Benny Tai: Letter to Hong Kong Chief Secretary

Original published in HKEJ on 31 July 2014: Read original
Translation on 2 August 2014

Dear Ms. Carrie Lam,

Due to the time limit of our previous meeting at the Central Government Offices, some of my points were not sufficiently clarified. Therefore I would like to further explain to you the standpoint of Occupy Central with Love and Peace in this open letter. As OCLP is an important folk force behind the constitutional reform development, which is closely associated with the welfare of all Hong Kong people, I would also like to take this opportunity to explain to the public the crisis we are facing with regard to the constitutional reform.

In your article posted earlier on the Wall Street Journal , you made several observations about the constitutional reform in Hong Kong. Firstly, you noted that universal suffrage was not mentioned in the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 but rather only in the Basic Law enacted in 1990. You also pointed out that there was not one single directly-elected seat in the Legislative Council in 1990 and that, since 1997, both Legco and Chief Executive elections have become increasingly democratic, which proves that Beijing has kept its promise to give Hong Kong people more democracy.

However, I must point out to you that, dating back to 1987 when the Basic Law was being drafted, there was a series of very important constitutional reviews that were centered on whether to introduce directly elected seats from geographical constituencies in the Legco. At that time I was a college student leader participating the social movement fighting for direct election in 1988. You should have already joined the government then; it was probably not under your area so you seem to have totally forgotten the controversy.

In fact the controversy at that time was quite similar to the one we have now. Under the strong opposition of the Hong Kong and the Beijing governments, and after a round of highly manipulated constitutional reform consultations, the proposal to introduce directly elected seats in the Legco was shelved despite clear and strong support from the society. Directly elected seats from geographical constituencies were first introduced in the Legco only in 1991 after the Basic Law was published.

The point I was trying to make is that although democratic development in Hong Kong, as you said, is within Beijing’s constitutional authority, Hong Kong people’s desire for democracy germinated as early as the 70’s, grew up in the 80’s, and became mature during the transition period. After the handover, Hong Kong people were already expecting full-scale universal suffrage to be implemented as soon as possible. As such, democratic development in Hong Kong cannot be simply interpreted in the light of its pace after 1997. Otherwise wrong judgments will be made on the development process of democracy in Hong Kong, which will lead to wrong political decisions. I sincerely hope that you will not commit the above mistake.

Another main point in your article is that some people take the electoral method in 2017 as the ultimate one, and therefore adopt a now-or-never or all-or-nothing attitude. You pointed out that Hong Kong’s electoral method can be further improved after 2017, which I think is consistent with the “pocket it first” strategy you have been pitching recently. However, I must raise two points to you, one legal and one political.

Legally, Article 45 of the Basic Law clearly stipulates that the ultimate goal is to elect Chief Executives through universal suffrage. The Standing Committee of the NPC has decided in 2007 that the Chief Executive in 2017 can be returned by means of universal suffrage. This is not just about one man one vote but also about ensuing there will not be any unreasonable restrictions on citizens’ right to stand for elections, which I think you would understand and agree to. Of course it does not mean an electoral method that meets the requirements of universal suffrage cannot be further improved in the future. The key point is, however, the 2017 Chief Executive electoral method has to be a universal suffrage instead of a semi universal suffrage, a quasi universal suffrage, or even a false universal suffrage.

Politically, in June 700,000 people voted in the OCLP civil referendum that the Legco should veto any government proposal that does not meet the international standards of giving voters a real choice. “Giving voters a real choice” is just a clearer statement of “no unreasonable restrictions on citizens’ right to stand for elections”. Even if these 700,000 people do not represent all Hong Kong people, the voting result has created a political reality that makes it impossible for pan-democratic lawmakers to support an unqualified proposal. They already have a clear mandate from the people that cannot be deviated, or else they are committing political suicide.

If you understand this point, you will realize that your “pocket it first” approach will certainly hit a wall rather than finding room in the political crevices, something I have reiterated during our meeting. However, you seemed to be indifferent and simply tried to persuade OCLP to stop its action. I believe if you insist on such thinking, you will fail to grasp the political reality and make wrong decisions accordingly.

Earlier you said that the biggest challenge of the constitutional reform is to forge consensus in narrow political crevices. In your article, you called for the lawmakers to demonstrate their political courage and pragmatic attitude by adopting your “pocket it first” approach. But in our meeting I have already told you that it is actually the constitutional responsibility of the Chief Executive and the Chief Secretary to demonstrate their political courage and determination, and employ their political wisdom and skills to find out that narrow crevice and resolve this political crisis.

Consensus is not about majority rule. It is about working out a proposal that is acceptable to most people. You kept avoiding my request to explain any concrete action you have to fulfill your constitutional responsibility to reach a consensus on political reform. This gave me the impression that you still do not have any concrete ideas, or you need to wait for the final instructions from Beijing, or you simply do not have the necessary political commitment. I am definitely disappointed.

Like many people in Hong Kong, I have been admiring the commitment and abilities that you have demonstrated in public affairs for years. However, I am wondering if it is because political reform does not fall in your specialties or because you have too many political constraints that prevents you from realizing your full potential. I have made it clear in the meeting that I am more than happy to help you solve this political crisis triggered by constitutional reform and stop Occupy Central from happening. Of course, you have first to recognize that a large number of citizens request a proposal that meets international standards, and that many of them are prepared to take part in civil disobedience for this. Although you do not seem to be interested at this stage, I am available for assistance should you receive clear instructions that allow you more room and become more serious in looking for that political crevice.

Best of luck in your work and your health.

Benny Tai,
“Occupy Central with Love and Peace” Convener