Posted:  May 3, 2010

 

Midway through the “second consultation period,” Hong Kong is no closer to agreement on the government’s latest political reform proposals than when the exercise began last November.  The first consultation, between November and February, was for public debate and discussion of the government’s first draft.  This followed Beijing’s latest, December 2007, decision allowing Hong Kong to work within strict guidelines toward its long-promised goal of universal suffrage elections. But according to that decision, the time frame is distant and current electoral designs cannot be altered for the time being.  The latest proposals are therefore confined to the coming 2012 elections and do not suggest how they might lead to universal suffrage thereafter.

The public’s views were supposed to be assessed in a summation report, to serve as the basis of a final draft, which must be submitted to the Legislative Council (Legco).  This being a constitutional reform issue, passage requires approval by two-thirds of the 60-seat assembly.   Chief Executive Donald Tsang is still planning for victory in a July vote, but as usual his officials seem to have let wishful thinking and pressures from Beijing be their guide.

Hong Kong’s democracy movement has grown up with this process and its routines are now well established.   The government naturally did its best to ignore pro-democracy demands.  This was done by including everyone’s views in the April summary report’s appendices, while relying primarily on supportive pro-Beijing and pro-business submissions to conclude that the original proposals were just fine.  Announcing that verdict on April 14, simultaneous official statements in Hong Kong and Beijing proclaimed the proposals a “golden opportunity” and a “major step forward” in democratic development.*   The government is therefore proceeding as planned, while democrats carry on with the next phase of their campaign, now dubbed the “second consultation period.”

TOWARD WHAT END?

Non-participants, both local and foreign, frequently ask this question.  Why continue to haggle when Beijing’s decision is already set in stone?   Those who identify with the movement have learned to ignore the implied criticism because they know that persistence is the only means of keeping their movement alive.  Since public opinion cannot be adequately registered through the ballot box and from there via elected government, democrats do the next best thing allowed them.  Their habit is to continue “voting with our feet,” marching, protesting, and haggling right down to the wire in hopes of exerting enough pressure to win some concessions however limited — and keep hope alive.

This never-say-die determination has marked every phase of Hong Kong’s democracy movement from what it regards as its inception in the early 1980s.  Popular fears and demands provided the incentive for British negotiators who ultimately won the promise, written into the original 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, that Hong Kong’s future legislature “shall be constituted by elections.”

Popular pressure achieved its greatest success in 2003 over the dreaded national security bill, precipitating its failure at the 11th hour to win the necessary Legco support.  With that 2003 experience still fresh in everyone’s mind, pan-democrats have for months been preparing this second stage of the current campaign.  Their latest idea is to stop the clock and postpone the 11th hour in order to allow more time for “negotiations.”  They are now calling for a delay in the final Legco vote until after the summer recess.

THE OLD GUARD

        All the big names have now come out against the government’s proposals.  Most notable among the older generation are retirees Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, founding fathers of the Democratic Party.  They were also founders in 1989 of Hong Kong’s support organization for democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square, which Beijing regards as subversive and which Szeto still heads. Joining them in the current universal suffrage campaign are Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen and Anson Chan, a former ranking civil servant who took early retirement to become an active critic of the administration she once led.  Everyone is being reminded of the last-chance nature of this campaign for the founders’ generation by the sight of Szeto Wah, now attending the preparatory rallies in his wheelchair, as he battles a recently announced diagnosis of late stage lung cancer.

Meanwhile, the successor generation has inherited a fractious movement divided for now into middle-aged moderates and their so-called radical counterparts.   Lee, Chan, and Zen are backing the radicals’ referendum campaign as the ultimate gesture of protest.  Five legislators from the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats resigned together last January in order to trigger simultaneous special elections in each of Hong Kong’s five election districts.  The legislators are now campaigning to regain their seats in the May 16 elections, which they are calling a de facto referendum on universal suffrage.

Szeto Wah decided against backing the radical venture because he knew the risk his party would take if it resigned any of its shrinking number of seats.  He threw his weight instead behind the Democratic Party’s effort to forge a moderate coalition aimed at lobbying for improvements in the government’s reform package.  Campaign dynamics within the new Alliance for Universal Suffrage are nevertheless revealing not just different levels of confidence and energy but, inevitably, different thresholds of tolerance for compromise as well.

