Hong Kong's Path to Democracy by Mr Michael M Y Suen, Secretary for Constitutional Affairs (This article is a contribution to the Hong Kong Update Summer 2000 Edition published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies)

Sir Winston Churchill once said, 'At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper - no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.' Churchill's statement in 1944 underlines the message of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government's determination in 2000 to encourage voters to turn out in record numbers for this September's elections for the new Legislative Council (LegCo).

The poll will be held on September 10 and is the next phase in the democratic development of Hong Kong - a gradual and progressive move towards the ultimate goal of universal suffrage for the election of all the Council's 60 members. At stake in the 2000 elections are 24 directly elected seats to be returned through universal suffrage by Hong Kong's three million registered voters in the geographical constituencies - four more seats than in the 1998 poll; 30 seats to be returned by 174,000 registered voters in the functional constituencies; and six seats to be returned by an 800-member Election Committee, the majority of whom have themselves been elected by some 168,000 registered voters.

Our goal of getting a record voter turnout will not be easy. But we have crossed the first hurdle. The number of registered voters in all three categories is the highest on record, with those in the geographical constituencies up by almost 8%. In the 1998 LegCo elections, which came in the midst of the Asian financial turmoil, a record 1.5 million people, or 53% of the registered voters, braved torrential rain and waist-deep flooding in some areas to cast their ballot. Given our short electoral history*, it was an overwhelming demonstration by the people of Hong Kong that they are interested in, and care about, the future development of their democratic institutions.

For this year's elections, as with those held in 1998, the government, in conjunction with the independent Electoral Affairs Commission, will be working hard to ensure they are free, fair and open. We want to see a lively, colorful and keenly contested election campaign - a campaign fought on a level playing field free of the rancor that has marred elections in some other countries.

But, to most Americans, our electoral system may seem rather complicated, with only 40% of the seats being returned by universal suffrage. That may be so. But to the people of Hong Kong, it marks an important step in the democratization process which is laid down in our Basic Law. For the first time in our history, we have a written constitution which includes in its provisions a 10-year timetable for electoral reform starting from Hong Kong's reunification with China in 1997.

As part of this package, the LegCo elections to be held four years down the track, in 2004, will see the number of directly elected seats increased to 50%. The Basic Law then provides that beyond 2007, the people of Hong Kong can decide on their own how quickly to move towards full universal suffrage. In other words, to which extent, at what rate and at which time do we replace the functional constituencies - the 30 seats held by representatives of special interest groups such as the medical profession, engineers, labor, and social welfare.

Businessmen in Hong Kong as a rule choose to shy away from taking political stances or making political statements. Mainstream political views of the business community are based on hearsay and utterances made in private. The situation has changed recently as views have been articulated openly to reflect the concerns held by some prominent and influential businessmen. In brief, some businessmen believe that economic developments are in conflict with political rights and that the second would necessarily give way to the first. They are also concerned that a directly elected legislature will be filled with grassroot politicians who are more interested in pursuing welfare politics than preserving the overall interests of the community. They have argued that functional constituencies should not abdicate their role in the legislature.

In a pluralistic and freewheeling society such as ours, it should come as no surprise that there are others who take the opposite view. Those who speak out do so loudly and eloquently both within and outside the legislative assembly. However, they have done little to allay the fears and misconceptions of those who do not yet share their aspirations and visions.

There is a void for the pro-democracy camp to fill by rebutting the notion held by some in Hong Kong that political development might adversely affect the territory's economic interests. They will also need to convince the detractors that career politicians, once elected, will very often align their policies to ensure that their public positions will be more attuned to the needs and expectations of the community, including the business sector. A more open and interactive process will have to be set in train to thrash out such deep-seated misconceptions and to build up mutual trust. Time is of the essence for the emergence of the basis of co-operation and consensus. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government will obviously have an important role to play in all these.

If the Hong Kong Legislative Council is to be wholly returned by universal suffrage, the question of how it is to be formed cannot be considered in isolation. We need to look at it in the wider context of the governance of Hong Kong as a whole. Under the Basic Law, we have an executive-led government which is not formed by a majority party or by a coalition of parties - and this is yet another unique feature of our system - it is not formed by any party at all.

The Chief Executive is elected by an election committee, but he does not belong to any political party and the Hong Kong government does not have a single vote at its command in the legislature. Senior officials are all civil servants and not political appointees. In fact, we are not LegCo members. We have to consider very carefully how progression to electing the legislature by universal suffrage will impact on the effective governance of Hong Kong by a government with no vote in the legislature and led by a Chief Executive who does not belong to any political party. Given this unprecedented political structure, this will be an enormous challenge.

Ultimately, what the community of Hong Kong is looking for is a constructive and workable relationship between the executive-led government and a legislature elected through universal suffrage. Many stakeholders are involved. However, I think that before we decide exactly when we should move towards universal suffrage, it is necessary for the whole issue to be thoroughly debated in the community. People need to be aware of the different types of models and the ramifications and implications of these models.

Time is an important factor. We are confident that the community will have sufficient time and have a good basis on which to make an informed decision as to how we manage our political landscape after the year 2007. We are sure that we will come out of this process, richer by the experience, more confident of our own abilities to rise to any challenge and more united as a community.

*The history of elections in Hong Kong should be considered in its proper historical context. Prior to 1985, there were no elections of any kind to the Legislative Council - all the seats were either filled by government officials or by appointment. And it was not until 1995 - just five years ago - that we finally saw the demise of the appointed seats in the Legislative Council.