Posted: July 4, 2011 … (July 5 update posted below)
Two dates stand out on the calendar of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. One symbolizes its defiance of the central government in Beijing and this year’s June Fourth candlelight vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown was one of the largest ever (June 14 post). The July First march is a newer tradition dating back only to 2003 when half-a-million people from all walks of life took to the streets in protest. The main issue that year was the local government’s ham-handed attempt to force through national security legislation as mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution. But it was more like the straw that finally broke the camel’s back since dissatisfaction with the administration of Hong Kong’s first post-British Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had been building since 1997. July First is a public holiday in honor of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997.
Another big march in 2004 followed Beijing’s intervention to preempt demands for a faster pace of political reform and the July First holiday tradition has grown accordingly, into a festival of protest targeting the local government over the most pressing political issues of the day. Since 2003 the annual march has been orchestrated, with infinite patience, by a coalition of 40+ pro-democracy action groups and politicians known as the Civil Human Rights Front. The common themes that all finally agreed on this year followed from recent protests. The three main themes: (1) protest the refusal to grant universal suffrage elections in 2012; (2) oppose property-developer hegemony; (3) demand the resignation of Chief Executive Donald Tsang.
Inevitably, all those who want to participate cannot easily agree on the main themes that all must accept as a condition for joining the march. This year the Democratic Party prevaricated on the universal suffrage theme, arguing that it was no longer an issue. They also did not like the anti-Donald Tsang slogan. But since many participants still bear the Democratic Party a serious grudge for having brokered the 2010 political reform deal that formally buried the 2012 dream, party leaders had no choice but accept the theme or drop out of the march — a risk they dared not take in an election year.
LAST YEAR’S REFERENDUM: THE GOVERNMENT STRIKES BACK
At least those were the arrangements for July First before the government announced its latest bright idea, seemingly oblivious to the consequences of handing organizers so perfect a gift so close to the July First protest march. Perhaps the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau hoped to exacerbate the radical-moderate split that has divided pan-democrats since last year’s political reform and referendum campaigns. But if so, the authorities miscalculated again.
Democrats immediately united as one in opposition to the government’s snap announcement of a new plan to abolish special or by-elections for Legislative Council seats that fall vacant mid-term. The declared aim is to prevent legislators from repeating last year’s maneuver whereby they resigned en masse triggering what then became a territory-wide special election, with democrats campaigning on the single issue of their long-standing demand for universal suffrage elections. In this way they were able to force a universal suffrage election on their own initiative without government approval, which infuriated Beijing authorities if their rhetoric last year was any indication (May 17, 2010 post). Whether they were behind the government’s latest move is not known, but local pro-Beijing politicians and conservatives had raised such a demand and Chief Executive Donald Tsang obviously felt he had to comply.
In May, a year almost to the day after the May 16, 2010 referendum, Constitutional Affairs Bureau chief Stephen Lam Sui-lung [Lin Ruilin 林 瑞 麟], introduced the new plan. He said it had to be approved by the Legislative Council before the coming summer recess, scheduled to begin after the July 13 meeting, in order to have all arrangements in place ahead of the 2011/12 election cycle. The plan would abolish by-elections for the Legislative Council regardless of the reason for a seat falling vacant. Instead of an election, the seat would be filled automatically by the candidate who topped the list of the previous election’s losers, in terms of the number of votes won within the district.
Hong Kong is divided into five districts for Legislative Council elections and votes are calculated as a proportion of those cast within each district. In a four-seat district, the winning candidates are declared with 25% of all votes cast. When a candidate receives more than 25%, the “excess” votes are transferred to the next person on that candidate’s list, if he/she has such “running mates.” If not, the excess votes are “lost.” All remaining seats in the district are filled according to whoever receives the most votes, including those won directly plus any transferred remainder votes. If no candidate wins 25% in a district, all victors are decided simply by the number of votes won. According to the government’s plan, a candidate unrelated politically to the person vacating the seat could become its new occupant. A pro-Beijing person could inherit the seat vacated by a democrat and vice versa.
A hue and cry went up immediately. Even some conservative politicians complained on grounds they had not been consulted beforehand. In fact, the risks for all non-democrats would be greater since pan-democrats routinely win 60% of the popular vote in all five districts. For example, the first runner-up in all but one district was a democrat in the last, 2008, election. But pan-democrats were left to mobilize the opposition on their own. They called for a delay and public consultation, denied on grounds that all rules and regulations had to be in place ahead of the coming cycle scheduled to begin with the District Councils election in early November.
Democratic legislators then tried to block the proposal as it sped through the Legislative Council’s bills and house committees. Concerned academics organized a petition that was signed by those who had supported the referendum and those who had not. Lawyers also spoke out. The Bar Association issued several statements declaring that the plan violated the Basic Law by tampering with the right to vote. The more moderate Law Society issued a similar statement. Government officials argued in response that the Basic Law does not mention by-elections so the authorities could improvise as they liked. Since democratic legislators are outnumbered on the committees, the proposal was quickly cleared for a vote in the full Legislative Council where it was expected to pass since the council is designed in such a way as to keep democrats perpetually outnumbered there as well. With no other options, democratic legislators could only raise their familiar rallying cry when all else fails: “to-the-streets!”
