This article by Ken Davies appeared in China Daily, Hong Kong Edition on 21 May 2015:
On June 19 this year the world will celebrate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta on the banks of the River Thames in England. What has this to do with constitutional development in Hong Kong?
In his characteristically excellent, and commercially timely, book explaining the Magna Carta, Dan Jones marvels at its current international fame. He points out that it is "something of a muddle a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant king, most of which contain matters of arcane 13th-century legal principle." Magna Carta is, he says, "dry, technical, difficult to decipher and constitutionally obsolete". Those parts quoted today such as the right to justice and freedom from unlawful imprisonment "did not mean in 1215 what we often wish they would mean today". It should by rights be quite dead.
And yet, he says the Magna Carta is "very much alive, one of the most hallowed documents in the world, revered from the Arctic Circle to the Antipodes, written into the constitution of various countries and admired as a foundation stone in the Western traditions of liberty, democracy and the rule of law".
Those traditions were not, in reality, universally apparent in medieval England. Kings gained and held power by warfare and assassination. Lesser officials who tried to hold them to their obligations were mutilated and/or killed. The line of succession was routinely disputed, leading to devastating civil wars. Laws were made by the king himself; there was no legislature.
The Magna Carta was forced on "bad" king John by barons who had become disgruntled with his arbitrary use of power, so embodying the principle of limitation of monarchical authority. What emerged from that agreement were several centuries of increasing power for the rest of society, culminating in the attainment of universal suffrage in England by the middle of the 20th century.
It would be foolish, impractical, insulting and unjust to suggest on this basis that any other society needs 800 years to develop full self-government. But this history does suggest that democracy by universal suffrage may take time to perfect, and that this process may be pragmatic and uneven.
If the "pan-democrats" want full democracy in Hong Kong, they need to develop a strategy and a set of tactics that accord with reality. There is no point in making counterfactual assumptions, or, to put it another way, "if my grandmother had wheels on, she would be a trolleybus" (but she doesn't, so she isn't).
The Hong Kong SAR, though it does enjoy a high degree of autonomy, is nevertheless a part of China and ultimately China will decide what happens in Hong Kong. In the final decades of British rule, particularly after the territory became dependent on the mainland for its water supply, there was a common feeling in the local administration that all Beijing needed to do to take back Hong Kong immediately, was to turn the tap off, or just make a phone call. That situation is still clearer today the Gurkhas having been replaced by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), even though the PLA has kept scrupulously out of Hong Kong affairs to date.
Beijing is cautious about political risks related to separatism and "subversion". Someone may argue such fears are excessive, but they are real and must be understood and taken into account. And the experience of countries like England after the Magna Carta suggest that it takes time for democracy to, not only develop, but demonstrate the long-term stability that is one of its strongest advantages.
This means it would be unrealistic at this stage to expect a great leap forward from the reform package announced by the Hong Kong government. The "pan-democrats" are now faced with the choice of rejecting this, and having the next CE chosen by the Election Committee, or accepting it, with all the reservations they may wish to express, and having an election in which 5 million voters can choose between the candidates. This seems to me to be a step in the right direction which has to be made at this time.
True, the Nominating Committee selection process is not perfect, but by insisting on public nomination, the "pan-democrats" are making a rod for their own backs, because this is not generally how candidates are nominated in multi-party democracies.
In the long term, after the emergence of experienced political parties with developed policy programs, Hong Kong might well move to a system where, as in most other places, those parties put forward their own candidates. Or there may be another solution which works and is broadly acceptable. There is no standard blueprint for democracy; each jurisdiction has to devise its own.