Posted; March 25, 2013
Professor Benny Tai re-launched the campaign on January 16, with his call for civil disobedience if the coming next stage of political reform did not produce arrangements that met international standards for universal suffrage elections. The next stage concerns elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and for the Legislative Council. Beijing has promised that universal suffrage “may” be used for the coming Chief Executive election in 2017 and for the legislature in 2020. Tai meant universal and equal voting rights for everyone, with equal rights also to nominate and be nominated (March 14 post). Hong Kong democrats fear that Beijing’s definition will be different … probably more like the kind of communist party-dominated universal suffrage elections now prevailing on the mainland.
Tai’s idea was exactly what Hong Kong’s anxious faction-ridden democracy movement needed … although he didn’t realize it at the time. The response seemed to come out of nowhere, surprising him as much as everyone else when it proved to be just the right idea at the right time. Minds and energies re-focused on a topic that has been talked to death (the last campaign only ended in June 2010), divided practitioners, and produced one defeat after another. Suddenly Tai was the man of the hour and within weeks the impact had moved far beyond him. Reverberations were felt in Beijing at the annual March meetings of the National People’s Congress, in Geneva at the annual hearing of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and back home in Hong Kong where pan-democrats had been dithering for months about what to do next and when to begin.
PLAYING CATCH-UP: BEIJING DEFINITIONS
Their opponents seem to have been caught off guard by pan-democrats’ sudden success in reviving the universal suffrage issue. Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, has yet to begin discussing official proposals whether informal or otherwise for any kind of electoral changes. But if Beijing’s promised universal suffrage schedule is to remain on course, such reforms need to begin ahead of the next election cycle (District Councils, 2015; Legislative Council, 2016; Chief Executive, 2017).
Beijing consequently took the initiative by reminding everyone of the ground rules that Beijing expects to be followed. This was done at the annual meetings of the 3000-member National People’s Congress (NPC) and its honorary companion, the 2000-member Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Outsiders like to refer to the NPC as Beijing’s rubber-stamp law-making body. The mainland media likes to bill the CPPCC as China’s “most extensive patriotic united front organization.”
Besides ceremonial formalities that this year featured installation of a new central government leadership team, the annual meetings are occasions for speeches, motions, and discussions on burning issues of the day, conducted within each provincial delegation. Hong Kong’s 36 NPC deputies were selected late last year (Dec. 27 post). The appointment of over 200 local CPPCC delegates followed in January. Highlights of their Beijing experience, at least as reflected in newspaper headlines back home, were the meetings with Yu Zhengsheng and Zhang Xiaoming.
All members of both delegations are either traditional-type pro-Beijing loyalists or pro-establishment conservatives. It followed that among their greatest concerns was how to finesse the next, 2017, Chief Executive election since far from fading away, Hong Kong pan-democrats were reviving to fight another day and had not forgotten Beijing’s promise for universal suffrage elections.
Yu Zhengsheng [兪正聲 ] spoke to the issue at a close-door joint gathering of Hong Kong and Macau CPPCC delegates. He is a member of the topmost seven-man Chinese Communist Party Political Bureau and his message, as reported by those who heard him, was blunt … the same as such messages have always been in times of heightened mainland-Hong Kong tension like now.
He said that Hong Kong must not be used as a base or bridgehead for trying to subvert the mainland’s political order. He also said that when electing a Chief Executive by universal suffrage, if forces prevail that oppose the central government, it would be bad for Hong Kong and for the mainland. The long-term ruling power, he said, must “love the nation and love Hong Kong” [ 愛國愛港 ], meaning it must be patriotic. This is the common term used with reference, for example, to patriotic pro-Beijing partisans. Yu Zhengsheng said their rule was vital for improving people’s livelihood, developing the economy, and reviving the Chinese nation. Since Hong Kong and Macau did not have one-party rule like the mainland, with its unified structure of authority extending pyramid-like from the top to the base, it was especially important for everyone in both regions to unite behind their Chief Executive.
He also called on his listeners to oppose the few extremists responsible for unhealthy trends and evil practices. These included waving the old colonial British flag and calling for Hong Kong independence. Such behavior should not be allowed to continue unchecked (Ming Pao Daily, Hong Kong Economic Journal, Wen Wei Po, March 7).
