Posted:  June 26, 2010

 

Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief.   Chief Executive Donald Tsang may have lost his debate with leading democracy advocate Audrey Eu but he won the day by allying with her moderate Democratic Party opponents to broker a compromise that saved his political reform package from certain defeat.  Beijing, for its part, can now correctly claim that Hong Kong has accepted its protracted timetable for universal suffrage elections without any guarantees or definitions as to just what Beijing means by “universal suffrage.”  And last but not least, foreign diplomats who have been fretting for months over the potential for political instability here can now report back to their ministries that the crisis has been averted – for now.

Two days after the June 17 debate, Beijing did a sudden about-face and approved the Democratic Party’s latest counter-proposal after repeated rejections.  An amended version of the government’s political reform package incorporating the compromise was approved by the Legislative Council in a two-part motion on June 24 and 25.  The vote was:  46 to 13 for Chief Executive (CE) election reform; 46 to 12 for the amended Legislative Council (Legco) changes.  Donald Tsang had votes to spare above the two-thirds super-majority 40 needed to guarantee passage.

Dissenters included Civic Party and League of Social Democrats (LSD) legislators plus one recently-resigned ex-Democratic Party member. The 13th vote during the second round would have been cast by “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung (LSD) who was escorted from the chamber for disruptive behavior and did not return when the final division was called.

In fact, little has been settled.  A full-blown crisis may have been averted, but the disruptive potential is limitless since the bill was passed on the basis of an 11th-hour compromise the details and implications of which were not even debated by all members of the democratic camp much less explained to the community at large.

THE GOVERNMENT’S PROPOSALS

To recap:  the original reform package dealt only with the coming 2012 elections.  It proposed to increase the size of the CE Election Committee from 800 members to 1,200 and the size of 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 (FC).  The potential electorate of the former is 3.4 million registered voters.  The FCs are elected by only 220,000 individuals (Nov. 23/09 post).  Democratic legislators voted down a similar set of government proposals in 2005.

The government’s package provoked controversy especially on three points.  First, there was no indication as to how the promised goal of full universal suffrage elections for both the CE and Legco was to be achieved by 2017 and 2020, respectively, in accordance with a timetable Beijing announced in December 2007. The shorthand local term for this problem is lack of a roadmap, which Audrey Eu mentioned repeatedly during her debate with Tsang.  Second, the existing 28 FCs were frozen. Not a single reform measure was proposed for their design or composition despite multiple defects that critics spelled out in great detail (April 16 post).

Third, the 10 new Legco seats were to be divided equally between the geographic constituencies for direct election, and indirectly-elected FCs.  But the five new FCs were different from the existing FCs based on trades, occupations, and special interests.  The new FC seats would be filled by indirect election, that is, by the 400+ members of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils.  These are advisory bodies devoted to local neighborhood amenities.

For reasons spelled out elsewhere, these District Councils are now dominated by the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), known in private but never acknowledged in public as the Chinese Communist Party-Hong Kong branch (March 31 post).   The five new seats were effectively being handed to the DAB and its allies as a free pass into Legco without having to face the general electorate.  The precedent for such indirect CCP-dominated elections based on small constituencies at the lowermost level is the mainland People’s Congress system, although the new FCs were not promoted in those terms.

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY COMPROMISE

Initially, late last year when pan-democrats split into moderates and radicals (the latter term is already falling out of use here due to official attempts to demonize “progressive activists”), Democratic Party leaders and their partners were still pressing for answers on the three main points at issue.  But from the start, moderates tended to phrase their demands in contradictory terms leaving the impression that they were uncertain as to what their demands should be.  Radicals mocked them as “hula dancers,” constantly swaying one way and then another.

For example, moderates were adamant that “we will never compromise our principles.”  Yet some periodically said they would be satisfied with a simple statement indicating that Beijing’s intentions for “ultimate” universal suffrage were “genuine.”   Moderates seemed not to realize that Beijing could easily provide such a statement, which it eventually did, without defining what it actually meant by universal suffrage.

This was in marked contrast to Audrey Eu’s Civic Party and its LSD ally.  The two parties launched their five-district referendum campaign on the basis of clear demands for the abolition of all FCs and the guarantee of one-person-one-vote in elections that allow equal voting rights for all.  Still, moderates did usually say they wanted to get rid of the old FCs and find ways of making the government’s plan for the new ones “more democratic.”  The Democratic Party, as the dominant member of the Universal Suffrage Alliance, also called for negotiations with official Beijing representatives and this demand materialized in May.

Beijing nevertheless refused to budge on any of the three points except to issue a vague definition of universal suffrage that could be applied both to mainland-style Communist Party-dominated elections and their Western-style counterparts (Qiao Xiaoyang statement, Wen Wei Po, South China Morning Post, June 8).   The Democratic Party was nevertheless key to finding a solution since the party had nine Legislative Councilors (now reduced to eight).  Donald Tsang could always count on 36 pro-government votes and he needed only four more to produce the necessary two-thirds majority in the 60-seat council.

