Our pan democrats have got two big things right, and just about everything else wrong, on the subject of political reform.
Let us start with the right stuff. First, it is absolutely correct to say that if they had been given a completely free hand in the choice of chief executive, Hong Kong people would have had enough common sense to elect someone who can deal rationally and loyally with Beijing. There is no way they would have chosen a firebrand independence artist. Unfortunately, Beijing does not share that assessment, hence the framework set down by the National People’s Congress.
Secondly, the pan dems are also correct to say that the issue will not go away and has to be dealt with in the term of our first female chief executive Carrie Lam. The lack of meaningful progress on political reform is a boil on the body politic which needs to be lanced before it bursts and poisons the atmosphere for the whole of the next five years. Notwithstanding Lam’s natural reluctance to resume discourse on a subject which so badly bruised her last time round, she will have to grasp the nettle.
Have the pan dems learned any lessons from the failure to secure real progress in 2014? (A question that in fairness also needs to be put to the government of course, but that is a subject for another day) The signs are not promising. On that occasion they pitched their tent on the issue of civic nomination and refused to budge. When Beijing stood firm, the effort collapsed. This time round the message from at least some of the pan dems seems to be that the reform process can only begin if and when Beijing formally withdraws the 31 August decision. It’s a bit like expecting the Pope to withdraw a Papal Encyclical while the ink is still wet. That is just not going to happen any time soon. A few centuries later we might get a slightly more generous interpretation, but we do not have the luxury of that timescale.
So is the whole thing hopeless? Should we just give up, shrug our shoulders, and busy ourselves with other things? That might well suit the hardliners up north who think that Hong Kong already enjoys too many privileges. But it would be a defeatist approach and our rendezvous with history in 2047 would arrive without our ever having experienced and locked in universal suffrage.
How do we move forward? Well we have to start by abandoning the idea that universal suffrage can somehow make us less a part of China. We can only have democracy under Chinese sovereignty, which means reaching an accommodation with the capital. We have to concede that while we don’t like the 31 August framework (a sentiment Lam has already promised to convey to president Xi Jin Ping) we are prepared reluctantly to accept it provided we can make some changes to the way members of the key committee are elected and the modus operandi of the screening system.
The transformation of the election committee into a nominating one is not in itself momentous, but the Basic Law requires the latter to be "broadly representative" which the former manifestly is not. The pan dems should insist on scrapping corporate voting, for example, which would be a big step forward in itself and would also have important ramifications for future elections to the legislative council. There is considerable scope for the allocation of seats to be adjusted to more fairly reflect the shape of Hong Kong’s economy and society. Moreover, selection of the members to fill those seats can be made much more democratic. A committee in which the number of pan democrats and neutrals came close to 600 would be a lot less sinister and intimidating than one where 60 per cent of the electorate can barely capture a quarter of the seats.
Now to the system for screening. The reflex reaction to this is that no screening is acceptable, and every candidate who can secure the minimum number of nominations must have his name on the ballot paper put before the public. Understandable, but is it realistic? Beijing has already stated in terms that the power of appointment of the chief executive is a substantive one and it does not follow that whoever "wins" the election, whether through the committee as now or via universal suffrage as may come later, will be endorsed as a formality. In such circumstances, does it really make much difference if the vetting takes place at an earlier stage of the process? Having the freedom to elect whoever we like, only to have the result rejected, is not much of a freedom. Beijing will be embarrassed for sure, but unless that was the object of the exercise we are not really much further forward.
Let all names go in front of the nominating committee. The chairman reads out the names one by one and each time asks if there are any objections. If anyone does object, he is given five minutes to say why that candidate should not be allowed to stand. The candidate then has five minutes to reply. A vote by secret ballot follows, and there is a presumption of inclusion unless 601 members of the committee are adamant he is out.
The whole community will then have the opportunity to select the candidate they prefer in circumstances which make it virtually impossible for Beijing to reject the outcome. So that is the choice we face: zero progress and another five years of frustration, or a lot of compromise which secures universal suffrage.