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Postcard from Hong Kong, the Pearl of the Orient

BC Project visit to British consulate HKShould the Head of State be elected? Who should be allowed to be a candidate, and who should be allowed to vote?

Hong Kong currently faces these questions in its quest for universal suffrage and a democratic future, and was the recurrent theme during the second part of the trip to China organised by the British Chinese Project, in which I and three other Lib Dem delegates - Merlene Emerson, Sarah Yong and Steven Cheung - took part along with representatives from the other two main political parties and several enthusiastic BC Project staff.

We had barely arrived in Hong Kong when we were whisked into the British Consulate to meet the Consul-General, Caroline Wilson, and Sarah Docherty the Head of Political and Communications Sections. The security at the Consulate is so tight that even Mrs Wilson herself has to surrender her mobile to get in. The British Government is in a highly sensitive position in Hong Kong, illustrated by a recent difficulty over translation of the phrase 'we support the aim of universal suffrage' - a word was used to translate the word 'support' that in Chinese has the sense of 'active support' and so was taken to indicate an intention by the British to interfere. Participation in the reform of Hong Kong politics is thus a diplomatic tightrope, and Mrs Wilson was careful to make clear that the policy of universal suffrage is emanating from Beijing.

After a meeting with Kevin McLaven of the British Council learning about the work they are doing in soft diplomacy to wave the British flag, it was on to the Legislative Council to meet with the President Jasper Tsang who is intended to be effectively equivalent to the Speaker of the House of Commons or Lords, where we engaged in an intriguing political discussion that raised as many questions as it answered.

The government, it seems, is entirely non-political (including the Chief Executive) and consists of employed officials. The Chief Executive alone in the government is currently subject to a limited form of election by a complicated committee consisting of 1200 electors - not that many considering that even my relatively small council ward in the UK consists of over 3000 electors. In broad practical terms it seems as though Humphrey Appleby really is in charge. The Legislative Council's role is only to pass or deny legislation put forward by the government, by a simple majority (or two-thirds majority for constitutional issues).

In the UK the government agenda is set by politicians, who derive a mandate from having been elected. In Hong Kong one is driven to question how the agenda is set and by what mandate given that, as Mr Tsang said quite forcefully, the civil service running the government often have no real experience of engaging with the citizenry. One delegate also pointed out that lobbying, which is a problem in this country, must be even more difficult to control there when there is no direct accountability to the people.

And if the political parties' role is restricted to, effectively, the ability collectively to veto what comes through from elsewhere, one wonders how a politician can ever have and put forward a positive agenda for what he or she believes is needed for the country. In a conversation (LD-only) with a former Chinese Lib Dem intern and with a founding member of Lib Dems Abroad, after the formal tour had ended, we talked about protest marches in Hong Kong and how the public have become much more politically engaged in recent years, however in my view mass marches alone cannot in the long term be a practical day-to-day solution.

It is hoped that electing the Chief Executive by universal suffrage will solve some of these difficulties, making the person at the top more universally accountable. Strangely the Chief Executive is still to be a non-political post - but given that he or she will, one presumes, have to campaign on political issues to get elected I am not sure how that is literally going to be possible.

In the meantime elected politicians have little real power, reduced effectively to a lobby group with a collective threat of veto. But then imagine if you were to live in Hong Kong and had an idea of how the country should be run - I suspect you probably wouldn't join a political party, you would join the "non-political" government. And if that is what the politically interested are indeed doing, then the apparent relative powerlessness of the political parties in Hong Kong has become a vicious circle, and the hard politics would still exist, but it would simply have become mostly hidden from view. One of the merits of a democracy is its transparency, and it is to be hoped (non-actively, of course) that the universal suffrage proposed by Beijing for the Chief Executive will be a key step on the path to a full democracy for Hong Kong.

I am grateful to BC Project for organising our study tour, the Chinese Government for the earlier part of our visit to China, and to the many people who hosted us and were so generous with their time. The whole trip to China was a real eye-opener for someone who has heard of this part of his heritage for so many years, without ever until now having been to visit. China is an economic power-house that has the curious by-line that the majority of the population still lives in less than first-world conditions. It was made clear to us that China intends to continue its economic expansion for the foreseeable future: I very much hope that the UK as a potential trading partner will benefit greatly from that, and let us hope that in China it is the population as a whole who will also see some of the benefits.