Friday, May 29, 2015

Political Reform ABC (Ming Pao Interview with Albert Chen)

Political Reform ABC
by Professor Albert Chen
The political reform proposal introduced by the Hong Kong Government has been met with both support and opposition. This article will discuss the controversies by means of Q&As.

Q: What is the political reform proposal all about?
A: In short, the latest proposal is about ‘returning the votes to the people’ in order to achieve the goal of ‘returning the power to the people’ to a certain extent, so that the democratic development of Hong Kong can move one step forward. In the existing Chief Executive election mechanism, the Election Committee formed by 1,200 members from four sectors in the society takes complete control of both the nomination and the election of the Chief Executive. Under the latest proposal, this Election Committee will be transformed into a Nominating Committee. Like the Election Committee, the Nominating Committee will still have the right to nominate Chief Executive candidates, but the right to vote to choose the Chief Executive will devolved to the hands of over 5 million eligible voters. The nominating procedures will involve two stages (the first stage involves a lower threshold for ‘recommendation’ of potential candidates, while the second stage requires the affirmative vote of at least half of all of the Nominating Committee members) for selection of two to three candidates. After that the Hong Kong people may elect the Chief Executive by one person one vote. Then the Chief Executive elect will be appointed by the Central Government.
     At present, Hong Kong people already have the right to elect District Council and LegCo members. The proposal gives extra fundamental civil right to the people, that is to say, the right to elect the Chief Executive. Since Hong Kong’s political system is an ‘executive-led’ system, the right to elect the Chief Executive is a more powerful and important right compared with the right to vote in District Council and LegCo elections.

Q: Why can political reform help Hong Kong’s democratic development move forward?
A: The core value of ‘democracy’ is ‘public opinion can be expressed and will be respected’. The ballot is the best tool to express public opinion. One’s opinions can be expressed in a civilised, rational and peaceful manner by way of voting. People speak their minds by casting their ballots. It is difficult to have democracy without voting. There are of course other means to express opinions other than by voting, for example, to exercise the freedom of speech, freedom of publication, freedom of assembly or freedom of petition. However, in general, there would be relatively fewer people expressing their political views by these methods.

Q: What are the advantages for the people to have the right to elect the Chief Executive?
A: An elected leader has to be responsible to and monitored by those who have elected him/her. If the Chief Executive is elected by all Hong Kong people directly (not elected by 1,200 persons), that Chief Executive has to be responsible and accountable to all Hong Kong people. ‘Those who have a vote are the boss’. People who have the right to vote (the public) and the person being elected (the Chief Executive) have a master and servant relationship. In an universal suffrage with two or more candidates, each candidate has to make the best efforts to put forward a political platform that can move the voters, thereby to obtain their votes (which is called “baipiao” (拜票,or ‘solicit votes’) in Taiwan). From the people’s perspective, this is a kind of ‘benign’ (‘productive’ or ‘positive’) competition. Since the majority of voters in Hong Kong come from the grass root or the middle class, the political platforms suggested by the candidates in an universal suffrage election are likely to be more beneficial to the grass root and middle class people compared to those who are going to be elected by 1,200 persons. A Chief Executive who has gone through the ‘baptism’ of universal suffrage will very likely be more sensitive to public sentiments and acquainted with people’s needs.

Q: Why do the pan-democrats strongly oppose the political reform proposal?
A: We may use grades A, B and C (A is the best, C is the worst, B is somewhere in between) to illustrate the crux of the proposal. The existing Chief Executive election method (which has always been criticised by the pan-democrats as a ‘small circle election’) is a class C political system. What the pan-democrats are fighting for is a class A political system (in compliance with the ‘international standards’ for universal suffrage; no ‘unreasonable restrictions’ on the right to stand for election; and a ‘true universal suffrage’ without ‘screening’). For this political reform proposal, we could say it is a class B political system (see diagram).
Credit: Ming Pao
    Some pan-democrats object to B because they see it as worse than C. Some believe that B is better than C, but still they cannot accept it, because ‘to pocket it first means to pocket it forever’. They believe that if B is adopted, there will never be a chance to fight for A.
     My opinion is that B is better than C. It is more democratic. We may first ‘upgrade’ the political system from C to B, after that the pan-democrats may move forward in fighting for A (including universal suffrage for all seats in LegCo and a more democratically constituted Nominating Committee for the Chief Executive election).
     Either from the viewpoint of human history or by taking into account the political reality of ‘One Country Two Systems’, this kind of progressive democratisation is more feasible than jumping from C to A directly. On the other hand, if the pan-democrats reject B (which is now within reach) and insist on going after the distant A, the outcome will be all Hong Kong people will have to tolerate C for an indefinite period of time, to tolerate a system which the pan-democrats have criticised and described as an extremely un-democratic political system. The price for the pan-democrats going after their dreams is to be paid by all people in Hong Kong. Would that be too costly? The price we have to pay may include these: the government continues to function in difficulties; the LegCo continues to be paralysed by filibuster; the political situation remains deadlocked and in chaos; Hong Kong continues to be stagnant in its economic and social developments. Hong Kon’s prosperity may eventually to be dragged down by the disputes arising from political reform, universal suffrage and the August 31st decision.

