Posted:  June 18, 2010

 

What a difference a decade of political reform can make.  The thought of Hong Kong’s first post-colonial Chief Executive challenging someone to debate his policies would have been dismissed as a joke had anyone suggested it.  Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor (1992-1997), introduced question time in the Legislative Council as part of his better-late-than-never push to update a political culture frozen by 150 years of autocratic colonial rule.   Not everyone appreciated the new custom of course and his post-1997 successor, businessman Tung Chee-hwa (1997-2005), was among them.   Tung could barely muster the courage for his infrequent appearances before the council much less a monthly exchange with political critics.

Nor could Tung’s successor, Donald Tsang, disguise his nerves when the newly formed Civic Party decided to put up a challenger in 2007, demanding to participate in what is essentially an appointment procedure.  A specially designed 800-member Election Committee, heavily weighted with conservatives, endorses Beijing’s preferred candidate for Chief Executive under Hong Kong’s post-1997 system.   Although Tsang was a career civil servant, trained in his day to avoid all extemporaneous discourse, he accepted the challenge by lawyer Alan Leong for Hong Kong’s first-ever such debate, in March 2007, before a local television audience of over two million.

Tsang is still not known for his public speaking skills but the unexpected demand for a debate with Civic Party leader Audrey Eu was an indication of how much Hong Kong has changed.  Eu led her party into the May 16 five-district referendum campaign, which despite being declared a “failure” mobilized half-a-million voters in protest against the government’s latest political reform package. Tsang saw the debate as his last chance to neutralize the public opposition she can now claim to represent (May 17and June 7 posts).

The package deals only with the coming 2012 elections.  It proposes to increase the size of the Chief Executive (CE) Election Committee from 800 members to 1,200, and the size of the Legislative Council (Legco) from 60 seats to 70, but without changing the conservative design of either body. The council is currently composed of 30 directly elected legislators and 30 elected by special-interest Functional Constituencies (FCs).  Nor is there any indication as to how the promised goal of full universal suffrage elections for both the CE and Legco is to be achieved by 2017 and 2020, respectively, in accordance with Beijing’s mandated timetable (Nov. 23/09 post).

Attempts by the moderate Alliance for Universal Suffrage and the Democratic Party to negotiate concessions from Beijing have so far yielded no result.  As of now, all 23 pan-democratic legislators have agreed to veto the proposals if they remain unchanged.  Since all constitutional changes need a “super-majority” of 40 votes in the 60-seat Legislative Council to pass, Tsang’s package seems headed for defeat although Democratic Party leaders are continuing to press for last minute concessions.  The vote is scheduled for June 23.

THE DEBATE

         Following strict rules negotiated beforehand, the June 17 debate was actually little more than a glorified 55-minute question-and-answer session.  The Civic Party wanted a live audience in some non-official setting but had to accept Tsang’s terms or nothing at all:  a conference room at government headquarters, television only, no live audience, no journalists, no English, no simultaneous translation service except for the 30 designated media representatives crowded into side rooms, and no Chinese-character

sub-texting for non-Cantonese speakers.  The stiff format included opening and closing statements, plus a total of 10 questions Tsang and Eu asked each other, and six selected at random from among those submitted in advance by the public.  The Civic Party had also solicited questions from the public for Audrey Eu to ask.

There were no surprises since both Tsang and Eu stuck to the scripts they have been using throughout. He said even slow progress toward the goal of universal suffrage was better than no progress and blamed democrats for vetoing a similar package in 2005.  She mocked the government’s publicity efforts, one of which likened political reform to a school girl’s dancing dress.  Eu said no progress was better than taking a false step since political reform was a serious matter and once the step was taken there would be no turning back.

Tsang seemed genuinely oblivious to the contradiction between equal and universal suffrage that democrats want and the small-circle restrictive formulas on offer.  Eu asked whether Beijing’s promise of universal suffrage elections in 2017 and 2020 was not really “written on water.”  He said of course it was not.  Then where is the roadmap to prove it, she asked.  He said he had provided one in the form of his 2012 package and went on to defend indirect elections with arguments he had learned as a colonial official in the 1980s and 1990s when electoral reforms were just beginning.

In fact, something from all the administrations he has served could be seen in Tsang’s performance and the publicity campaign that preceded it.  But the elements of old-style British colonial, new-style reformist, and official Beijing were put together in a mix that seemed as dysfunctional as his administration has now become.  In particular, mainland-style rhetorical flourishes and sarcastic accusations do not go down well with the general public.  A snap Hong Kong University poll immediately afterward gave the debate hands down to Audrey Eu:  71% to 15% (http://hkupop.hku.hk/).*

QUESTIONS NOT ASKED

Most fascinating to watch, however, was the art of political shadow-boxing that both participants have mastered, as has everyone here who indulges in public discourse.  Political sensitivity is only one of the reasons for this style of evasion and avoidance, common everywhere but more so here and now.  It follows that the most important points in the debate were those that should have been raised but were not.