Ultimately, besides the definitional problem, party leaders also abandoned demands for abolition of the old FCs and concentrated solely on election arrangements for the five new FC seats.  This was evidently undertaken without any discussion of their future evolution much less that of the electoral system as a whole.  The party’s final bottom-line bargaining position was a proposal to open up all the five new FC seats to the entire 3.4 million electorate, minus the 220,000 individuals registered to vote in the old FCs.  The 400 directly-elected District Councilors would nominate the candidates but would otherwise not be able to determine the outcome.   No other details of the agreement are available.  Specific electoral arrangements including constituency size, nominating procedures, and voting methods are yet to be decided.

Initially, Beijing refused to accept this Democratic Party counter-proposal, the DAB lobbied hard against it, and all 23 pan-democratic legislators joined in declaring they were set to veto the package.   On June 14, the chief publicity official at Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong put down the Democratic Party’s counter-proposal with a dismissive Chinese phrase.  He said the plan was as inappropriate as “adding feet when drawing a snake.”  It seemed to spell doom for the government’s package and this was the state of affairs as of June 17 when the Tsang-Eu debate took place.  According to reports afterward, national leaders decided the next day to approve the counter-proposal, fearing an upsurge of “radical” democratic influence in Hong Kong if the official reform plan was again vetoed.  Donald Tsang had also warned them of this likely outcome (Ming Pao Daily, South China Morning Post, June 22).

Chinese and Hong Kong government leaders saw a threat, similar to the angry public mood that derailed their national security legislation in July 2003, and acted to defuse the emerging crisis.   Hong Kong’s two-pronged radical/moderate strategy may have been a messy exercise in democracy movement politicking.  But the overwhelming public response to Audrey Eu’s strong demand for a universal suffrage roadmap, in combination with the Democratic Party’s insistence on a less threatening alternative, produced the unexpected Beijing turnaround.  Far from hindering that result, the effect of the much-lamented split between radicals and moderates created the conditions necessary for a successful outcome.

The real moral of this story, however, is that it is possible to push back against Beijing and the growing pressure for mainland-style political integration.  This sequence has now occurred twice including the decision to shelve the national security legislation in July 2003.  These “victories” were tentative and partial, and both required a prodigious amount of volunteer community engagement that may be difficult to sustain over time.  But they are victories nonetheless.

IMPLICATIONS

           News of Beijing’s U-turn broke on Sunday morning, June 20.   The regular Sunday noontime City Forum broadcast from Victoria Park was reduced to a shouting match and Democratic Party chairman, Albert Ho, had to be escorted from the scene by police.  More angry protests disrupted the mid-afternoon Universal Suffrage Alliance pep rally where the speeches of some of Hong Kong’s most respected democracy movement leaders were interrupted by cries of betrayal.

A Democratic Party general meeting nevertheless endorsed the agreement early Tuesday morning after a heated five-hour debate and the deed was done.  The meeting also vetoed the suggestion raised by party elder Martin Lee for a two-week delay before the final Legco vote to allow time for public discussion of the compromise. Two of the party’s legislators were opposed to the deal because it violates the promises they made to their constituents but the party’s internal rules forbid independent voting.  One has resigned and others including Martin Lee are now considering whether or not to do the same.

At first glance and especially from the perspective of pan-democrats’ year-long campaign for universal suffrage, the losses are enormous.  Probably, this was the last chance for democrats to have a significant impact on the course of Hong Kong’s political evolution.  That evolution is limited by the Basic Law and a legislative design, which relegates them to permanent minority status.  Conservative business interests have been lobbying intensely for an end to the threat of FC abolition and they, too, can breathe a sigh of relief because the threat has now been effectively removed.  This means the fight for “genuine” Western-style universal suffrage elections is probably lost and the most Hong Kong can hope for is some muddling variant of the mainland system.

The Democratic Party claimed after the compromise was announced that Donald Tsang had misrepresented  its intent at his June 21  media briefing. His office, too, issued a clarification.  The party had not given up the struggle for universal suffrage, abolition of FCs, and so on. But Tsang could hardly be blamed for the misunderstanding.  Everyone else “misunderstood” as well since it is difficult to see how the party can do more than pay lip service to the struggle and raise non-binding motions in Legco that are invariably defeated by its conservative majority.

One-time firebrand and now Democratic Party vice-chair, Emily Lau, is again threatening resignation if democratic principles are violated.  She did this several times during the campaign and fellow democrats put faith in her reputation.  Now she is addressing fears that the specific electoral arrangements for the five new FC seats will be designed to favor the people they were meant to benefit in the first place.  But after all the back-downs and side-stepping during the past six months, she had better find something she can actually resign over, or stop threatening, or her credibility will be lost for sure.

