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Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2005



Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG -- A controversial plan to extend democracy in Hong Kong died Dec. 21 when the legislature failed to pass it by a big enough majority. Hopes of true democracy in the special region of China have thus been put into deep freeze, with recriminations reverberating from Hong Kong to Beijing and back.

What happened shows two things: China has betrayed its fine promises for Hong Kong; and the city continues to suffer from inept leadership that is not prepared to stand up for Hong Kong. Unfortunately, too, when it comes to discussions of "democracy" in Hong Kong, Humpty Dumpty* seems to be in charge.

Chief Executive Sir Donald Tsang had proposed changes to the system for the 2007 and 2008 elections of the chief executive and the legislative council, respectively. The chief executive would be chosen by 1,600 of Hong Kong's 7 million people, compared to the mere 800 previously. And 10 seats would be added to the legislative council, although only half by direct election so that the number of directly elected members would remain at half.

But Tsang angered the pan-democracy camp by his steadfast refusal to set a timetable for full democracy. Had he named 2012, or maybe even 2017, as the day for the democratic election -- meaning one person, one vote -- of the chief executive, and of the legislative council the following year, more democrats would probably have accepted his flawed plan.

The proposed new laws (one for the chief executive and one for the council) passed 34-24 with one abstention. As they were constitutional bills, they needed a two-thirds majority, or 40 votes to succeed.

Tsang expressed his disappointment, claiming that "Beijing's trust will be hurt" because of the defeat. He added: "We did not fail, but we did not succeed. It was a glorious defeat."

In most aspects, Hong Kong is a sophisticated international city. Its people enjoy average per capita income of about $25,000, which puts it in the top 20 economies in the world. It is the third-biggest international financial center in the world, one of the top trading powers as well as an important center for law, medicine, education, filmmaking and shopping.

The government boasts that it is Asia's world city, and in most respects that is true -- except when it comes to democracy and politics. If Hong Kong were any other territory in the world, it would be prosperous and democratic with a seat at the United Nations. But Hong Kong was developed as a British colony and then handed over as a colony to China.

In 1984, China and Britain agreed that Hong Kong would be returned to China in mid-1997. They did not consult the people of Hong Kong -- and Beijing deliberately excluded Hong Kong from the discussions. Since then the fiction has been maintained that the city would one day enjoy full democracy.

For 20 years the Beijing leadership and its Hong Kong minions (both British and Chinese) have obfuscated, delayed, played with words and manipulated public-opinion surveys.

During this time a dozen less prosperous, less well developed territories have made the jump from colony to democratic members of the U.N. The obvious cases are the former members of the Soviet Union. With their experiences, are they any more sophisticated or prepared for democracy?

Yet even today, China's leaders and their lackeys Hong Kong still insist that the city must be prepared for democracy "step by step." And they refuse to set out any dates or time frame for the happy day of full democracy.

The Communist leaders in Beijing have no intention of allowing Hong Kong democracy -- and the leaders in Hong Kong have no idea of how to handle China or how to play the game.

Tsang's game plan -- though those words give it undue respect -- was to draw up proposals for a marginal expansion in the franchise, secure Beijing's blessing for it, and then present it to the legislators and people of Hong Kong with a "take it or leave it" attitude.

Most leaders with a milligram of political sense would have understood that failure to consult the local people first was a recipe for disaster. When it became clear even to Tsang and Hui that the scheme was unlikely to get a two-thirds majority, they lobbied furiously -- but emphasized that the deal was the best that Beijing would tolerate. They called in potentially wavering legislators and offered them a glass of water -- thank goodness Hong Kong has strict rules against corruption that most democracies do not.

Tsang made a concession on government-appointed members of local councils. They who would be allowed to vote for the proposed new legislative council seats and choose electors for the chief executive. He was prepared to phase them out in stages by 2016. Using that base year was a good indication of the slow pace at which Tsang sees reform proceeding. His officials claimed that Hong Kong's processes were already democratic because the 3 million registered voters had an indirect say in choosing voters for the chief executive. This is Humpty Dumpty democracy.

The chief executive then, knowing that defeat was staring him in the face, refused pointedly to set a timetable for full adult suffrage, refused to make further concessions, refused to postpone debate to allow further discussion, refused to retreat, and still presented his bills for glorious -- or stupid -- defeat.

Such a defeat is somehow symbolic of how Hong Kong politics in 2005 is still struggling to come to terms with the political advances of the 19th century in other developed economies. Former bureaucrats like Tsang, admittedly with Beijing breathing down their necks in a way that London rarely did, are too stiff to respond. Tsang's Cabinet is full of company directors. Colonial governors had a much broader advisory base, including in the 1970s a Jesuit priest, a headmistress and a social worker along with the tycoons.

Half of the 60-seat Hong Kong legislature is chosen from so-called functional constituencies reminiscent of the rotten boroughs that were abolished way back in 1832 in Britain. Hong Kong's functional constituencies are so putrid that it is not individuals who hold the vote but institutions: one bank, one vote.

For Tsang to claim that Beijing would be "hurt" by the defeats shows just how silly the debate has become. Tsang has adopted the same kind of communist gobbledygook used when "the Chinese people are (purportedly) hurt" by some foreign action. This is nonsense. China's leaders are hard-bitten communists used to getting their own way, so they may be surprised or even amazed by the temerity of someone standing up to them, but hardly hurt.

One of the depressing things about politics in Hong Kong is that so many leading players assess their words and actions against whether they will please Beijing. There are even political parties described as being "pro-Beijing." Since Hong Kong is part of China, and there is no independence movement, "pro-Beijing" can only mean anti-Hong Kong, but no one in Humpty Dumpty land of Hong Kong politics dares to say so.

Hong Kong people have enough sophistication, intelligent, wealth and common sense for their own welfare to handle democracy. Tsang's actions these past few weeks illustrate the truth of Winston Churchill's aphorism that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest. It is bad enough for a dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat, as Tsang was for more than 30 years until he became chief executive this year, to take over a government with sensitive political decisions to make. It is worse when he is beholden to rulers who have a different system and who are afraid to understand the differences.

Hong Kong needs a leader who will stand up to Beijing -- as colonial governors did to London -- and say politely but firmly that Hong Kong knows better what makes Hong Kong tick. If not, how do the people of Hong Kong make their voices heard? Only by taking to the streets -- as they have done patiently and with good humor on several occasions. But still the government does not listen. This deafness is dangerous for Tsang, for Hong Kong and also for Beijing.

Kevin Rafferty is a former managing editor of publications for the World Bank.
*Humpty Dumpty is a nursery-rhyme figure shaped like an egg who sat on a wall and said a word meant what he wanted it to mean. He ultimately fell off the wall, broke apart, but could not be put back together again.

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