South China Morning Post, 03 September 2002

Who says we are not ready for democracy?



By Martin Lee

The Basic Law is not the most democratic constitution in the world. Its conception was marked by the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, and it came into the world on April 4, 1990, just 10 months after the June 4 massacre and at a time when the leaders in Beijing were not even sure of their own position.

The timetable the Basic Law sets for development of democracy in Hong Kong is therefore extremely slow. It gives a 10-year cushion to Beijing and the SAR government to turn our people into a docile, apolitical constituency subject to Beijing's control.

Even so, since the Basic Law emerged in the aftermath of Tiananmen, the drafters could not ignore the popular demand for democracy in Hong Kong. As a result, eventually the chief executive and all legislative councillors will be elected by universal suffrage, even though in the first 10 years, the chief executive and at least half of Legislative Council will be appointed by means short of democratic elections.

The Basic Law therefore provides a mechanism for full democracy after a 10-year transition - if endorsed by a two-thirds majority of all legislators and consented to by the chief executive. This puts the matter very much in the hands of legislators, particularly those belonging to major political parties. There is absolute support for democracy from the 12 legislators of the Democratic Party and our democratic allies - about 20 members in all - which is only one-third of the legislators.

As for the Liberal Party and the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), in the past they were very much in favour of democracy in 2007-08. Indeed, during numerous public debates, panel discussions and open forums I have attended with Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun and Tsang Yok-sing, chairman of the DAB, the consensus has always been that the chief executive must be democratically elected in 2007 while all the members of the Legislative Council must be democratically elected in 2008.

For the Democratic Party, that is our bottom line, although we would very much prefer to have democracy tomorrow. That too, I believe, is what most Hong Kong people want. In the past 10 years or so, frequent polls on the question of whether the chief executive should be elected democratically have received the answer - by a proportion of two to one - of ''yes'', in the next term, meaning as soon as possible. The same goes for the timing of democratic election of all legislators.

Some recent events cause concern about the future of democracy in Hong Kong. First was the high-profile statement from Vice-Premier Qian Qichen earlier in the year that the system of functional constituencies fulfills a useful function in Hong Kong, and should be maintained, presumably beyond the 10-year transition period. Second came the appointment of Mr Tien and Mr Tsang to the Executive Council by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Mr Tung's contempt for democracy is public knowledge. Third came the recent statements by Mr Tsang and others that the people were not ready for democracy, because their political parties were not mature enough to govern Hong Kong.

But the real question is: who should decide when Hong Kong is ready for democracy?

Certainly not Mr Tung, because he knows that if the people here had had the vote six months ago, then he would certainly not be chief executive today. When Mr Tsang says political parties are immature and therefore not ready for universal suffrage, what he really means is that his party and their allies are not yet confident that they could win the majority of seats in the Legislative Council in a democratic election, and thus form the government. Do we then wait until they are ready?

Besides, who is ever ready? Was Mr Tung ready when the Beijing leaders decided in 1996 that he should be the first chief executive of Hong Kong? Were all our ministers ready when Mr Tung appointed them two months ago? Some had no previous experience in administration at all.

If Mr Tung can govern Hong Kong without any previous experience, why would a democratically elected chief executive do any worse? Indeed, one advantage of democracy is that the leader has to win the election first. That means he must tell his voters beforehand in a platform of his vision and plans.

Another advantage for democracy is that if the elected leader does a bad job, the people can remove him at the next election. The Hong Kong people did not want to give Mr Tung a second term; he got it from Beijing. As for his plans for Hong Kong, we have to wait for his policy address early next year - making Mr Tung probably the only leader in the world to offer a policy six months after taking office.

To say Hong Kong people or Chinese people are not ready for democratic elections is extremely insulting. Democracy is no longer an imported or foreign concept. There are few countries in Asia today where the people are not given the vote.

If the Chinese people are the only people in Asia not ready for democracy, does that imply something inherently inferior about them? Why else should we be unable to choose leaders when so many others in Asia have already chosen theirs? If you wait for democracy to come to you, it never will. If you belong to the majority of the people who want to elect the chief executive and all members of the Legislative Council, then please do not wait.

Help us to help you. Speak up. But above all, register and vote. And do it now. For if you do not tell Mr Tung what you want, he will not know. Time and tide wait for no man. Neither will Tung, Tien or Tsang.

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