For more than 100 years under British rule, Hong Kong was governed as a Weberian bureaucratic polity with public participation in governance limited to the appointment of eminent persons to the Executive Council, Legislative Council and the government's advisory boards and committees.
Since the second world war, the British administration in Hong Kong had passed up two opportunities to introduce democracy: after the war when Governor Sir Mark Young's proposals to reform Legco were not implemented; and after the 1966 and 1967 riots, when the government decided after review that it would be better to bring government closer to the people by introducing a City District Officer Scheme than by bringing people into government.
The prospect of handing Hong Kong back to China in 1997 led the British to renew their efforts to democratise Hong Kong, starting with the introduction of the first round of direct elections to district boards in the early 1980s.
However, in the absence of agreement with China on the pace of democratic development in Hong Kong and the form of democratic government, the British succeeded only in democratising Legco before they left. Governor Christopher Patten took dramatic steps to turn Legco into an autonomous body and made the executive branch accountable to it. In the process, he stripped the executive branch of its structural control of Legco and hollowed out the much-touted concept of "executive-led" government.
Although the Hong Kong Special Administrative government continues to cling to "executive-led government" as its central credo, in reality by the time of the transfer of sovereignty Hong Kong had been turned into a semi-democracy, with an autonomous and assertive legislature answerable to its constituents and a largely appointed executive branch with much weaker electoral credibility and not a single assured vote in the legislature.
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. This separation was completed in 1995, upon the withdrawal of all official members from Legco.
The Basic Law does not provide any manifest solution to this problem, as it provides separate election or selection of the legislature and the chief executive respectively, with no organic link between them. Unless this structural anomaly is remedied, the Hong Kong government will continue to find it hard to pursue its agenda and provide an "executive-led" government.
In a democratic country, political parties play a central role in providing the vital nexus between the executive and legislative branches.
Governments with a majority in the legislatures are known to have pushed through controversial agendas or survived political storms by virtue of their strong party support in the legislatures. A government with strong party support in the legislature thus provides the best prospect of a strong "executive-led" government.
Political parties perform many crucial functions in the building of a democratic polity, including elite recruitment, aggregation and articulation of citizens' interests, societal integration and forming and sustaining governments in office. Hong Kong's political parties are underdeveloped in having low membership, insufficient elite participation, cumbersome and secretive procedures and inadequate policy research and public administration capability. As presently constituted, they have a long way to go before they can shoulder the responsibility of forming and sustaining governments in office.
The democratic debates in recent years have focused on the timetable for implementing direct elections. Undoubtedly, the holding of direct elections for the legislature and the chief executive signals the transformation of Hong Kong into a full democracy.
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.
The key components of the democratic infrastructure include: 1) greater maturation of political parties; 2) development of political talent; 3) fostering of a democratic political culture; 4) greater development of civil society; and, last but not least, 5) institutional re-engineering to resolve the current disconnect between the executive and legislative branches and to introduce an electoral system for direct elections to the legislature that satisfies all the underlying principles governing democratic development in the Basic Law.
On the maturation of political parties and the development of more political talent, the SAR government could do a lot to help by enhancing the honorarium and accountable allowances payable to legislative councillors to increase their financial resources. They could also introduce a pension system for legislators and augment the staffing, administrative and legal support available to councillors by reinforcing the Legco secretariat.
The government could help make participation in politics and public policy deliberation a more attractive career by providing suitable financial and other incentives, such as greater resource support and recognition.
On institutional re-engineering, both the SAR government and the central authorities in Beijing need to come to a realistic recognition of the current debilitating disconnect between the executive and legislative branches, a systemic problem that is undermining the SAR government's efficacy and effectiveness and hampering its ability to tackle longer-term structural economic and social problems.
Consideration ought to be given to amending the Basic Law to restore the organic nexus between the executive and legislative branches, as in the colonial era and in a full-fledged representative democracy.
As for the electoral system, it is fortunate that Hong Kong has switched to the more consensual proportional representation system, which more countries are adopting.
