Watching pro-democracy students take over the streets of Hong Kong raises conflicting feelings. One can't help but cheer their drive for greater democracy and freedom, yet at the same time remember how similar aspirations were drowned in blood in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Might there be a possible compromise that leads to a different result this time?
The seeds for compromise are there. The current proposal from China's leaders in Beijing would allow the 5 million eligible voters in Hong Kong to directly elect Hong Kong's chief executive. That is a notable step forward, since currently the chief executive is elected by what is euphemistically called a "small-circle election," that is by 1200 members of an electoral college-like Election Committee.
However, there is a catch: the current proposal says that Hong Kong voters would only be able to choose among two or three candidates, who would be nominated by the Election Committee. And as everyone knows, the Election Committee is controlled by Beijing.
It's like saying, sure, you can hold an election - and you can choose from Coca-Cola, Coke Zero, and Cherry Coke. How do you like your electoral freedom?
But under the existing plan, there is supposed to be a second phase of consultation over the details of the candidate nomination process. These details will be important, and it behooves Beijing -- which has used public consultations before to take the pulse of the people - to allow this consultation to be open, honest and not plagued by back room deal-making.
China's leaders seem to realize their two-faced dilemma, and Hong Kong's No. 2 official, Carrie Lam, is supposed to lead negotiations over these details. What might a compromise look like?
One possible compromise would be for Ms. Lam's negotiating team to allow more candidates to be eligible to run. By expanding the number of candidates to half a dozen, this could conceivably give voters a greater range of choice, and reduce the perception that the results are rigged.
But the most salient compromise would be to allow some way to adjust the1,200-member Election Commission, which was established by Annex I of the Basic Law of Hong Kong to nominate candidates, to make it more reflective of public opinion.
Currently the Committee is stacked with pro-Beijing members, but it is broadly representative in other ways. The Election Committee has 4 sectors, each composed of a number of subsectors. The various subsectors represented include industrial, commercial and financial interests, a professional sector, social welfare, labor and religious sectors, sports and performing arts, higher education and more.
Given this strong tradition toward broad representation, it's not hard to imagine ways that the membership of the Election Committee could be further opened up. One way to do this would be to hold elections for a certain number of the Committee members. That would interject into the overall process more vigorous competition and robust debate.
But given Beijing leaders' reluctance to hold wide open Western-style elections, with all the pros and cons that come with that (just look at U.S. elections, so tainted by private campaign donations and spending), the percentage of Election Committee members subject to popular election could be carefully calibrated so as to avoid a free-for-all or fringe candidates being nominated. Other rules also could be carefully designed to avoid unintended consequences.
Pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong as well as in the West may balk at allowing Beijing to retain a degree of control over the election process, but democracy happens along a continuum. The United States has long used an electoral college to elect its president. When the US was first founded, the electoral college was initially conceived as a way for political elites to prevent the wild passions of democracy from running amok. Over two hundred years later, the US electoral college has evolved to the point where it is little more than a proxy determined by a popular vote in each of the 50 states. But its origins were rooted in suspicions over popular democracy that are not so different from those in Beijing today.
So a reachable compromise could incorporate both a partially elected Election Committee, as well as allowing a half dozen or so candidates to run. This would produce vigorous elections in which Hong Kong voters could hear from a range of respectable candidates - including some not hand-picked by Beijing -- debating the important issues of the day. This would be good for Hong Kong, as well as for Beijing, since more democracy, even within China at the local level, has been correlated with less government corruption and more trust in the rule of law.
Sounds far-fetched? Perhaps not. The current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, recently penned a piece in which he stated "Critics say...that only candidates favored by Beijing will eventually appear on the ballot. Such claims are unfounded as we have not even started to discuss the detailed but crucial aspects of the nominating process for potential chief executive candidates. This will be the subject of a public consultation...which will eventually lead to the enabling legislation on changes to the electoral method for the 2017 election."
So pro-democracy advocates and protestors should gird themselves for the next battle, when the details will be worked out. Let's hope they succeed, since Hong Kong is a great and historic international city that deserves to retain its uniqueness, and it's "one country, two systems" relationship with the mainland.
China also is a great and ancient culture, but Beijing signed an international treaty in 1997 during the hand-over from the British promising to Hong Kongers that it would not interfere in their democratic development. If China is allowed to walk away from its legal treaty commitments, then it does not bode well for China's relationships with the rest of the world.