The July First march had a new cause but it was left to Legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee [Ye Liu Shuyi 葉劉淑儀] to raise the specter of 2003. She was then Secretary for Security and led the government’s ill-fated campaign to push through the offending national security legislation. After beating a hasty retreat to Stanford University where she spent three years studying politics, Regina Ip returned to Hong Kong with a new persona and has since carved out a niche for herself as a conservative elected politician (Feb. 14, 2011 post). She reminded Donald Tsang of the danger he was risking by trying to force through so contentious a proposal without adequate public consultation. Her boss, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, had done the same thing in 2003. The proposed national security legislation was far more complicated than the by-election proposal. But between September 2002 and July 2003 she had tried to push the legislation through over widespread legal and academic objections and demands for a longer public consultation period (Apple Daily, June 23, 2011).
Someone did heed the warning. According to media reports, it came from Beijing’s Hong Kong liaison office and on June 28, Stephen Lam offered a compromise. Instead of allowing the first overall runner up within a district to fill a vacated Legislative Council seat, it could remain within the same political family. The next person on the original winner’s party list could succeed the departed legislator, regardless of how many votes that list had won. No solution at all, replied pan-democrats, who called on citizens to rally for a repeat of 2003.
REUNIFICATION DAY, 2011
Hopes are high after the largest turnout since 2003/4. March organizers estimated 200,000+. The police outdid themselves with a claim of only 50,000 — perhaps reflecting chagrin following their increased efforts to circumscribe the event with tedious new restrictions most of which were either negotiated away by the organizers or ignored by participants.
As usual, Civil Human Rights Front leaders deserve to take a bow for their diplomatic skills since they ultimately made a place for everyone and everyone remained in their places from start to finish. The march took seven hours to complete, from 3:00 p.m. when the lead units moved out of Victoria Park until the last group reached government headquarters downtown.
Front leaders not only held their ground with the police but with everyone else as well. The original three main radical themes led the march with a jasmine flower motif as an added mark of defiance. But several other themes were featured as well, chief among them being the government’s by-elections proposal. Each participating group could then focus on the concerns that mattered most to its members including both political and economic livelihood issues. Many people also just came alone or with family members and a few friends. Everyone brought their own props and placards — colorful, creative, and above all irreverent. Stephen Lam, Chief Executive Donald Tsang, Tycoon Li Ka-shing, and Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho were favorite targets. Caricatures of Lam, the quintessential bureaucrat, had onlookers and participants laughing all along the route.
Albert Ho said during a recent speech that last year’s July First march was “the worst experience of my entire life.” He was referring to the gauntlet of vilification his Democratic Party contingent had to endure throughout the march following his compromise on the 2010 political reform package. This year they tried to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible by dividing their ranks in a way which also allowed them to avoid direct association with the radical lead themes. Ho, Emily Lau, and a few others carried the party’s main protest banner opposing the by-election replacement proposal. But this group carried no Democratic Party flags, leaving these to an equally small contingent of less controversial members further back along the line of march.
In contrast, the radical contingents of the once unified League of Social Democrats and People Power factions were by far the most prominent and numerous, with thousands of marchers carrying hundreds of flags all proudly proclaiming who they were. But as expected, it was also members of these two groups who refused to disperse at the end of the day when over 200 were arrested for blocking traffic and unruly behavior. The three main radical leaders, Raymond Wong, Andrew To, and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung — all experienced hands in dealing with law enforcement — spent the rest of the night helping their colleagues arrange bail and negotiate police procedures.
This was the first march since 2003 with a specific immediate demand in addition to all the associated themes and slogans. And 2003 is being invoked in all respects. Pan-democrats are even planning to surround the Legislative Council building on July 13, the day the vote on the by-election proposal is due to take place, just as demonstrators had planned to do in July 2003. The event then turned into a victory celebration after pro-business Liberal Party legislators succumbed to public pressure and withdrew their support for the national security bill.
Liberal Party legislators and other conservatives now find themselves in the spotlight once more as democrats try to muster a majority to kill the by-election replacement bill. Only six more votes are needed. The line-up, as of July 4, is: 24 solid votes against the proposal (23 democrats plus one independent); 19 pro-Beijing and conservative legislators pledged to support; 16, all conservative Functional Constituency legislators, still undeclared. The legislator who acts as council president does not vote and the proposal does not require a super two-thirds majority to pass.
UPDATE, JULY 5. People power to the rescue once again. After another robust defense of their by-election replacement proposal yesterday morning, July 4, Hong Kong government officials announced at an afternoon press conference that they had changed their minds. The proposal did not need to be pushed through on July 13 after all. This followed a meeting with 21 pro-government legislators who advised caution. A two-month public consultation will therefore be held in July and August. The proposal will then be re-tabled during the 2011-12 legislative year. Officials refused to acknowledge that their U-turn had anything to do with the big July First turnout. They also insisted that the proposal must eventually be passed to prevent legislators from staging elections on their own initiative.