Before Hong Kong can move towards direct elections, the region needs to design an electoral system that complies with all the underlying principles of the Basic Law: 1) development in the light of actual situation; 2) gradual and orderly progress; 3) balanced representation; and 4) facilitation of the capitalist economy. All these are far-sighted and unexceptionable principles formulated with the prime objective of ensuring Hong Kong's stability and prosperity in the course of its transformation into a democratic polity.
To facilitate the implementation of direct elections, proposals have been put forward that seek to comply with these principles. Sir David Akers-Jones proposed the establishment of a bicameral system to provide for a second chamber that accommodates all functional constituency members. The objective of this proposal was to comply with the principles of balanced participation and facilitation of the capitalist economy of Hong Kong.
His effort is laudable, as legislators from functional constituencies comprise representatives of a diverse range of occupations and professions, and are well placed to contribute their professional experience, expertise and broader perspectives to the proceedings of Legco and the executive branch on their election into office. Historically, Hong Kong's elites, the captains of industry and commerce, the self-made entrepreneurs and respected professionals have served Hong Kong well through their participation in public service, and it will be a sad waste of their talents and the fine tradition of elite participation in public service if institutional arrangements are not made for them to continue to play a pivotal role in Hong Kong's emerging democratic polity.
In comparison, the SAR government's proposals for empowering the district councils are presumably designed to: 1) attract more political talent to district service; and 2) lay the way open for using the district council constituency to allow greater participation by directly elected members in the legislature - a mechanism adopted by the British since the onset of democratisation of Legco in 1985.
Quite apart from the question of whether empowering district councils to play a greater, political role in running Hong Kong is consistent with Article 97 of the Basic Law, it would be difficult for such arrangements to comply with the principles of balanced representation and facilitation of the capitalist economy of Hong Kong.
The directly elected component of Legco would be enhanced by institutionalising the participation of directly elected members from small geographical constituencies, with a much narrower, more parochial focus in public affairs. A better way needs to be found to facilitate the transformation of Legco into a fully directly elected legislature.
It is impossible at this stage to provide all the answers to the diverse questions arising from the need to build a functional and durable democratic polity. Yet there are grounds for cautious optimism for the implementation of direct elections for the chief executive and the entire legislature in 2012.
Despite Hong Kong people's reputation for political apathy, there are encouraging signs of greater awakening on the part of Hong Kong's elite of the need to play a greater part in civil and political life. The emergence of an increasing number of think-tanks dedicated to studying issues germane to Hong Kong's political, social and economic development is a case in point.
The founding of more political parties provides Hong Kong citizens with more choices and greater public education on the parochial, subject and participant roles of the citizenry and will enable them to participate in the civil and political life of Hong Kong in a more meaningful and balanced way.
The constitutional reform package put forward by the chief executive last autumn came very close to getting the necessary legislative approval. Provided that an appropriate electoral system for the legislature could be designed that complies with all the principles of the Basic Law, stated or implied, and a consensus is forthcoming in Legco on the way forward, there is no reason why direct elections to the fifth term of the legislature could not be held in 2012.
A way will need to be worked out, however, to dovetail the two sets of elections in the Basic Law: those for the legislature and the chief executive respectively, and to restore the organic nexus between the two.
The future of Hong Kong's democratic development lies in the hands of the people of Hong Kong. The work involved is tremendous and momentous and requires a lot more than the chanting of slogans or the holding of mass demonstrations. It requires all the thinking men and women of Hong Kong who care about its future and want to build a successful, functional democratic polity, to think carefully about the institutional and infrastructural requirements and play their part.
It requires the people of Hong Kong to unite in the quest for democracy in a new spirit of tolerance, accommodation, flexibility, pragmatism and, above all, commitment to the principles enunciated in the Basic Law. The future lies in our hands and we the people should grasp the democratic moment.
Hong Kong: A Case Study in Democratic Development in Transitional Societies
By Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee