly and the poor. Spend more on education, and so on.

All pretty predictable bread and butter stuff. Moreover, those whose memories go back more than a few weeks will recall that most of these problems and solutions had been flagged up by our Chief Executive Mr C Y Leung in his own election campaign earlier this year.

So strong was the correlation that at one point I was minded to look up that old quote by Benjamin Disraeli, a Tory politician, describing the political tactics of his own party leader Robert Peel in the 19th century. The latter had adopted key items from his rival’s agenda, a practice which Disraeli captured with the famous words "he found the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes". I am sure that, just a few months short of your 101st birthday, you remember it well.

Anyway, congratulations to C Y for remembering his history.

Which brings me to what may turn out to be the defining issue of today’s election, the question of whether and how to teach national education.

You will recall I gave an introduction to this subject in my last letter. No-one seriously disputes the idea that young people should learn about the history of their own country and its culture. There is also a good case to be made for civic education so that students learn how to live together with each other and in society at large.

Proponents of national education say the teaching should go a step further and inculcate a love of country. Doubters – and I must confess I am one of them – think this last step is unnecessary as education in the other aspects, plus some discussion of current affairs, will lead naturally to love of country.

The proponents among the candidates are those from the parties normally described as "pro establishment". They have not been helped by the way in which some aspects of the subject have become public.

The first batch of teaching materials to emerge extolled the virtues of one party rule, and warned of the dangers of competing political parties such as is practised by democracies.

Next, our Education Minister played down the significance of many tens of thousands of parents and students demonstrating against the new academic subject, claiming – incredibly – that the "silent majority" had not marched and must therefore be presumed to be in support of the government position.

This was followed by an on air editorial by a local TV station implying that students staging sit-in protests against the plan must somehow be under the sway of Washington and London. Given the dire political situation in both capitals, I wonder if they really had the time and energy to be mixed up in Hong Kong affairs.

Then the headmistress of a school which has introduced the subject declined to let parents know exactly what she was teaching their children.

Finally there was a warning from a former senior official that Hong Kong –the home of the mildest political protests in the world -- was slipping into anarchy.

Against this background, pro democracy opponents of the policy hardly needed to put forward any arguments of their own. The proponents seemed to determined to lose the argument all on their own.

Anyway, none of this is going to stop me and millions of other local citizens exercising our rights to two votes.

After all, we all love Hong Kong and that’s the main thing.