Written by Jennifer Eagleton.

Having lived in “transitional” Hong Kong from just after the return to Chinese sovereignty in October 1997 to the present, I have witnessed all the “growing pangs” of Hong Kong as it adjusts to its birth and growth as a Special Administrative Region of China with the promise of universal suffrage to come. It has been a fascinating experience following the pros and cons of arguments about what is the best possible political system of democracy for the HKSAR given the numerous constraints within the Basic Law.

The constitutional reform debate has often taken the form of a heated political battle between pro-democracy groups and conservative forces. It has largely been portrayed by one side as a fight for a fundamental human right and by the other as a potentially hazardous development that, if done too quickly, could undermine Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity, lead to populism, welfarism and “tyranny of the majority”.

Critics of democracy in Hong Kong point to faltering democracies and the re-emergence of authoritarianism. People in mature democracies too are increasingly disappointed that democracy hasn’t quite lived up to their expectations. I think this disappointment comes from not being actively involved in civil society and issues of governance which ensures that the four crucial elements of a liberal democracy bloom (legitimacy, justice, freedom, and power) in the state.

People therefore have to be vigilant about their system of government, monitor it constantly, and make changes where necessary. My country, Australia, a mature democracy, each year has a Democratic Audit—a collaborative project between several universities—which is “an annual report card identifying areas of weakness and strength and in the Australian political environment”. Values used as a basis for assessment questions include political equality; popular control of government; civil liberties and human rights; and the quality of public deliberation.

Hong Kong largely has these things, but it does not have the legitimacy of a leader elected by universal suffrage.

Although the building blocks that we have to work with in designing Hong Kong’s future universal suffrage system seem difficult to arrange (constrained by the ambiguities and caveats of the Basic Law), we must at least try to put them in the best possible order. The latest consultation, “Let’s Talk and Achieve Universal Suffrage”, concerning arrangements for the Nomination Committee for the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017 is well underway. To help people understand the issues, constraints and factors to consider in this consultation, the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong has initiated the Design Democracy Hong Kong Project. This is an online platform promoting constructive dialogue on Hong Kong’s future political system. It also features an innovative “Design Your Democracy” section that illustrates and explains the key features to be considered in Hong Kong’s electoral design and allows you to build your own proposal of universal suffrage and to tell others about it.

The site’s developers have created a “decision tree” that simulates the kinds of questions the government will need to address in designing democracy for Hong Kong. Information about Hong Kong’s current and past political system and about the electoral systems in other countries is also given.

It also analyses and compiles statistics on “democracy models” as they build up on the website.

By “designing your democracy” on this website, individuals can construct their own vision of what they believe a democratic Hong Kong should look like. However, going on past consultations, that these “designs” will be considered overall seems unlikely. Whatever the case, once a universal system is place, we must continue to “audit” it to ensure that the system remains fair – and determine what further improvements we need to make as we go along, since any system Hong Kong will institute is likely to operate under many constraints.

Dr Jennifer Eagleton, whose PhD was on how Hong Kong talks about democracy, is an adviser to the University of Hong Kong’s “Designing Democracy Hong Kong” project.

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