Concerning those new electoral arrangements, the legislation necessary to set up the new FC elections will be an ordinary bill and pan-democrats’ 23-seat minority veto power will not apply.  So if Lau wants a fair shake for her candidates she is going to have to ask the DAB’s permission since they and their allies control 36 seats in the 60-seat chamber.  Similarly, in the new 70-seat 2012 Legco, the most pan-democrats can win will be about 28 seats (including two if they are lucky from the new District Council FCs and three from the five new directly-elected seats).

As for the Democratic Party itself, if past voting behavior is any guide it will lose support in the coming District Council and Legco elections.  But the party has weathered such storms before and moderate conservatives may rally to its side.  More important is the damage to a reputation already tarnished by years of ineffectual temporizing and a seeming inability to think beyond the number of seats Democratic Party candidates can win in the next election.   During the year-long universal suffrage campaign, for example, the party twice fumbled major opportunities and is seen within the democratic camp to have done so for narrow self-serving reasons that disregarded larger principles.

First the party miscalculated and assumed the five-district referendum would actually be contested by all as in a regular election.  This would have risked losing not just the one seat the Democratic Party contributed to the campaign, but votes its supporters might give to other more dynamic democratic candidates in other districts and neglect to return in the next election.  The decision was understandable at the time but it was a miscalculation all the same and made the rationale seem even worse in retrospect since the party had also refused to help out with referendum campaigning until a few days before the election.

Compounding one decision with another, the Democratic Party then failed to acknowledge the community-wide support the referendum campaign had generated for its critique of the reform package.  As a result, party negotiators Albert Ho and Emily Lau failed to represent those community views by building some conditions for future political evolution into their counter-proposal.  The compromise deal was also struck without any recognition of the precedent for indirect election of legislators by District Councilors that is still being set despite the participation of a territory-wide electorate.

Nor did the underlying rationale make the compromise deal, without any hint of a roadmap, more acceptable to other democrats.  This is because the compromise will benefit primarily the Democratic Party’s own members, whose lackluster record at the district level is known to all. Other parties are too small to maintain district level organizations and have never really tried to do so.  The Democratic Party’s  wipe-out in the last, 2007, District Councils election should therefore be seen in retrospect as a blessing in disguise.  Without it the party might not have been so insistent on opening up the small District Council constituencies, which have come to exepct the kinds of neighborhood entertainments and amenities that only the DAB can afford to provide.

POTENTIAL GAINS

Losses aside, the “District Councils plan” has been diluted even if its provenance was never really acknowledged by anyone.  Only a few commentators noted in passing that such indirect elections are patterned on “the mainland way,” in oblique reference to the People’s Congress system. This is based on direct elections in small constituencies beneath the county level and indirect elections above that allow CCP-domination throughout the system.

It was also mentioned in passing by a few officials that they actually did have a roadmap in mind.  The idea, they said, was to replace all the old FCs with new FCs meaning legislators indirectly elected by DAB-dominated District Councilors.  That idea, which was essentially an attempt to finesse an old-fashioned takeover-from-below strategy, has now been nipped in the bud by the compromise solution.   Yet incredibly, some leading moderates including both Democratic Party leaders and academics are still unaware that the mainland system is arranged in this way or that it was the precedent for a future roadmap drawn to the DAB’s specifications.  The Democratic Party’s compromise will allow more time to demand more information about such insiders’ stratagems.

Finally, there is one larger potential gain that is tied to the one untarnished link the Democratic Party has maintained with its pre-1997 past as standard bearer for Hong Kong’s democracy movement.  Those were the days when young democratic idealists were dreaming big dreams about serving as a model for mainland political reform.  Democratic Party Chairman Albert Ho has remained a committed member of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China that sponsors the annual June Fourth vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.  He also remains an inveterate campaigner for mainland dissidents and their civil liberties.  He and Emily Lau now head the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group that demonstrates regularly in support of imprisoned Chinese lawyers.

For these reasons, Beijing officials had refused all direct contact with the Democratic Party.  The negotiations that Albert Ho demanded over Hong Kong’s political reform package marked the first break in that frozen relationship since 1989.  He has acknowledged that Beijing officials pressed the party to distance itself from the Tiananmen issue and says he told them it was non-negotiable.  Yet they did not break off the renewed contact.

What future price the Democratic Party may be asked to pay in return for the thaw remains to be seen.  But the old dream and the possibility of continuing his dissident-support work with the tacit acceptance of mainland authorities must have weighed in the balance of calculations that led Albert Ho to settle for the flawed bargain he struck over Hong Kong’s political reform.  Hopefully the commitment will help to sharpen his negotiating skills for the next big battle to come.  This will be the national/political security legislation, set to make its reappearance probably during the 2012-2016 legislature and as he knows well, that is where the real danger lies.  But pan-democrats also know that Democratic Party members stood on the sidelines in 2003 while activist lawyers, who later formed the Civic Party, took the lead in drafting arguments and spearheading opposition to the goernment’s national security bill.

comments, questions:  suzpepper@gmail.com

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