Posted:  May 28, 2012


To say the long-running campaign for Western-style directly-elected representative government is essentially lost (May 14, 2012 post) is not to say the campaigners have surrendered.  Since they refuse to admit defeat, and behave accordingly, the skirmishes and rear-guard actions carry on to unknown effect.  Their just-concluded battle to save Hong Kong’s by-elections actually ended in victory for pan-democrats … even if some are proclaiming it another battle lost!

The implications of this victory also extend in many directions.  They include the removal of Chief Secretary Stephen Lam from the line of succession; the failure of the government’s attempt to ban special or by-elections as the means of filling mid-term Legislative Council vacancies; and perhaps partial redemption for radical legislators in the eyes of a core constituency that they led to humiliating defeat in last November’s District Councils election.


         For those not familiar with this saga, it dates back to the big 2010 political reform debate over official plans for timetables and roadmaps.  These are supposed to result in “universal suffrage” elections for the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council (Legco) as promised in Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution (articles 45 and 68).   Five legislators, one from each of Hong Kong’s electoral districts, resigned simultaneously in order to precipitate territory-wide special elections or by-elections as they are called here.  The legislators billed their action a “de-facto referendum” to protest the government’s 2010 political reform proposals.  These were designed to begin introducing the indirect election of District Councilors into the Legislative Council, as a substitute for progress toward direct universal suffrage elections that have been a goal of Hong Kong’s democracy movement since the 1980s.  The five by-elections were held on May 16, 2010 and half-a-million voters turned out … not bad considering the official barrage laid down against them.

Beijing treated the protest as tantamount to subversion because popular initiatives like referendums are regarded as a challenge to the sovereign authority of the party-led state, represented in Hong Kong by its Basic Law constitution.   Local loyalists refused to participate allowing the exercise to be officially dismissed, at the time and forever after, as a “failure” but one that must never be allowed to happen again (2010 posts: May 17 and June 7).


            Probably hoping for passions to cool after the Democratic Party’s flip-flop decision to accept the government’s 2010 reform proposals, it waited one full year before introducing a remedy.   Prior to the recent promotion that made him Chief Secretary or Number Two in Hong Kong’s government, Stephen Lam headed the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, so it fell to him to make the announcement.

Lam said, in his best bureaucratic manner, that the government’s solution had to be approved by the Legislative Council before the coming summer recess, in order to have all arrangements in place ahead of the 2011/12 election cycle.    The government’s plan would abolish by-elections for half of all Legco seats, 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.  A candidate unrelated politically to the person vacating the seat could become its new occupant.  The change would apply only to the half of the Legislative Council directly elected by voters in the Geographic Constituencies.  Otherwise, by-elections would still be held to fill Functional Constituency and District Council seats that were vacated mid-term.

Pan-democrats united in opposition regardless of whether or not they had supported the referendum, but their call for a delay and public consultation was denied.  Democratic legislators then tried to block the proposal as it sped through the Legislative Council’s committees … to no avail.  Academics spoke out.  So did barristers and lawyers.  In response, government officials said they could improvise as they liked because the Basic Law does not mention by-elections and such a gaping “loophole” must be plugged. Since democratic legislators were outnumbered on the committees, the proposal was quickly cleared for a vote in the full council where it was also expected to pass since the council is designed to keep democrats outnumbered there as well.    With no other options, democratic legislators could only raise their familiar “to-the-streets” rallying cry.

The annual July First Reunification Day march had a new cause and the implications were lost on no one.  Whether the number of marchers was actually 200,000+ as organizers claimed, it was the highest turnout since 2003 when the tradition began over a similar government attempt to push through the national political security legislation.  The results proved once again that feet on the ground in Hong Kong count for more among the powers-that-be than votes in a ballot box.

This was also something like the last straw in pan-democrats’ eyes as far as the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs was concerned and public mockery reached new heights during this march.  The “eunuch” moniker (May 14, 2012 post) dated back a decade to the time when he headed the office of then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.  Imperial eunuchs in pre-1911 China reputedly ran the show and had more power than the emperor himself.    But over time, as Hong Kong’s political reform debate dragged on, the implications of Lam’s nickname evolved from powerful usurper to obedient flunkey.  Onlookers all along the July 1, 2011 route of march responded to the banner calling on them to “mourn Eunuch Lam’s lost manhood.”   Street theater troupers provided the sound effects and onlookers did their part by bowing three times to the beat of a ritual funeral gong.

Within days, the government had backed down.  At a Fourth of July press conference Lam announced that the proposal didn’t have to be pushed through ahead of the summer recess after all.  A two-month public consultation would be allowed in July and August, and the proposals would be re-tabled during the 2011-12 legislative year.  But they absolutely had to be passed in order to close the loophole that allowed legislators to stage elections on their own initiative (July 4, 2011 post).

        A further climb-down followed the consultation.  Four options were presented in the formal July 2011 “Consultation Paper on Arrangements for Filling Vacancies in the Legislative Council” ( ).   Ultimately the legal argument won the day, namely, that any by-election ban would violate the public’s right to elect its legislators and contest such elections as stipulated in the Basic Law.  By-elections were reinstated and the latest final proposal applies uniformly to all legislators whether they are elected directly by the Geographic Constituencies or by the small-circle Functional Constituencies.  The only remaining restriction is that any legislator who resigns for whatever reason cannot contest any Legislative Council by-election for six months.


