Tuesday, 18 July 2006

Three Commemorations of 1 July (Part 3 - End)

Pardon me for posting this last of the three-part articles late - if these two-cents are ever read with some patience at all. So many things have happened since the idea of writing about the third commemoration of 1 July - the inauguration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China – first came up my mind, making it even more difficult to start hitting the keyboard.

I have chosen to attempt the hot potato of constitutional reform of Hong Kong, an issue that has been debated for more than two decades and still to no avail in terms of a consensus, let alone any blueprint or action plan.

While the local political circles and the media have recently shown unprecedented vigour to discuss the political future of Hong Kong, unquestionably due to the noisy return of former secretary for security Mrs Regina Ip and high-profile appearance of former chief secretary Mrs Anson Chan in the 1 July rally, too little substance has been found in the rhetoric as relayed in the media. Every columnist or journalist seems to have heard something (presumably useful and newsworthy) from certain sources to help interpret the ambiguous messages floating in the air, out of which, however, few could have sorted out anything meaningful. Simply put, rumours and interpretations are everywhere, but none of them seems relevant and pragmatic in the least possible sense.

This is hopelessly frustrating - at least for someone who has witnessed the political wrestling between Beijing and London during the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, the latest developments in Hong Kong are even worse than what happened between Hong Kong's former and present masters. We have already wasted more than 20 years quarrelling about the same issue and how much more time are we going to spend on this endless debate? How much time can we spare? Can't we re-think our future with a bit more creativity and commitment to our next generations?

The current situation of power struggles, or more precisely, the struggle for media and public attention, among the political elite at the top while abandoning or overlooking public interests at large somewhat reminds me of the so-called Dark Ages of China following the collapse of the glamorous Han Dynasty. Perhaps one of the most painful transitions in Chinese history, it witnessed the crumble of a powerful and unified Chinese empire to the brutal reality of endless foreign invasions and merciless internal warfare. While people were struggling for sheer survival at the grassroots, the desperate educated class, many of whom frustrated officials in the ruling elite, made the painful decision of turning to retreat and retirement in the countryside, and even drugs, alcohol and bluffing, among other things.

There used to be a nice term for bluffing in Chinese, qing tan, literally meaning "pure talk". However, this has never been a good thing in the traditional discourse of Chinese history. "Pure talk" implies rhetoric without action and practicability, and this was often made to share part of the blame for the prolonged sufferings during the Dark Ages when those capable and educated were reluctant to serve the interests of many but, rather, pursued personal interests. Politics became little more than the topic of casual talk to show off one's depth of knowledge to his learned friends.

And this is precisely what I think the current rhetoric about the constitutional reform of Hong Kong essentially is. The fundamentalist belief, or, pardon me for being a bit too blunt, superstition, in universal suffrage among the pro-democracy camp is by all means irritating and impertinent. Every problem Hong Kong encounters or every blunder our honourable government officials commit seems to have a far-fetched root cause that can be traced to or associated with the absence of a democratic government voted by its people. This one-solution-fits-all approach is appallingly irrelevant and tasteless.

People with a basic knowledge of world history should have realised that a successful democracy with universal suffrage must be built on a very strong combination of factors such as an education system that encourages critical thinking and promotes genuine respect of individuals and human rights, an independent educated elite, a strong and politically sensitive middle-class and well-established political parties backed by strong and defensible philosophies with a sufficient pool of talents, among other things. Flawed democracies like those in India and Taiwan are something Hong Kong should never look upon to. Unfortunately history, be it world or Chinese, has never been the favourite subject of local students. Worse still, it is now facing the immense risk of being eradicated from school curriculum once and for all.

That's why Mrs Ip's extract of her thesis published in most Hong Kong newspapers on 4 July was somewhat refreshing. At least she was straightforward in pointing out the key underlying issue of Hong Kong's political system that should be addressed sooner or later, "The dichotomy between the executive and legislative branches is the single most important structural factor accounting for the many governance problems experienced by Hong Kong since the separation of the executive and legislative branches of the government... However, as many prominent scholars of democracy have emphasised, the holding of elections meets only the minimal formal requirements of democracy. To transform Hong Kong successfully into a functional and high-quality democracy, Hong Kong stands to benefit from more comprehensive and in-depth consideration of all the structures necessary for the building of a democratic polity."

I simply can't wait to read Mrs Ip's thesis to see if there is any constructive or interesting recommendations.

While it makes perfect sense for Sir Donald Tsang to dismiss the call for a schedule for Hong Kong's democratisation at this point, the people of Hong Kong are actually looking for something more substantial. We need a blueprint that includes not only the date of introducing universal suffrage for Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections but also, more importantly, the details of how to create a political, social and cultural environment that would make democratisation inevitable and achievable. We need to know what kind of politicians we want to have, which form of political dynamics we want to see, how politicians will be groomed, how partisan politics will be developed, and what kind of constitutional, economic and social reforms will be required to facilitate and reflect these changes. Answers to each of these questions require thorough discussions with the objective of achieving a consensus before rolling up our sleeves to take actions accordingly. Sadly, I don't think the local political players, let alone the middle class or the general public, are ready for this kind of tedious and highly intellectual soul-searching exercise. So many of us in Hong Kong simply have not shrugged off, if they realise this kind of conditioned dependence at all, the mentality that we need a master of some sort to look up to for economic and political benefits, and to make important decisions for us.

Commentator Ma Ka-fai rebutted in his weekly column in Ming Pao today, saying that there has never been any consensus in the formation of mature democracies such as that in the United Kingdom, which was originally no more than a benevolent contingency handed down by the ruling class in face of a political crisis. Very true indeed, that sometimes the ends do come before the means. In the situation of Hong Kong, however, any successful introduction of a democratic political system would be achieved only if some sort of consensus is achieved among the political players and the Government. This is a unique situation of Hong Kong that few predecessors may be found elsewhere.

More importantly, and let's face it, we need the buy-in of our masters in Beijing. Given the complexity of the democratisation process, perhaps there is a bit of truth and wisdom in Beijing's insistence on "progressive development towards democracy", although the actual progress is yet another subject for debate.

In any case, I think most people in Hong Kong, including the political players, have overlooked or chosen to neglect a very important issue. In the eyes of Beijing, rapid democratisation in Hong Kong could spark off an irresistible wave of social unrest that is deemed to cost not only the communist regime but also the independence of China. While it may seem somewhat exaggerated, the widening income gap, along with injustices and favouritism brought by widespread and unstoppable corruption at all levels in the Chinese mainland, provides every legitimate reason for such concerns. Addressing these concerns, however, is by no means the exclusive business of Beijing. One of the most pressing challenges if Hong Kong were to achieve democracy in the near future is to convince Beijing how a democratic Hong Kong would benefit the whole country rather than creating yet another privileged class that is more equal than the others.

We used to be very proud of Hong Kong's historical significance and heritage as a pioneer and catalyst of Chinese modernisation and revolution. But few still remember that this was only possible with Hong Kong's unique status as a foreigner with Chinese origin under British colonial rule. Now that Hong Kong has become part of the country and so closely connected on all fronts, it's time for the people in Hong Kong to re-think its position and how it may help China complete its transformation to modernity in a way that is different from what we used to be more than a century earlier. It is even more apparent that our status as a special administrative region in the People's Republic of China is more of a burden or hot potato to both Beijing and Hong Kong itself than a blessing as we have always wanted to believe.

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