Hope for Hong Kong

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Hope for Hong Kong

LONDON - Hong Kong’s democracy movement has gained admiration worldwide. The principles, decency and behavior of its youthful vanguard inspire confidence in the qualities of the generation that one day will run the great city. That said, it is time to move on to a sensible endgame.

The longer the standoff between Hong Kong’s chief executive and the demonstrators continues, the more likely it is that individual citizens - and Hong Kong itself - will be hurt. The Hong Kong government should demonstrate some statesmanship, which the so-called Umbrella Movement - occupying the moral high ground and not wishing to risk losing public support - would surely reciprocate. A substantive and successful dialogue with the government would not require the protesters to call off their campaign for democracy; it would simply end the current phase of a campaign that eventually will succeed.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, Hong Kong Chief Executive C. Y. Leung and his government have considerable room for maneuver. As many Hong Kong citizens have argued, the Chinese government’s current position is based on a report, submitted by Leung’s officials, which purported to reflect accurately the outcome of local consultations on constitutional development.

But the report plainly understated the degree of public support for change. Given what has happened in the last few weeks, Leung could quite properly give a new report to the authorities in Beijing focusing on two issues not proscribed by Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

The first issue concerns not just the immediate question of the terms on which the chief executive will be elected in 2017, but also how the Legislative Council should be elected in 2016 and after. The procedure is largely a matter for the Hong Kong government to decide.

It is surprising that 17 years after the handover of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China, Hong Kong still does not have a directly elected legislature. In December 1992, Margaret Thatcher suggested in a speech in the House of Lords that, if all went well, Hong Kong could have universal suffrage by 2007.

Unfortunately, all has not gone well. The legislature today comprises a mix of directly elected members and those representing functional constituencies: corporate interests and groups of employees. Some civic groups have advocated increasing the number of directly elected legislators and opening up the functional constituencies to broader electorates. Moreover, the brake that the functional constituencies can put on legislation should be scrapped, leaving decisions to a simple majority. This could be accompanied by a pledge to create a legislature composed entirely of directly elected members in 2020.

The second issue concerns the composition and the voting rules of the handpicked 1,200-member election committee that will choose the chief executive in the future. The current proposed arrangements would permit the Chinese government to veto any candidate that it did not like, prompting criticism that what is on offer is an Iranian-style election: “You can vote for anyone we choose.”

The Hong Kong government could call for changes to increase the openness and fairness by which the chief executive is chosen, without abandoning its current method in favor of universal suffrage. According to the Basic Law, the election committee should be “broadly representative” - a provision that the committee’s current composition violates. Its membership is chosen by only 7 percent of the total Hong Kong electorate, and its voting procedures seek to prevent the nomination of any candidates who may harbor democratic sympathies.

Since 1997, 55 to 61 percent of voters have voted for democratic candidates in Legislative Council elections. The last time a slightly smaller election committee met (to choose Leung), less restrictive constraints on candidate selection were in place, and the leader of the Democratic Party was able to be nominated (though he still received less than 7 percent of the vote).

So Leung and his team should put forward proposals to broaden the electoral base of the election committee and open up the nominating process for candidates. There are plenty of recommendations from civil-society groups about how to accomplish these objectives. Both sides will need to give a little to prevent the confrontation in the streets from escalating, with the police forced to provide a substitute for a sensible policy.

The British government has said that it is important that “the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice.” Leung and his colleagues can give them one. This would not be all that the Umbrella Movement has demanded, but it should encourage the protesters to reach a compromise without departing from their longer-term goal.

That is why Leung should embrace dialogue and compromise. Even a ruler whose mandate comes from heaven should heed the words of the Confucian sage Mencius: “Heaven sees with the eyes of its people. Heaven hears with the ears of its people.”

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014

*The author, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, is currently Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

BY Chris Patten

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