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Voting, democracy and the future of Hong Kong

Ahead of International Day of Democracy, Hugo Swire sets out why the transition to universal suffrage is in the best interests of Hong Kong.

Tomorrow is the sixth annual International Day of Democracy. Supporting the strengthening of democratic institutions is at the core of the UK’s foreign policy, and as Minister of State for Asia, I wanted to mark the occasion by setting out why I think that the transition to universal suffrage is in the best interests of Hong Kong, and vital to its future stability and prosperity.

In 2007, the UN General Assembly decided to observe on the 15 September each year the International Day of Democracy. As the UN has noted “democracy is as much a process as a goal, and only with the full participation of and support by the international community, national government bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be made into a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere”.

In Hong Kong, informed by our long, shared history, the UK takes its commitment under the Sino-British Joint Declaration very seriously. This guarantees Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, basic rights and freedoms, the observance of which the UK takes an active interest in.

So I welcomed Chief Executive CY Leung’s undertaking during his inaugural Policy Address to “promote and achieve the ultimate aim of universal suffrage in accordance with the provisions of the Basic Law and the relevant decisions of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress” and to “launch a comprehensive consultation on the election methods” for these ground-breaking elections. It is encouraging to see the energy and enthusiasm with which many groups and individuals in Hong Kong are engaging on the shape of future electoral reform. Their views will be invaluable as the government prepares its proposed public consultation on future options.

What democracy with universal suffrage in Hong Kong will look like is of course for the governments of Hong Kong and China, and the people of Hong Kong, to decide in line with the Basic Law. There is no perfect model anywhere in the world, but the important thing is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice to enable them to feel they have a real stake in the outcome. This is no easy undertaking, but then few things worth having are. Dialogue and cooperation between all parties will be vital for a smooth resolution of this important issue. And of course, the UK stands ready to support in any way we can.

But it is not just because of my belief in democracy as a universal right that I am a supporter of the transition to universal suffrage. Certainty over Hong Kong’s constitutional future is also important to business and investor confidence in Asia’s leading international financial centre. The city is home to around 1000 British businesses, many of which have made Hong Kong their regional hub. Like many others in the international community, the UK therefore has a big economic stake in seeing Hong Kong continue as the prosperous, stable and energetic centre that we see today. On World Democracy Day, it is good to remind ourselves that universal suffrage can help ensure that outcome amongst many, many others. Democracy is vital for our future prosperity, and it is the glue that holds us together. Its importance in the world cannot be overstated.

(An edited version of this article appeared in South China Morning Post on 14 September 2013.)

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