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Current turmoil gives Hong Kong best chance for reforms since 1997 handover

Cheah Cheng Hye
Cheah Cheng Hye8/8/2019 08:00 AM GMT+08  • 6 min read
Current turmoil gives Hong Kong best chance for reforms since 1997 handover
SINGAPORE (Aug 12): Political reforms in Hong Kong, held up by endless debate, have become an urgent necessity. What is required is a democratic system that will be acceptable to a significant portion of the Hong Kong population, even if it leaves a sizea
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SINGAPORE (Aug 12): Political reforms in Hong Kong, held up by endless debate, have become an urgent necessity. What is required is a democratic system that will be acceptable to a significant portion of the Hong Kong population, even if it leaves a sizeable minority still unsatisfied.

The right formula will allow Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong, through a system of “one man, one vote” and direct elections for the position of Chief Executive. Such change will vastly strengthen stability and the government’s own legitimacy, making it easier to push aside vested interests standing in the way of urgently needed social and economic reforms.

Only then can we find a way out of the current crisis, which is social, economic and political in nature.

As a reminder, Beijing is not opposed to universal suffrage in Hong Kong. With the central government’s approval, a major political reform was tried in Hong Kong several years ago that would have resulted in the direct election of the Chief Executive based on one man, one vote. That reform was defeated in the Legislative Council in 2015 because opposition members objected to a procedure that would bring to the electorate a slate of just two or three pre-approved candidates.

So, Hong Kong remains stuck with a system where the Chief Executive is elected by a committee of just 1,200 members representing a cross-section of society.

What needs to happen is for Hong Kong to explore anew how much further it can go with democracy before hitting the limits imposed by “one country, two systems”, which is the framework governing Hong Kong’s existence as a special administrative region of China.

From Beijing’s perspective, there is a bottom line regarding how far Hong Kong can go in its experiments with political formats. Hong Kong cannot declare independence or allow itself to be used as a base for subversion on the mainland — that is the non-negotiable condition for Hong Kong, as is clear from numerous statements from Beijing officials.

Seen this way, the failed reform of 2015 was merely a start. Surely room exists to enlarge the popular representation put forth in that reform, for example by expanding significantly the types of candidates who can stand for election. Or the experts could recommend other formats for a more inclusive process. Indeed, since it is a fresh start, Hong Kong may wish to avoid a copycat version of Western-style democracy and opt for a more familiar, Asian-style executive-led democratic system. This will probably increase Beijing’s comfort level.

And Beijing probably realises that once they have a stake, ordinary people will not want to ruin Hong Kong by provoking the mainland into hostile acts — or voting for politicians with destructive tendencies.

Nevertheless, in Hong Kong, the question remains whether there will be sufficient support for a democracy limited by a bottom line set in Beijing. If the message is well communicated, the answer is yes. Increased political freedoms, especially if accompanied by advances in issues such as home ownership and career development, can only be welcomed. For a proposal to proceed, it is enough to get 50% to 60% support from the public. That is the nature of society; at any one time, there will be people who are opposed to a proposition or apathetic, no matter what it is. (In Western societies, ruling parties typically rule with 40% to 60% of the popular vote.) There will still be a diehard minority in Hong Kong — perhaps 5% to 20% currently — who will only be satisfied with revolution or independence, but over time, this group will become small and isolated as reforms bear fruit.

Of course, politics alone cannot solve the crisis; we need economics as well, especially changes that will allow ordinary people to participate in the benefits of growth. We need to narrow the huge gap between rich and poor and put the government’s emphasis on the happiness of the people, rather than continue with the current system that puts the blind pursuit of growth and profits above all else.

The current turmoil gives Hong Kong the best chance for reforms since the 1997 handover of sovereignty by the UK to China. Hong Kong has long been dominated by vested interests and cartels, and administered by civil servants and caretakers. The typical civil servant is procedure-minded and focused on administrative efficiency, rather than on visionary government and inspiring the public. Change was difficult.

Now, to make things happen, the Chief Executive has to provide dynamic leadership and rally friends and enemies to work together for the common good. Probably, the first step in making a fresh start will be talks between Hong Kong and Beijing officials, and renewed consultations among different interest groups in Hong Kong, to agree on a basis to move forward.

The process will not be easy; there was relatively little training or preparation for Hong Kong people to rule the territory during the 150 years of British colonial rule, when governors were sent out from London (indeed, the last British governor, Chris Patten, was a consummate politician).

The current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and her successors will have to develop into true political leaders, with charisma, strong communication abilities and political skills to connect with the people. History will probably judge Lam kindly and with sympathy as someone who loved Hong Kong and took on an almost impossible job in a society torn by tensions and constant challenges to authority, making it difficult to govern effectively.

As for Beijing, it must learn to listen to ordinary Hong Kong people, rather than just the local ruling class. Although the central government has granted Hong Kong many favours, few have trickled down to the man in the street. The turmoil in Hong Kong surprised the central government, as officials in Beijing failed to appreciate the growing frustrations of the people.

In the end, Hong Kong has the ability to recover. As can be seen from the table, Hong Kong enjoys an average income higher than that of advanced countries such as the UK and Japan (measured in GDP per capita). This is a wealthy place with more than enough resources to create happiness — if and when key reforms are carried out.

Cheah Cheng Hye, based in Hong Kong, is co-chairman and co-chief investment officer of Value Partners Group Ltd, an asset management firm listed in Hong Kong. He is also an independent non-executive director of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Ltd. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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