The Need for Constitutional Reform
Mr Michael Suen, CBE, JP, Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 11 June 1999. This is a summary of his remarks.
Mr Suen began by referring to a speech he had given earlier that week at a conference at Harvard. There he had made remarks about the state of political parties in Hong Kong, and had subsequently been taken to task by the media for criticising the parties for a lack of maturity, and using this to justify a slow pace of democratic reform. These allegations were unfair, Mr Suen felt, because they took his remarks out of context. He would therefore like to make use of the present occasion to clarify his position.
The first thing to ask, said Mr Suen, was, were there any fundamental changes in Hong Kong's transition from colony to Special Administrative Region of China? The answer was, Yes, although the changes were quite subtle. The fundamental changes involved Hong Kong's sovereignty, its new-found political position with China, its political structure and a new constitutional order. However, it was worth noting that there was no equivalent to the Northern Ireland problem in Hong Kong; the considerations were very different.
There are fundamental changes involving Hong Kong's sovereignty, its new-found political position with China, its political structure and a new constitutional order.
Did we still have executive-led Government? To answer this question one had to go to the Basic Law, which clearly delineated the roles of the Chief Executive, the executive authorities and the Legislature. However, these roles were not on all fours with previous arrangements. There were many similarities but also important differences. The Basic Law clearly described the functions and powers of the Chief Executive. Article 43 clearly emphasised that the Chief Executive played the leading role as head of the executive branch, but also as head of the Special Administrative Region.
On democratic development, one had to start with the Basic Law. The Basic Law provided for the 60 seats of the Legislative Council to be filled by direct and indirect election. There was a progression. 20 seats of the 60 in 1998, 24 seats out of 60 in the year 2000 and 30 seats out of 60 in the year 2004 were to be returned by direct elections from geographical constituencies. And Article 68 provided that, "the ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage". But how were we to get there? Mr Suen asked.
The trigger mechanism was in 2007. It was up to the community to decide how much farther and how much faster Hong Kong should go in its further democratisation. Hong Kong had eight years to prepare itself for this important decision. To seek to bring the date forward was not practicable. How were we to prepare ourselves? The history of elections in Hong Kong was very short. We did not have elections of any kind before 1985, as all seats were either filled by ex-officio members or by appointment. Then in 1985 we saw indirect elections for the functional constituencies. And it was only in 1995 that we finally saw the demise of the appointment system.
The point was that there was a very brief history of elections to the legislature in Hong Kong. We were only starting to build up a tradition of participating in public affairs through elections. We had made a modest start. However, despite the very considerable resources put into this process, we still could not claim any major breakthrough. Some of the facts were as follows. Barely ten months into the transition, we conducted elections to the first legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in May 1998. There was a voter turnout of some 53%. Although we were very encouraged by this result as it was unprecedented in Hong Kong's history of elections we would have liked it higher. Elections to the second term would be held in September 2000. Currently there was a bill before the legislature to give effect to the changes in the electoral arrangements as decreed by the Basic Law.
Although the election was still more than a year away, the Government had already started preparation for it. The Government was determined to achieve a higher voter turnout rate. To begin with, it would strive to get more people registered as voters, despite the fact that about 70% of all eligible voters had already been so registered. And the Government would intensify its publicity campaign to get more registered voters to vote. There was value to getting more and more people into the routine of exercising their political rights through voting. Bearing in mind that there would be another election for third term legislature in the year 2004 we would be able to repeat that process one more time. What we hoped to achieve through all these, said Mr Suen, was a broadening of both the political horizon and vision of our community to a sufficient extent to enable them to decide how to take matters forward at the relevant time on the method for forming the legislature after the third term. Seen from this perspective, the time-table laid down in the Basic Law was eminently appropriate. Apart from this, there were two other considerations which made it clear that it was prudent to follow this time-table.
In the first instance, Hong Kong's political bodies would need time to develop and mature since none of them had a history of more than a couple of years. It was telling that some of these political bodies did not even feel able to call themselves political parties. And none of them could claim membership of more than a few hundred. They were also hampered by the limited financial resources at their disposal, which mainly came from public donations. Their party apparatus and support services were in dire need of strengthening. Time was of the essence to bring maturity to the party system here in Hong Kong. Many of those in the audience came from different countries. If they were to cast their minds back to the early formative days of their own national legislative assemblies, they would get a sense of the long period of time it had taken to bring them to what they were today. Mr Suen was not suggesting that it would take Hong Kong's political parties a very long time, in terms of decades and centuries, to develop into a stage with sufficient breadth and depth of membership to support a party hierarchy capable of providing viable alternative policy initiatives. Not at all. However, time, in terms of years, would definitely be needed and there was no short-cut to it. Mr Suen believed that we would be doing very well if our political parties were to complete their initial metamorphosis within ten years.
It was important to think, not just of more seats in the legislature, but of the downstream consequences.
The second point was closely related to but separate from the above. Mr Suen's view was that if eventually Hong Kong's first legislature was to be wholly returned by universal suffrage, the question of the method for its formation could not be considered in isolation. One needed also to consider that question in the wider context of the governance of Hong Kong. Here, there was an executive-led Government which was not formed by a majority party or by a coalition of parties. As a matter of fact, it was not formed by any party at all. The Chief Executive was elected but he did not belong to any political party and the Hong Kong Government did not have a single vote at its command in the legislature. One had to consider very carefully how progression to electing the legislature by universal suffrage would compromise the governance of a Government with no vote in the legislature and led by a Chief Executive who did not belong to any political party. Given this rather unique political structure, it would be a challenge of the highest order.
Ultimately, what the community of Hong Kong was looking for was a constructive and workable relationship between an executive-led Government comprising the Chief Executive and some 180,000 civil servants on the one hand and a legislature elected through universal suffrage on the other. Many stake holders were involved.
It was important to think, not just of more seats in the legislature, but of the downstream consequences. Change might be necessary to the basic system of Government. Sooner or later the Government had to bring the issue of constitutional reform into open public debate. One needed to bring in the man in the street, the businessmen, the academics and the professionals, and build up a consensus. Of course the political parties were talking about the issues and making suggestions to take matters forward, but these suggestions were not comprehensive enough.
Mr Suen was particularly disappointed that the business and professional sector had not so far expressed their views on constitutional reform in public. In private, businessmen expressed a lot of reservations - their fear that once all seats in Legco were directly elected business would suffer. There were assertions of deterioration in the business environment, but no evidence for these assertions. This was not satisfactory. The business sector needed to come into the open on its views on constitutional reform, articulate its views and enter public debate. All over the world one did not see business suffer because of direct elections. Mr Suen hoped that the business sector would give careful consideration to this issue. Perhaps the sector had been too well protected and sheltered in the past. He hoped that businessmen would realise they now had to do something about the issue of constitutional reform.
The Government also had to do something. Sooner or later the community had to debate constitutional reform. Mr Suen could not give a precise timetable for this debate. Hong Kong had eight years, and Mr Suen hoped that when the time came we would be ready for change. He could not predict now what would happen, but believed that in due course, we would come out of it, richer by the experience, more confident of our own abilities to rise to any challenge and more united as a community.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.