Political Vacuum

When high school students begin to study science, one of the first concepts they come across is the idea that “nature abhors a vacuum”. Normally attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the idea is that any empty space in nature cannot last and will soon be filled with something. Thus, water can be induced to go up a tube if a vacuum has been created at the top, and so on.

What generally holds true in physics also applies to other areas of life. If something important is missing in a personal relationship, then sooner or later one party will take action to plug the gap. Similarly in the political arena, if there are no ideas being floated, no meaningful initiatives being put forward, or an obvious need is not being met, then that leaves a space which will be filled somehow. We have just been reminded of this lesson in Hong Kong where the void created by 23 years of failure to enact national security legislation at the local level has been filled by the central government.

The prospects for our political life for the remainder of the term of the incumbent chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor are not very inspiring. Clearly between now and mid 2022 when Lam is due to step down, there will be no major initiatives to capture the public’s attention or interest. Some difficult issues will also be left on one side. The line-up of her ministers reminds me of Disraeli’s 1872 description of the then British cabinet “a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest.”

Paradoxically, this situation means there is an opportunity for the opposition to step in and offer some initiatives of their own. The question is whether they will be clever and courageous enough to do so.

Start with the obvious: the need for article 23 legislation. There is still a constitutional requirement for Hong Kong to enact its own. The pan dems should pick up the ball where the process finished last time in 2003. The first draft then had been very poor but the administration at the time made some concessions in discussion. The Article 23 Concern Group – most of whose members are still around including one who now sits on Exco – identified several other areas where the law needed improvement. Why not revive the group and, taking the Macau equivalent legislation as a starting point, finalise a version which does the job while also including all necessary safeguards. Send it to the administration for consideration with a clear message they would be prepared to vote in support in Legco, while at the same time publishing it for consultation with the general public.

In this way a government too timid to proceed on its own could be helped over the finish line. If on the other hand the government declined to pursue, or tried to push ahead with an inferior version, the whole community would be able to draw its own conclusions.

Similarly with extradition/rendition. Hong Kong already has legislation in this area and specific agreements with several other jurisdictions (some alas now suspended for reasons we all understand). But the legislation as it stands is not good enough because it omits an efficient way of dealing with requests from other jurisdictions. We now have the additional complication of the national security legislation with de facto arrangements for rendition to the mainland in circumstances not fully transparent.

We have the choice of either tolerating the present situation indefinitely or grasping the nettle and bringing forward a comprehensive revamp of the law which applies in an even-handed way to the whole world.

The pan dems are entitled to complain to me that these are two very risky and controversial areas and they would only court public acrimony if they went ahead. In my reply I will rely on Aristotle: these are voids, nature will not tolerate them, you must act now or someone else will step in and implement something that you like even less.

With these two problem areas on the way to solution, the way will be clear for the pan dems to move ahead for the big prize: political reform. Once again they will need to be courageous. There is no point fighting Beijing over the issue of pre-screening of candidates. I agree with the pan dems that such a precaution is not necessary because Hong Kong people are far too sensible to elect someone who could not have a working arrangement with the central government. But that is only our shared opinion and after the events of the last few years we cannot blame the National People’s Congress Standing Committee for holding a different view. Anyway the committee has adopted a firm stance. Rather than struggle on with quixotic ideas of citizen nomination, or zero pre-screening, neither of which we have any chance of getting, focus instead on things we could get: we could improve representativeness of the nominating committee in various ways, for example by scrapping corporate voting. In parallel we could ask for some modest further improvements in the arrangements for Legco, for example turning the 10 functional constituencies which have exclusive corporate voting into modified super seats. This ten, plus the five existing ones, could then be distributed on a geographic basis rather than city-wide. Such an arrangement wouldn’t be the ideal of universal suffrage, but it would still represent progress. The way would also be clear for universal suffrage for chief executive in 2022.

The alternative is we stay as we are for the foreseeable future. Is that really what we want? Politics is the art of the possible. We should not waste any more time chasing unrealisable dreams.