Hong Kong launched its consultation on constitutional changes in early December. Sometime in the next six months, consensus must be reached about what form of democracy will be used in 2017 when the next Chief Executive of the Special Administrative Region is due to be appointed.
The transitional system used after reversion of rule to China in 1997 has seen three leaders. Each of them has been problematic. The first, businessman Tung Chee Hwa, lasted until 2005 before being removed due to the backlash over the anti-secession law changes proposed in 2003 and other dissatisfactions. The second, Donald Tsang, started off relatively popular but again did not last two full terms, and left office in 2012 with low local approval ratings. The current incumbent, C Y Leung, also a businessman, has been the biggest disappointment of all. He started off with low expectations, and has so far failed to deliver even on these.
Given this track record, the current system — in which candidates are elected by a 1,200 election committee in which China is believed to hold strong sway — doesn’t work. But the question of what replaces it will prove a contentious one. The symbolic significance of a part of China’s sovereign territory having universal franchise for the election of a public official is immense, and its links to a Mainland polity which is becoming more closely integrated with issues in Hong Kong are clear enough to be making the novice leadership in Beijing nervous.
Whether Beijing has a clear idea of what it wants from Hong Kong is a moot point. But unrest would be a disaster, impacting on the all important financial sector in Hong Kong’s economy. Inequality and the feeling by many that their city is under siege by the Mainland are starting to cause problems. For a city with a population of 7 million, last year it was visited by a staggering 30 million from the Mainland. Mandarin Chinese is becoming a standard local language, with retail dependent on high spending mainlanders. Social cohesion is critical.
Even so, as an excellent new study of poverty in the city by former official Leo Goodstadt makes elegantly clear, social issues like welfare and housing are worse now than they were thirty years ago. Hong Kong is a city that pays low taxes and has enormous visible wealth, but where 1.5 million people now live in poverty. Straying from the stench of luxury and money on Central or the main shopping areas of Kowloon, it is easy to see plenty of evidence of people having a tough time. The reason why CY Leung and other officials are regarded with such disdain is that they are regarded as largely impotent and unwilling to do anything about this looming crisis of discontent.
Having a system that is more participatory and will deliver politicians who are up to the task of starting to answer local challenges is also a key to Hong Kong’s own identity. Beijing above all wants a thriving, internationalized economy, and the price for that may well be having a modernizing democracy. This may well be the special administrative region’s heavy historic responsibility – to justify and establish stable accountable rule by public officials with an indigenous form of local democracy. This is no easy task. And that is why, despite its low profile internationally, the consultations on the Constitution over the next six months are hugely significant and their process and outcomes deserve worldwide attention.