Q: Why do some pro-democrats think B is worse than C?
A: Their usual arguments are as follows: (1) The candidate chosen by the Nominating Committee in accordance with B will be ‘rotten oranges, rotten apples’. They will not be welcomed by the public; (2) Voters could only vote like ‘voting machine’. Voters are to clothe the ‘pre-selected’ candidate with ‘pseudo-legitimacy’. This is a ‘fake universal suffrage’. My opinion is: (1) is jumping to an arbitrary conclusion. It is still uncertain as to how the Nominating Committee will function. Why do the pan-democrats predict that the worst scenario will materialise? Why do they exclude all good possibilities at the very beginning, that is, delicious apples and oranges are available to be chosen? Why don’t they give it a try and give the Nominating Committee a chance? As regards (2), according to my understanding, the reason for the ‘high threshold’ settings is not designed to facilitate the Central Government in determining who will be the Chief Executive. Instead, it is designed to reduce the chance of allowing people whom the Central Government is unwilling to appoint as the Chief Executive (i.e. those considered to be “non-patriots” and “controntational towards” the Central Government) to be nominated. Subject to this pre-requisite, the Nominating Committee is allowed and encouraged to nominate two to three candidates freely by way of anonymous votes. Thus the Chief Executive who is ultimately elected will be one who is trusted by the Central Government and supported by the Hong Kong people at the same time. I do not agree with the opinion about ‘covering the candidate with pseudo-legitimacy’. This statement implies disrespect for the voters. Hong Kong is unlike North Korea (which some pan-democrats often mention by way of analogy). Hong Kong is a free and open society. The public can understand all candidates thoroughly and decide freely on whether to vote for a specific candidate, to cast a blank vote or not to vote. How many voters’ hearts have been won over by the Chief Executive will be reflected by the election outcome. This is an outcome that reflects Hong Kong citizen’s true and freely expressed opinion, a ‘genuine public opinion’ (it does not matter whether the universal suffrage is described as ‘true’ or ‘fake’).

Q: The pan-democrats believe that as delegates, they only need to vote in accordance with their political belief and conscience. They need not be affected by the majority public opinion. Do you agree?
A: The election of the Chief Executive by one person one vote is a fundamental civil right as well as a human right. This cannot be deprived of unreasonably. The human rights of the minority cannot be taken away by the majority. It is even worse if the human rights of the majority are taken away by the minority (or the LegCo members who represent their voices). Some public opinion polls show that about half of the interviewees are hoping to elect the Chief Executive in 2017 according to the proposal suggested by the Government. This amounts to about 2.5 million people (using 5 million eligible voters as the base for calculation). There are 27 pan-democratic LegCo members. If they veto the political reform proposal, each of them, on the average, will be striking down the voting rights of over 90,000 voters. Are they thus acting in accordance with the principle of human rights and democracy? Actually, those who oppose the political reform proposal may, at the time of the Chief Executive election by universal suffrage, choose not to vote or cast a blank ballot to show their dissatisfaction with the Chief Executive election system. The pan-democrats should not take away the sacred votes from the hands of millions of voters who want to cast their vote in a Chief Executive election (given that we are now just one step away from such a Chief Executive election).

Q: Apart from the right to vote, is the right to be elected a fundamental civic right?
A: Yes. The Central Government has set a high nomination threshold to restrict the right to be a candidate because it insists that the Chief Executive must be a ‘patriot’ who ‘loves China and loves Hong Kong’. The pan-democrats oppose the political reform proposal by sacrificing the people’s right to vote. This is the difficult situation that Hong Kong's democratic development is facing under One Country Two Systems.
     Translated by Jessica Wu. The original article was published in Ming Pao on 12 May 2015 (in Chinese), reprinted in speakout.hk.

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