A UNITED FRONT OF MODERATES

         The 13-member coalition that has formed around the Democratic Party represents mainstream thinking within the democratic camp.  Members speaking for the largest number of people are the Confederation of Trade Unions led by veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan, the Federation of Civil Service Unions, the Social Workers General Union, and Szeto’s original power base, the Professional Teachers Union.  The coalition’s Chinese name, “Ultimate Universal Suffrage Alliance,” is nevertheless the butt of jokes from both pro-Beijing critics and those closer to home.

This is because “ultimate” is taken from the Basic Law’s promise about universal suffrage elections for the Chief Executive and Legco being the “ultimate aim” (Articles 45 and 68).  But after Beijing’s December 2007 decision pushing the timetable back, tentatively, for the two elections to 2017 and 2020, respectively, the promise has become something of a joke.    For their part, pro-Beijing partisans know the real objective, which they cannot publicly admit and which democrats are not yet ready to confront by demanding definitions rather than guarantees.  If they did, they would discover that Beijing means one thing by universal suffrage while they mean another.

Among fellow democrats, those who regard Beijing’s 2017/2020 promise as just another delaying tactic do not worry about definitions but only that too many Alliance members seem too willing to take the timetable at face value.  This impression derives from their chief demand.  They want Beijing or the Hong Kong government to pledge that “genuine” universal suffrage elections will be allowed by the “ultimate” 2017/2020 deadlines.   How naive, say friendly critics, recalling that Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been strung along by such official promises and Basic Law guarantees since the 1980s.

Even more unsettling were comments from Democratic Party members about the new opportunities for its “second-tier” candidates that would come with the extra Legco seats in the government’s plan.  It would add 10 seats (equally divided between directly- and indirectly-elected constituencies).  This view is seen not just as opportunistic but out-of-touch with reality.  The Democratic Party has lost too many energetic young members in several waves of past defections.  Underfunded and overworked, its remaining second-tier risk-averse candidates can barely muster enough votes to win one seat let alone several more and their prospects at the lower District Councils level are even more dismal.  District Councilors would fill, from among their number, the five new indirectly-elected Legco seats.

Reinforcing this image of a diminished party is Emily Lau, one-time firebrand, who was in the first (1991) class of directly elected legislators and has retained her seat in every election since.  No longer able to sustain her defiant go-it-alone approach, she joined the Democratic Party as its vice-chair after the last (2008) sobering election. She now likes to call herself  “an old woman in a hurry”  and her reputation is helping moderates walk the fine line they must tread between compromise and capitulation. When rumors spread both inside and outside the party that it was edging toward surrender, Lau spoke out threatening to leave the party if its long-held principles were compromised in that way.  Notably, however, she did not actually say she would resign but only that she would not rule it out (Apple Daily, March 4, 2010).

Lau was also tapped to speak at the big general meeting on April 25, called in a shrewd move to review results and reassure Alliance supporters.  It had tried a two-part approach.  This entailed drafting a reform plan that was designed, like several others volunteered by sympathetic academics, to illustrate how all indirectly elected Legco seats could be abolished by 2020.**  In addition, Alliance members had explored different avenues they hoped would lead to discussions with Beijing officials.  Despite establishing intermediary contacts, this effort has so far proved fruitless.  The contacts are all saying the same thing whether in public or in private:  no discussion on foreward movement until Hong Kong accepts the government’s package.  Alliance leaders therefore announced that they will recommend rejection of the reform package if it remains as is, but that they will continue to seek a basis for negotiation.  The aim is to win concessions on details sufficient to allow acceptance of the package (Apple Daily, Ming Pao Daily, South China Morning Post, April 26).

The Alliance remains committed to its “ultimate” universal suffrage goal by which is meant:   one-person-one-vote direct elections for all Legco seats and the abolition of all special-interest Functional Constituency electors by 2020.  Yet some Alliance members continue to say that an official declaration of intent from the Hong Kong government would suffice, suggesting that some are considerably more moderate than others.  The same is true in the 60-seat Legislative Council where the 23 pro-democracy legislators are all that stand between Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s political reform proposals and the two-thirds majority needed to approve them.  Three of the 23 are thought to be tilting in the government’s direction.  (Next:  The Radical Challenge)

*  The original November 2009 consultation document, the April 2010 summation report, its appendices, and other supporting documents are posted at:  www.cmab-cd2012.gov.hk.  My Nov. 23/09 post summarizes the government’s proposals.

**  The Alliance plan is at:  www.universalsuffrage.hk/?p=25&lang=en .

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