Forward Together

I wonder if there might be a way forward for democracy in Hong Kong after all. A panel discussion on May Day organized by RTHK inevitably surfaced the issues where opinions do not coincide. But just visible through the mist of polite dissension were the outlines of possible compromises, so by the end I was not totally discouraged.

Perhaps it was the stature of the main participants – Executive Councillor Ronny Tong Ka Wah, long time pro administration legislator Junius Ho Kwan Yiu, new rising star from the pro democratic camp legislator Senia Ng Sze Nok; perhaps it was because there was a studio audience, and the event was carried live on the radio with film coverage via Facebook; perhaps it was because the proceedings were conducted entirely in English. Whatever the reason – and possibly a combination of all the factors listed above -- the debate was calm and serious with thoughtful contributions from the panelists and from the floor, without any of the histrionics with which we have become so familiar in the legislative council itself.

It was taken as self-evident that there needed to be a dialogue between the pan democratic camp and Beijing, with the SAR government acting as a kind of buffer. There had to be a mutual recognition that the genuine concerns of all parties needed to be addressed. A major problem at the present time was an almost total breakdown of trust. Beijing sees the pan dems playing footsie with the independence movement, the latter have not recovered from what they view as the ultra conservative political reform package put forward in 2014. The ill feeling from Occupy and the Legco disqualifications still lingers.

The key issues discussed were advocacy of independence, the requirement under Article 23 of the Basic Law for Hong Kong to enact national security legislation, and the promise – also in the Basic Law – of movement towards a more democratic system for electing the chief executive and members of the legislative council.

Tong dealt with the independence question emphatically. It was an absolute red line for Beijing, and those who advocate it or even tolerate consideration of the option could play no part in determining Hong Kong’s constitutional development. There is an important lesson here for the pan dems and their willingness to entertain the self-determination policy put forward by Demosisto: although self-determination sounds innocuous, if at the end of the day one of the options on the table for Hong Kong people to consider is to be independence, then there is no meaningful difference between self-determination and independence itself. It was no good the Democratic Party and others saying they did not believe in independence if they were still prepared to stand by advocates of self-determination.

There is an important point of principle here which associate professor Benny Tai Yiu Ting also needs to take on board. You can say as often as you like that you don’t personally support Hong Kong independence, but if you keep discussing the idea in public – indeed even flying to Taiwan to take part in a conference organized by a pro-independence political organization there – sooner or later even fair-minded people are going to start doubting your denials.

The Basic Law spells out the different aspects of national security that Hong Kong needs to legislate on. The laws should prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.

Some of these issues are of course already covered by the common law or by old colonial legislation. There is a compelling case to modernize the legislation and to plug any gaps that it does not cover. Tong argued that we should be doing this right now as it was the only card we had to play with Beijing. Ng wanted democracy first to ensure that any new laws were administered in accordance with Hong Kong values. The problem here is that Beijing can live without democracy in the SAR, but it cannot – and will not – live without proper national security legislation.

In response to a question from the floor, Tong confirmed that the original draft Article 23 legislation in 2003 had undergone considerable improvement during the consultation phase, although there were still some aspects remaining which he thought unacceptable. In any event the bill had been withdrawn.

It was accepted that most Hong Kong people wanted democracy. It was also accepted, including increasingly by the pan dems, that this was more likely to be via a process of incremental steps rather than the "all or nothing" approach some had previously advocated.

Out of all this debate and well covered ground, can we see any ways in which progress might be made? How about we produce a draft bill which covers two or three of the aspects of national security – at a minimum knock this independence nonsense on the head. If political reform can be incremental, perhaps national security can be too. If the two packages went forward in parallel and were implemented, work could begin on a second, then a third and final phase. Do we know any lawyers familiar with the subject who could take the task on? There were three on the panel on the first of May.