Give Hong Kong Voters More Choice

Making their voices count.

With Hong Kong protest leaders calling their supporters out onto the streets again, there's good reason to doubt whether talks with the government that were expected today will ever take place, let alone whether they could accomplish anything. Protesters' demands for full democracy remain irreconcilable with Beijing's decree that only China loyalists be allowed to stand for the city's top office. Between those positions, however, lie solutions that could give Hong Kongers what they deserve: a freer choice of leaders. It would be foolish not to explore them, and soon.

Both sides have reason to seek common ground. Even if crowds pick up again over the weekend, protests will be hard to sustain in the face of rising local resentment. Meanwhile, what President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders want and need most in Hong Kong is stability. Instead, they now confront a young, frustrated and politicized populace that has developed impressive organizational and media skills -- not to mention international sympathy.

QuickTake Hong Kong's Autonomy

To get anywhere, both sides have to climb down from their stated positions. Protesters should temper calls for Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign; an investigation into payments he received from an Australian company could accomplish that for them. Their central demand -- that the Chinese government allow future candidates for chief executive to be nominated directly by the public -- is no less a nonstarter.

For their part, Hong Kong officials must stop tonelessly insisting upon Beijing's formula for the elections, which allows for only two to three candidates, each of whom must be approved by a 1,200-member nominating committee that is stacked with Beijing loyalists. The city's leaders should focus on expanding what little wiggle room this framework allows.

What's ultimately important is for Hong Kong citizens to have a reasonable choice of candidates to lead their city. A vetting committee would be far more likely to produce such a slate if it were more broadly representative.

As things stand, members of the committee that elect the Chief Executive are selected by "functional constituencies," including labor, business and social groups. Some of these constituencies are broader than others. About 125 bankers, for example, elect as many representatives as 52,000 teachers do. A handful of corporate constituencies -- dominated by the city's biggest tycoons -- control more than 40 percent of the committee.

All told, less than 240,000 of the city's 7.1 million citizens vote for members of the committee. Expanding the franchise and reducing the influence of the corporate constituencies could help blunt allegations of corruption and favoritism -- issues that Xi has made a primary focus of his presidency. On the mainland, the central government has been quick to address, or at least be seen as addressing, local frustrations over corrupt officials and skyrocketing inequality. Why should Hong Kong -- which recently topped the Economist's "crony-capitalism index" -- receive any less consideration?

Technically, none of these measures would force Chinese leaders to backtrack: They have always left vague the possibility of adjusting the composition of the nominating committee. At this point, faced with the prospect of recurring protests, Beijing might even want to consider further measures such as lowering the 50 percent threshold needed for candidates to be nominated.

Regardless, if protesters pushed for such reforms, they would serve to emphasize their reasonableness. And Hong Kong's leaders should faithfully convey those demands to Beijing -- to prove that they take seriously their duty to represent the interests of the local populace and defend the city's autonomy.

--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Mary Duenwald.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net