When the whole world looks to be collapsing in chaos, it is sometimes tempting to just give up, roll oneself into a ball and hide underneath the covers until the storm has passed. Indeed, various parts of the administration seem to have adopted this strategy recently.
But for those of us totally committed to China and the Hong Kong SAR, giving up is simply not an option. We have to plan a way out of the current mess and aim for solutions.
All the major players have made serious errors in handling Hong Kong affairs in recent years. Both the Central People’s Government and the local administration have been far too conservative in their policies on political reform. As a result, there is now a complete disconnect between the younger generation and the existing political machinery. When a major issue arises, the young take to the streets because they cannot see any alternative way to get their point across. The CPG thus has complete control of the SAR’s political system but it doesn’t work. What it should be aiming for is adequate control over a system that does.
The local administration has been far too ready to undertake fake or skimpy public consultation exercises, and to fudge the findings. Five years ago, the conclusion on political reform was that a highly restrictive method of choosing the chief executive was fine, and there was no need for any immediate reform of the Legislative Council. This time around less than three weeks was allowed for the most important subject for a generation and the reported conclusion misread community reaction by a country mile.
One of the most dramatic effects of the recent upheaval in Hong Kong has been the spillover into Taiwan politics. In early 2019, opinion polls on the island showed the incumbent leader Tsai Ing-wen would not be the strongest candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party in the next general election set for January 2020. Rather her fellow party member William Lai would stand a better chance. Both had resigned their party posts following the 2018 local election results when the DPP’s share of the popular vote had dropped from 58 to 39 per cent and it lost control of 13 cities and counties it had previously held.
Final polling of party members took place during the period 10 to 13 June when the demonstrations in Hong Kong were getting into their stride. The biggest march since 1997 had taken place on the ninth and the complete surrounding of Legco on the evening of the 12th. Against that background Tsai went on to beat Lai by eight percentage points and become the party’s candidate.
The effect on the rival Kuomintang party – widely seen as more China friendly -- has been no less striking. The five candidates competing for the nomination have all been busy distancing themselves from the “one country, two systems” formula that had been devised by then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping precisely to bring Taiwan back into the greater China fold. One-time front runner Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu said it would apply on the island “over my dead body”. Foxconn billionaire Terry Gou Tai-ming said it had “failed in Hong Kong”.
Latest polls, which had previously shown Han with a healthy lead over any DPP candidate, show the race for the top job as neck and neck. Tsai has a real chance of being re-elected.
Even potential third party candidate Ko Wei-je ruled out the formula, saying it would not be supported on the island. So the turmoil in Hong Kong has contributed to a situation where the entire political elite in Taiwan see peaceful reunion under the one country, two systems formula as a non-starter.
How then can we achieve reunification which president Xi Jinping said earlier this year was the inevitable outcome? No-one is advocating use of force. Quite apart from the huge expense of overcoming logistic difficulties, the death of large numbers of fellow citizens is not a recipe for a harmonious society.
If the origin of the problem is perceived failure of the model in Hong Kong, then obviously the way forward must begin by creating an unmistakeable success. The first step should be the introduction of universal suffrage for the chief executive election at the next opportunity in 2022. This will involve some hard bargaining and compromise all round. The CPG has already said there should be no more than three candidates, all pre-approved by Beijing. It may not be willing to accept a complete reversal of its own previous decision, but surely there is scope for a revamp of the election committee membership to make it more representative of the community (why do a handful of farmers and fishermen have more members than the tens of thousands of accountants, for example).
The burden of proof could also be reversed. Instead of requiring majority approval for any candidate, a nominee could be deemed to be approved unless a majority vetoed him.
Reforms at the CE level must be accompanied by a firm plan to scrap the 30 sector-based functional constituencies. It might be too much to do this in one fell swoop, but 10 could be converted to general constituencies for each election cycle.
Such a bold package would create a clear impression that Hong Kong had a democratic future. It should reassure local citizens, including the younger generation, that the concept of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong was within our grasp. It should also reassure Taiwan citizens that Hong Kong was moving closer to their model of governance and “one country, two systems” did not mean dragging them backwards towards ours.
Once a more representative government was in place, it could revisit the vexed subject of national security legislation and even, one day, extradition.
Getting approval for a revamp on this scale would not be easy and would require great courage and much hard work. But it’s either this or say goodbye to Taiwan for at least a generation.