Next step: democratic reform
MICHAEL DAVIS (Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong)
(This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)
As the government climbed down further from its intransigent position on the National Security Bill last week, the political message was clear: Public officials in Hong Kong may ignore public concern at their peril. People power, at least temporarily, seems to have triumphed.
Did this political message contain a deeper constitutional message, and did the government understand it? The answers appear to be yes and no, in that order.
The constitutional message appears to be that a government in an economically developed community with liberal and democratic commitments should also be liberal and democratic. A halfway house of authoritarianism and liberal democracy tends to produce, successively, political arrogance and political half-measures. The Article 23 debate became the public face of this, and a lightning rod for public disgust over Hong Kong's long-established political difficulties.
Of course, in the Article 23 debate, the political arrogance came first. The tight deadline and the aggressive way the former secretary for security pushed the bill forward at the start came to symbolise in the public eye the worst symptoms of this political culture. The response of the pro-government camp in Legco, in tightly constraining hearings and testimony, and overriding democratic objections, created a bad public impression.
In the Article 23 debate, this political arrogance was followed by political half-measures. At every juncture where clearly valid criticisms were expressed by critics, including most prominently the Bar Association and the Article 23 Concern Group, government concessions were always the minimum necessary to deflect the most telling points of its critics. This was evident even after a half-million people marched, when the government split hairs, announcing three concessions but proclaiming that it would still push the legislation through on time.
This attitude was again on display last week when the government withdrew the bill but still made no firm indication of moderation in the next draft. It seems from the comments of the chief executive and the secretary for security that the existing bill, with its amendments, could still be tabled again. The dismissive attitude evident in the government's stance was also apparent in its response to the July 1 demonstration.
The government's withdrawing the legislation to focus on the economy, while wise, makes one worry that the government expects less resistance if the economy is better after the next Legco elections.
In a meeting with the secretary for security just hours before the government's announcement on shelving the bill, the Article 23 Concern Group strongly urged the government to withdraw the bill altogether and adopt a minimalist approach. At this stage, Article 23 only requires amendments to the Crimes Ordinance to introduce provisions on secession and subversion. All other aspects of the article were addressed in legislative actions before or around the time of the handover. By failing to make any mention of its legislative and substantive intentions when it withdrew the previous bill, the government has clearly opened the door to cynical interpretations of its actions. Will it simply reintroduce the old bill when it deems the political climate to be right, perhaps after the next election?
Some cynics have speculated that by holding its cards to its chest, the government is simply responding to the political needs of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), as its leader Tsang Yok-sing suggested in this paper last week. This may be too clever by half. The democratic camp can surely be counted on to campaign on the DAB's support for the national security bill, telling voters that DAB candidates should be voted out of office to prevent the bad bill, as it stands, from being tabled again.
All this leaves us with opaque uncertainty concerning the future of national security legislation. It also leaves us with weak public confidence in this government and its underlying constitutional order.
In the Article 23 debate, the public confidence was shattered by the crass public display of the inadequacies of a system which - through political appointments and the "small-circle" elections within functional constituencies - empowers the few over the many. Political privilege and social disorder tend to mark such systems. If there is a constitutional lesson to be learned, it must be that democratic reform is now imperative.
Last week's announcement alerts us to the fact that, even at this late juncture, some high officials and political leaders may not yet have fully understood this message.