         This final solution was not announced until early this year when the government tabled its Legislative Council (Amendment) Bill 2012( ).   Cynics speculated that the government and its loyalist backers, whose opposition followed Beijing’s official verdict on popular initiatives, only allowed pan-democrats to win this minor battle because they had suffered so definitive a rebuke from voters in last November’s District Councils election.     According to this logic, radical People Power legislators had tried to “teach the Democratic Party a lesson” for not joining the referendum and for compromising on political reform.  But voters turned the tables and taught People Power a lesson instead, defeating all its “parachuter” candidates and many other pan-democrats as well (Nov. 14, 2011 post).  With new confidence, pro-Beijing politicians now boast of their smooth-running “election machine” and say the voters know how to deal with radical candidates.

Under the circumstances, it was fitting that radical People Power legislators should wage one last-ditch effort to scuttle the by-election bill their 2010 referendum had precipitated.  Since the Legislative Council had never really had a filibuster, there were no rules against it so legislators Raymond Wong Yuk-man [黃毓民] and Albert Chan Wai-yip [陳偉業] decided to avail themselves of the opportunity.  They moved over a thousand amendments to Amendment Bill 2012 and dared Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing  [曾鈺成] to respond with his carefully-cultivated presiding officer demeanor.

Tsang reportedly holds the position at Beijing’s behest but probably because he is regarded by all as an underground communist party member, he has bent over backwards to be fair as the council’s presiding officer.  His non-ideological even-handed stewardship is what gave some democrats the idea earlier this year that he would make an ideal Chief Executive candidate (Mar. 21, 2012 post).  And probably to preserve that reputation, he allowed Wong and Chan to continue for 36 hours while they tabled 1,300 amendments, mostly all on trivial minor matters.

The words being used to translate filibuster mean literally “stretching the cloth”  [拉布] and supporters quickly set up their props outside the Legislative Council building.    Their aim was to force the government to withdraw the bill or risk running out the clock on other pending business that needs attention before the coming summer recess.  Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying said his proposals were far more important and all his grand plans for government restructuring would be delayed if legislators did not give them speedy approval.  He also raised the specter of another smack-down by voters in the coming Legislative Council election.  But Raymond Wong may have the last laugh after all because this time others did not desert him.

Instead, pan-democrats rallied (some more enthusiastically than others) behind Wong’s attempt to kill the bill.  They disappeared as needed to miss quorum calls, forcing their opponents to remain in the chamber all night at one point in an effort to minimize the delay.  When Raymond Wong’s eye condition worsened, independent democrat Andrew Cheng Kar-foo [鄭家富] volunteered to help out.  So did veteran unionist Lee Chok-yan, [李卓人] who now heads the new Labor Party.  And so did Wong’s estranged comrade-in-arms “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung [梁囯雄].  After Council President Tsang finally invoked a previously unused procedural rule that gave him unlimited discretion to “cut the cloth,” Long Hair applied for a judicial review and a court injunction to block Tsang’s ruling.  Both were rejected.   Pan-democratic legislators then united in protest and called for his resignation.

Now, of course, their pro-government opponents have a new rallying cry.   We must plug the loophole that allows filibustering, they say, and more.  They want radicals like Wong, Chan, and Long Hair out of the Legislative Council altogether and toward that end have begun questioning the wisdom of the pre-1997 demand for proportional representation in Legislative Council elections.  It is not used in others.

Initially, the British-style winner-take-all electoral system allowed pro-democracy candidates to sweep the field.  Direct universal suffrage elections were held for a minority of Legislative Council seats in 1991 and 1995.   In order to give unpopular pro-Beijing and pro-business candidates a chance, one of the changes introduced immediately, in time for the first post-1997 election, was proportional representation.  As a budding pro-Beijing politician fighting against what seemed impossible odds, Tsang Yok-sing was in the forefront of those demanding proportional representation.   Fast forward a decade and the shoe is on the other foot.

Proportional representation is now being blamed for the proliferation of small pro-democracy parties set up since 1997 (Civic Party, League of Social Democrats, People Power, Neo-Democrats, Labor Party) … or at least their ability to win seats and disrupt Legco proceedings.   In 2008, for example, then independent (now Labor Party) democrat Cyd Ho won a Hong Kong Island seat with just under 10% of the total vote count in that six-seat constituency.  People Power’s Albert Chan won a seat with only 8% of the votes cast in his eight-seat constituency.  Even fewer votes will be able to deliver a victory this year since additional seats have been added to constituencies as part of the 2010 political reform bargain.  A small dedicated core of supporters will therefore be enough to allow continuing People Power representation in the Legislative Council despite last November’s District Councils debacle.

As a result, pro-Beijing party strategists are now openly discussing the drawbacks of an electoral system that rewards candidates who win such a small proportion of the vote.   Maybe first-past-the-post is better after all, they say, since it would promote the development of a “two-party system” and discourage “factionalism” in Legco.   So the last-ditch battle to defeat the government’s watered-down by-elections bill may have been “lost,” but People Power has survived to fight another day, new dangers loom, and with them new opportunities beckon.  The way forward is clear only for those who never say die.

Meanwhile, voter registration has just ended ahead of the September Legislative Council poll and pan-democrats are busy preparing for the most important dates on their political calendar:  June Fourth and July First.  The candlelight vigil mourning Beijing’s June 4, 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square has been held every year since 1990.   The July First Reunification Day protest march will mark 15 years under Chinese rule.   Pan-democrats are working for high turnouts and maybe that’s why they again let the voter registration period pass them by.  In contrast, as has become their custom, the main pro-Beijing party and its trade union ally set up voter-registration tables on street corners all over town.  The ironic result of Hong Kong’s election system is that for pan-democrats, whose political movement has been built on the demand for universal suffrage elections, feet on the ground have become more important than votes in a ballot box.  But while they were mastering that lesson, their pro-Beijing opponents have learned how to use the ballot box to defeat them.

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