History in the making
2014-04-11, Joseph Li

‘Apart from being a historic trip, this (Shanghai visit), I hope, will achieve the result of peaceful, rational, face-to-face communication and expression of views,’ Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam told Joseph Li.

Members of the Legislative Council, led by its president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, are headed for Shanghai and historic meetings (April 12 and 13) with director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office Wang Guangya and Chairman of the Basic Law Committee Li Fei. Accompanying 57 lawmakers on the visit to Shanghai are Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen. The constitutional affairs secretary is enthusiastic about the unprecedented opportunity for an open exchange of views from both sides.

It is a historic visit because it’s the first time a meeting like this is taking place, Tam explained. The fact that the visit is taking place at all reflects the sincerity of the central government to resolve the difficult questions surrounding the long-awaited implementation of universal suffrage, he said.  

Tam pointed to the strong turnout, with a majority of legislators going on the trip, including more than a dozen from the opposition camp.  


Face-to-face dialogue

“Apart from giving legislators a chance to see Shanghai’s development, the visit means a chance for communication and the elimination of misunderstandings through a face-to-face dialogue,” Tam told China Daily.

Three senior officials will meet the LegCo delegation: Wang Guangya, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office; Li Fei, chairman of the Basic Law Committee; and Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong.

“The central government is demonstrating 100 percent sincerity by sending three senior officials to meet the visitors, with a half day reserved for the meeting. It’s not easy even for the Hong Kong SAR Government to get all three of them to attend a function,” Tam said.

This shows that the government is willing to talk, he remarked. And from the opposition side, he added, many lawmakers have expressed privately their wish to present their views to the central government on Hong Kong electoral reforms.

“Apart from being a historic trip, this, I hope, will achieve the result of peaceful, rational, face-to-face communication and expression of views. They may need only to state their own views clearly. If they have doubts, they can ask for clarification,” he said.

It’s a process, Tam said, with proposals put forward and even disputed.

“This is a very long ongoing process. I hope after the Shanghai visit, there will be continuous dialogues because we are not going to vote on the electoral package right after the visit. We will have further rounds of public consultation on electoral reform,” he said.

Public consultation for the 2017 constitutional reform, which began last December, is entering its final stage. The opposition camp took a hardline from the beginning — refusing to give much ground. Recently, there have been signs of an easing of tensions following communication between the SAR government and the opposition.

Tam stressed that the current reform effort is critical and the costs of failure would likely be heavy.

The major barrier arises from disagreement over what constitutes universal suffrage. The opposition holds that virtually anybody should be at liberty to nominate a candidate for chief executive. Legal experts say that concept is outside the boundaries set by law. The law gives that authority only to the official nominating committee.

Tam said he is relieved that civil nomination appears to have been abandoned from some recent proposals. Although the government has not studied the latest proposals in detail, he thinks the one jointly proposed by 18 academics falls within the law and is unlikely to set off legal disputes.

“Civil nomination is improper by name and by essence,” he commented. “The government has only one bottom line -- the nomination committee is the only legitimate institution to nominate any candidate. The committee has full authority. As long as these two principles are met, other matters such as the threshold for qualifying as a nominee and the means of voting are open to discussion because they do not involve legal matters.”


Beijing’s sincerity

Although it has been suggested a potential candidate must secure the votes of at least 50 percent of the nominating committee to qualify as a candidate, Tam said that is only one of the views he has heard.

“The central and SAR authorities are very sincere in taking forward constitutional development in Hong Kong”, he stressed. Also, the decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which stipulates Hong Kong people can choose the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017, is a constitutional duty placed upon the Hong Kong government.

“There is no reason why the SAR government won’t do its best to execute such a constitutional duty,” he said.

There are about 3.6 million registered voters out of 5 million eligible to vote. Tam predicted that if universal suffrage is realized in 2017, the number of voters will increase sharply.

“It would be a very significant leap as it could be the first time in history when potentially more than 5 million people could choose the chief executive,” he said.

Hong Kong people have great expectation of universal suffrage, he said. 

During the past four months, the constitutional development task force (comprising also Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung) has attended over 110 meetings/forums with people from different sectors.

“If universal suffrage didn’t happen in 2017, it would be a big political setback that would be a let down to the central government and the people of Hong Kong,” he said.

“Although the next chief executive could, theoretically, restart the mechanism for constitutional reform, it would be doubtful if he had a strong political mandate to start the mechanism again within a short time because he was not chosen by universal suffrage ... unless we have a very strong leader with great support of the people,” he analyzed. 

It follows that the expected Legislative Council election by universal suffrage in 2020 could not happen, Tam said.  

“It is my worry that Hong Kong people and the voters could turn wild and choose radical candidates in the 2016 LegCo election as they had found that the mild, rational, middle-of-the-road approach through dialogue could no longer work,” he warned.

The number of opposition lawmakers could, therefore, increase while that of pro-establishment lawmakers might decline. 

Alternatively, the more radical elements of both the opposition and pro-establishment camps could rise to power, and further aggravate polarization of the political environment. If that happened, Tam predicted, it would then be more difficult for the chief executive to secure a two-thirds majority of the Legislative Council to carry electoral reforms as required by the Basic Law.

Looking further ahead, if the chief executive to be elected in 2022 is not chosen by universal suffrage, he would lack the political mandate to push forward constitutional reform in 2027, leaving the pursuit of universal suffrage an endless wait.

“That’s why this time it is very crucial that all stakeholders should try their best to achieve universal suffrage in 2017. It is true that the situation is not optimistic as the chief secretary has said. But with concerned parties willing to communicate and the proposal by the moderate academics, I have become a little more optimistic than in recent months,” he said.


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