Former under-secretary for the environment Christine Loh Kung Wai gave us an interesting history lesson on an RTHK talk show last week during discussion of proposed national security legislation.

She reminded listeners that she had been a member of the legislative council in the 1990s (appointed in 1992, directly elected in 1995 and 1998). Before the British left, the council had been presented with a draft bill which “would have plugged the hole for Article 23”. She characterised it as “a rather liberal version”. For various reasons, which Loh described as the “wisdom of the times”, the bill was not pursued.

I must confess I had forgotten this chapter of our history. Like most people I have a much clearer recollection of the events in 2003. Then chief executive Tung Chee Hwa brought forward a draft bill which was very controversial. In discussion many amendments were offered which brought the bill closer to something that might have been acceptable. Meanwhile half a million concerned citizens (the biggest demonstration since the handover up to that point) had marched to show their opposition. Once again, the bill was dropped, and the secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk Yi resigned.

For 17 years since then, nothing has happened. Successive chief executives have said Article 23 legislation was not on their agenda because it was not the right time, or they had other issues they wanted to deal with first. All this despite the very clear directive in the Basic Law that the onus was on Hong Kong, on its own, to draft and enact the law.

And so now to the present day and the announcement from Beijing that the Central People’s Government would insert its national security law into annex 3 of the Basic law and thus apply it to Hong Kong. This decision has been subject to widespread international and local criticism. Leading the critics overseas (apart from the Trump reelection team) has been former governor Chris Patten. Local luminaries have included former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On San and father of democracy Martin Lee Chu Ming. It would be nice of any one of these three could remind us why the pre-handover bill did not proceed to enactment at a time when the government could still normally command a majority in Legco.

Focusing on one issue at one point in time might miss the main point. Looking back over the last twenty odd years and the various controversial issues that have arisen (national security, national education, extradition, national anthem, political reform etc) one is left with an overwhelming sense of missed opportunity. When the government has taken the initiative it has invariably started with an ultra-conservative position and then made scanty or few meaningful gestures of compromise. The pan democrats meanwhile lock themselves into a position of steadfast opposition with each party within the coalition scared to suggest a compromise in case it is accused of selling out. The splintering of the opposition camp into many parties has made serious negotiations virtually impossible.

Moreover, the pan democrats have not been famous for taking the initiative to propose compromises. For example, I suggested in these columns back in December 2017 that the article 23 concern group reconvene and talk to the government about how to meet the national security requirement. But the lack of trust on all sides apparently prevented anything meaningful happening. I warned then what the result of inaction would be, and here we are.

The sole exception to this miserable saga of zero progress was the 2010 deal hammered out between the Democratic Party, chief executive Donald Tsang Yam Kuen and the Liaison Office, which resulted in creation of the five super seats and the increase in size of the election committee. The Democratic Party was duly lambasted by its “friends” on the pan dem side. Who would take the risk of launching another initiative after that?

The root of the problem, it seems to me, is that too many of our political leaders are not prepared to come out and say clearly that Hong Kong is an irrevocable part of China. They know it, but they also know that some of the people from whom they seek votes are not comfortable with their Chinese identity.

So the minority who automatically favour whatever Beijing proposes, and the tiny fringe who support independence or self-determination, dominate the media with their loud voices, while the majority – who accept the reality of Chinese sovereignty, but want to preserve Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms – are left almost voiceless in the public debate. Who is speaking up for moderation? Who in the pan democratic camp is advocating talking to Beijing?

There is a lot of blame to be shared for the present situation. Neither the Lam administration nor its predecessor has shown any interest in reaching out across the aisle to the opposition camp in a sincere attempt to find compromises. The most vivid example of this came in the aftermath of the district council elections when the pro government candidates received a drubbing and the chief executive responded by – reaching out to the losers. ‘The people have spoken but I am not interested in listening’ seemed to be the message.

But the opposition cannot escape responsibility entirely, through their inability to devise and initiate solid proposals of their own or put forward coherent counter proposals.

Some have described the move by the National People’s Congress as brushing aside Hong Kong’s government and legislature and forcefully intervening in local affairs. It might be more accurate to say the Hong Kong community abdicated its responsibilities. As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum. We through our inaction over many years created one. Now Beijing has filled it.