Political reforms in Hong Kong, held up by endless debate, have become an urgent necessity. What is required is a democratic system that is acceptable to a significant portion of the Hong Kong population, even if it leaves a sizeable minority still dissatisfied.
The right formula would allow Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong (as an autonomous region of China) through a system of one man, one vote and direct elections for the position of chief executive. Such a change would vastly strengthen stability and the government’s 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 put forward 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 autonomous 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 of the mainland — that is the non-negotiable condition for Hong Kong, as is clear from numerous statements from Beijing officials. But Beijing also recognises that giving Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, including a democratic system of government, can play a vital role in promoting social stability in the territory.
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 would probably increase Beijing’s comfort level.
And Beijing is aware that once they have a stake, ordinary people would not want to ruin Hong Kong by provoking the mainland into hostile acts — or voting for politicians with destructive tendencies. Indeed, it remains evident that a majority of Hong Kong people recognise that the territory has prospered greatly from the rise of China.
Nevertheless, in Hong Kong, the question remains whether there would 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 freedom, especially if accompanied by advances in issues like 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 or are apathetic, no matter what the proposition. (In Western societies, ruling parties typically rule with 40% to 60% of the popular vote.) There would still be a diehard minority in Hong Kong — perhaps 5% to 20% currently — who would only be satisfied with revolution or independence but over time, this group would become small and isolated as reforms bear fruit.
Of course, politics alone cannot solve the crisis — we need economics as well, especially changes that would allow ordinary people to participate in the benefits of growth. We need to narrow the huge gap between the rich and the 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 from Britain to China. Hong Kong has long been dominated by vested interests and cartels, and administrated by civil servants and caretakers. The typical civil servant is procedure-minded and focused on administrative efficiency, rather than on a 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 would be holding talks between Hong Kong and Beijing officials, and renewing 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 Hong Kong 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 would 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.
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 gross domestic product per capita). This is a wealthy place with more than enough resources to create happiness — if and when key reforms are carried out.
Datuk Seri Cheah Cheng Hye, based in Hong Kong, is the 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.