Barely in time, barely enough

Acceptance by the central authorities of the Democratic Party’s proposed amendment of the constitutional reform bill is a compromise that will very likely avert the potential disaster of violence against the government.  The report on the download page of this website, “To the Brink” shows clearly that public opinion of groups critical to Hong Kong’s stability such as students and men under age 30 had taken dangerous turns toward confrontation with the government.  Anyone who has seen how the LSD and other protesters have treated  Democratic Party members since their historic AGM vote on Monday to back the compromise reform bill realizes now that a significant number of people have been frustrated beyond reason by the failures and unfairness of the current governing system. 

 

The compromise will lessen some of these tensions and redirect them toward pro-democracy groups instead of the Central Government.  But it is very important to realize that these strong emotions and confrontative tactics are symptoms of the rot in our governance system.  The compromise reform will begin to address some of those problems, but they by no means cure them.  The problem of accountability to the people and of responsiveness of the government to people’s pressing needs will not be solved by this reform.  The addition of more popularly elected seats will merely begin to redress the gross imbalances in the system that favor the interests of the very few, very rich over all others. 

 

It is a start, a necessary start, a crucially important start, but the constitutional reform needed to fix our very broken government has just begun.  At least the Democratic Party of Hong Kong and Association for Democracy and Peoples Livelihood and other groups supportive of the reform compromise have succeeded in getting the repairs started.  The recognition of the Central Government and the Hong Kong Government and pro-government parties such as DAB and Liberal Party that these compromises are vital to our continued prosperity and stability has come late, but hopefully, just in time to avoid a disaster.  Now they need to become aware that much public anger toward them stems from the reality that the promise of prosperity and stability are lacking for so many.  Many people in Hong Kong have come to realize that the governance system is stacked against them, and stacked in favor of narrow interests that prosper on the backs of their misery.  The Functional Constituencies have been revealed as the Dysfunctional Constituencies.  They work well for very narrow, extremely selfish interests.  They work against the interests of the majority and against the greater good of all.  It is now time to follow up these minimal reforms with maximum attention to the underlying problems that came so close to explosion.

 

What are some of these problems?

Most people under age 30 feel that their opportunities for self improvement and gaining prosperity for themselves and their families is much less than those offered to their parents.  (See the report on this site, “Protest and Post-80s”).  They face rising demands for educational qualifications and lower starting out pay.  They face relatively higher costs of housing.  Fewer people under age 40 can now afford to buy property than 10 years ago as wages have stagnated and housing prices have risen. 

 

The costs of education are rising with changes in the system such as moving from a 3 year to a 4 year university degree.  The government has failed to provide for the added costs of that additional year to parents and children.  It has failed to improve access to university degrees for more high school graduates.  The proportion of subsidized degrees has been fixed at 18% of qualified secondary graduates since well before the 1997 handover.  Most states overseas now subsidize or assist half or more of their populations to gain university or other post-secondary qualifications.  The addition of 2 year associate degrees has done little to improve matters, and now the gap between 2 year and soon to be 4 year degrees will widen. 

 

In contrast, subsidies to business and particularly developers in terms of gigantic public works programs have seldom been higher.  Massive bridges to Macau, high speed rail, new roads, and a new government office complex testify to the willingness of the government to spend massively to please the developer interests who dominate the Functional Constituencies.  On the other hand, students and their families of the 82 percent of qualified high school graduates who are told to accept less and pay and borrow more to get educational certifications increasingly demanded by employers are left out in the cold. 

 

Another problem not addressed by this reform concerns wages driven down by years of deflation and increased competition with the mainland.  Several times moves to put a bottom on wages and a cap on hours have been stopped by the business-dominated functional constituencies.  So severe has this exploitation become that in several aspects the majority of Hong Kong public opinion has turned against business.  Anti-developer sentiment has become high enough and consistent enough to delay many major projects, such as the Kowloon Cultural complex.  The old Kai Tak airport is still largely undeveloped because the government fears a backlash from the public over its development plans.

 

The government cannot stand indifferent when more and more people suffer.  A democratic government eventually acts to address problems like these or it gets replaced at the polls by political leaders who will act.  Hong Kong came close to revolution on the streets because its government refuses to act, refuses to listen, and refuses to allow itself to be peacefully changed at the ballot box.  The reform will begin to improve accountability, but it is a mere first step toward more responsive government.  The government responded, barely enough and barely in time.  But now it needs to follow up and respond more often to public demands instead of always putting developer and big business interests first.

 

As a long time resident and student of Hong Kong governance, I strongly support the reform bill as amended.  But the Hong Kong and Beijing governments, and their supporters here, need to realize that this reform is a first step barely taken in time to avoid a disaster of their own making.  We need follow up in other areas urgently, and we need to start discussion of future reforms of the system to make it more accountable and responsive to the vast majority of people now.  Delay no more is not just a slogan that applies to this vote.  It applies to what this vote represents:  a realization that reform of the governance system is urgent, necessary, and vital to our peace and prosperity.

Contact:  degolyer@hkbu.edu.hk (copyright HKTP 2009-2010)