Tung signals early democratic reforms in HK

Agence France Presse

Hong Kong, January 12:

Hong Kong’s leader today signaled that democratic reform in the Chinese autonomous region may come sooner than expected, declaring that universal suffrage could be achieved “at an early date”.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said a reform programme could be speeded up.

“We believe that as long as we can maintain prosperity, stability and social harmony, our constitutional system can develop at a faster pace,” Tung said in an annual address outlining policy goals for the coming year. “The ultimate aim of universal suffrage could be achieved at an early date.” No firm timetable has been given for reform. But a ruling by China in April last year rejected democrats’ demands for Tung’s successor to be elected by universal suffrage in 2007, and put back any chance of change to at least 2012.

The chief executive is currently elected by a pro-Beijing committee and only half the seats in the legislature are directly elected. A task force set up last year to consider constitutional reform has reiterated the city’s Basic Law, which says change must be gradual and occur with regard to the people’s political will.

Speaking at a press conference, Tung was equally vague about the timetable. “We are moving ahead according to our plan,” he said. Today’s announcement is the first sign the government of the southern territory may be willing to soften its opposition to speedy reform. It has regularly said any changes must proceed slowly to maintain stability. Tung’s words offered little hope to democratic lawmaker Martin Lee, who has led a vocal campaign for reform since Hong Kong switched from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

“There was a lot of conditions and nothing solid — if he was serious about change he would have given us a timetable, but he didn’t,” Lee told AFP. “I am no happier after the speech than before it. Nothing has changed.” Tung’s policy speech was his eighth since taking office at the handover. In a surprise move he admitted that his government had failed the people on several issues.

“We introduced too many reform measures too hastily, putting heavy burdens on our people. We also lacked a sense of crisis, political sensitivity as well as the necessary experience and capability to cope with political and economic changes,” he said. “These shortcomings and inadequacies have undermined the credibility of our policy-making capability and our ability to govern.”

But Tung said he and his team will learn from their mistakes. In an otherwise steady-as-she-goes address, Tung stressed that plans to accelerate economic restructuring, reduce unemployement and eliminate the fiscal deficit in the next two and a half years remain top of the agenda.