Controversy has focused on the official proposals for the Legislative Council that leave the existing 28 special-interest Functional Constituencies (FCs) in tact and unreformed while adding five new FC seats to be indirectly elected by 400 District Councilors.  Yet throughout the consultation period that has been ongoing since last November, and throughout this closing debate, no one asked or tried to answer some basic questions:  Where did the “District Councils plan” originate?  Why has it been reintroduced now after being voted down in 2005?  What are the precedents for such a method of indirect election?  Who is promoting it now?  Who stands to benefit? And what does it mean for the ultimate goal of universal suffrage?

Pan-democrats, including both moderates and radicals, poured all their intellectual energy into critiquing the old special-interest FCs without realizing that the government’s reform plan was actually laying the groundwork for their abolition by replacing them with the new FCs.   In this way, officials and pan-democrats proceeded as they usually do, like ships passing in the night.  The government at least has an excuse since Beijing mandated that the future post-2012 roadmap could not be revealed or discussed at this time.  Yet many hints were dropped along the way that pan-democrats might have picked up on and used to their advantage.  Instead, they too, in effect, accepted Beijing’s rules and worked within the framework laid down.

Official rhetoric also made much of the 2017 date for electing the Chief Executive by universal suffrage, a “great prize” it was said that should not be lost by rejecting the government’s proposals.  But that election was almost totally ignored.  Never discussed was the unrepresentative nature of the Election Committee design, which produces an overwhelming majority of conservative members from among Hong Kong’s political and economic establishments.   Since these questions were never addressed, neither were the partisan implications of the official reform package, or its long-term political significance, or institutional antecedents.   The general public has been left to guess, intuit, and fill in the blanks as best it can with a predictable impact on the battle for public opinion.

PUBLIC RESPONSES

Officials have continued to cite their own internal opinion polls claiming to show 50-60% support for the government’s reform package.   These polls are conducted under the guidance of the government’s Central Policy Unit think-tank and its director Lau Siu-kai, Chinese University professor emeritus.  Prof. Lau is famous for the conservative bent of his surveys.  These always seem to reflect his tradition-bound assumption about the public’s political apathy and the results have been used by successive administrations to justify conservative policy decisions dating back to the mid-1980s.   Independent polls reflect contradictions that might also be interpreted as apathy, but more likely reflect the nebulous nature of political discourse that derives in part from the official assumptions!

Back in February  when the government’s official three-month consultation period on the reform package was ending, 70% of those responding to a Hong Kong University poll felt they understood little about the reforms (HKU POP release, Feb. 8:   http://hkupop.hku.hk/ ).    In early June, after countless public discussion meetings, weekend street corner forums, radio talk-shows, rallies, marches, the five-district referendum campaign, and saturation coverage in some newspapers, 65% still felt they knew little about the reforms (HKU POP release, June 14; poll conducted June 8-10).

Of all the findings, this remains the most encouraging since it suggests that the general public understands that it does not understand and will recognize a convincing argument when it hears one.  The finding also suggests that the official attempt to introduce electoral arrangements the political implications of which are known to only a select few insiders is not going to be as easy as some evidently assumed.

But for now, the information gap has produced large numbers of uncertain replies and inexplicable contradictory responses.  In the latest (June 8-10) HKU poll, 41% supported the CE reform proposal and 43% opposed, the latter up a full 10 percentage points since mid-April.  Yet 49% felt the proposal should be passed by Legco; 42% said veto and 9% were undecided.

On the District Councils plan for indirectly electing legislators, opinion was tied at 43% for and against, with 14% either ambivalent or undecided.  Yet 49% felt the proposal should be passed; 41% said veto; 10% couldn’t decide.

A Baptist University Transition Project poll, conducted between May 6 and 15, asked somewhat different questions and found even more contradictions (www.hktp.org).  Overall, the results were 42% to 41% for and against the package, respectively, with 16% undecided.   But when asked if the government’s plan was acceptable to them personally, 45% said yes, and only 33% said no; 22% were neutral.   On the statement that since the government always holds fake consultations, pan-democrats should reject the plan:  46% agreed, 34% did not, and 20% were neutral.   Yet a great majority (60%) also felt that pan-democrats should compromise to pass reform!

* The final tally from the full HKU poll reported by some papers was 76%:14%.  Another poll conducted by Lingnan University reported 67%:14%.  Ming Pao Daily, June 18, provided the fullest account of the debate.

comments, questions:  suzpepper@gmail.com

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