Zhang Xiaoming [張曉明 ] followed in kind. Zhang has recently arrived from Beijing to head its Liaison Office here. There he worked in the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. His transfer is part of the leadership succession reshuffle that has elevated Xi Jinping [習近平 ] to the top party, government, and military posts in Beijing. Xi previously headed the party center’s Hong Kong oversight working group, set up in 2003, and Zhang was a trusted lieutenant. His transfer here appears to be aimed at integrating Hong Kong more efficiently within the mainland bureaucratic power grid under Xi’s overall command.
In any case, Beijing’s top decision-makers are all reading from the same script with respect to Hong Kong elections. At a meeting with Hong Kong’s NPC delegates, Zhang Xiaoming said, concerning the 2017 Chief Executive electoral arrangements, that there would have to be some sort of “filtering” process to identify acceptable candidates. Everything is preliminary at this stage but he seemed to be assuming that something like the existing conservatively-designed 1,200-member Election Committee would become the filtering agent.
Zhang also said that candidates must meet three conditions: be patriotic (love the nation and love Hong Kong), have Beijing’s trust, and be accepted by the people of Hong Kong (Ming Pao Daily, Apple Daily, Wen Wei Po, March 9). These conditions would automatically rule out pan-democrats because they do not qualify as patriotic. The term deliberately conflates the nation with the party that rules it, and since democrats do not “love” one-party communist rule they are by definition not patriotic. *
Beijing’s reminder came just as pan-democrats and the Hong Kong government were preparing their presentations for the United Nations Human Rights Committee hearing in Geneva on March 12-13. This is an annual event concerned with Hong Kong’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). China’s human rights record is not subject to similar scrutiny because Beijing has yet to ratify the ICCPR. But Hong Kong was allowed to remain within its purview after 1997, and government representatives attend the Geneva hearings. This year about a dozen pan-democrats made the trip to participate as observers and make sure their views were heard.
Emily Lau, who now heads the Democratic Party, has been a regular at these meetings for two decades. She focused this year on Beijing’s no-longer-hidden meddling in Hong Kong elections, in evident violation of the one-country, two-systems principle(“民主黨” email@example.com, Mar. 13). More pointedly, Hong Kong participants asked the committee to note that Beijing will be in violation of Article 25 of the ICCPR if the “patriotic” pre-condition is enforced. Article 25 defines the principle of universal suffrage to mean the equal right of all citizens, regardless of their political opinions, “to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections.” Hence, by definition, Beijing would also be reneging on its promise to allow universal suffrage elections in Hong Kong.
THE NEW ALLIANCE
Dispirited moderate democrats had been meeting and adjourning for months, unable to decide what to do with their much-maligned Alliance for Ultimate Universal Suffrage [ 終極普選聯 ] that had been lying dormant since it served as brain-trust for the 2009/10 campaign. The name came from Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution, Article 68, that says “the ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage.” Article 45 says the same for the Chief Executive. Alliance members, moderates all, did not realize until too late that universal suffrage means one thing in mainland parlance and practice, and something different elsewhere. But even the most jaded of (Democrtic Party) moderates could not fail to recognize the revived hopes sparked by Benny Tai’s Occupy Central idea. Nor could radicals fail to appreciate that moderate Tai had taken a page from their disruptive play book for his proposal. The speeches in Beijing also served to remind everyone of the obstacles and dangers that lay ahead.
And so the old alliance was reborn as the Alliance for Genuine Universal Suffrage [ 真普選聯盟 ]. Its formal English name will be the Alliance for True Democracy. With some reservations, radicals and moderates have put aside their differences to join the new pan-democratic united front. They all sat side by side together at its March 21 launch where they pledged to work out plans and proposals for the next stage of Hong Kong’s 30-year struggle to achieve elected government. The effort matches step one of Benny Tai’s Occupy Central campaign, without yet committing to its last disruptive act (March 14 post).
Convener of the new alliance will be the moderately-mannered radical political science professor Joseph Cheng of the Civic Party. He may not be a miracle worker but he is at least a glutton for punishment with the patience of a saint. After the big half-million-person protest march in 2003, pro-democracy activists began to appreciate the costs of keeping their movement alive by treating elections as just another form of political exercise. They decided to try and resist the temptation to compete against each other within the same constituencies and set up an informal candidate coordination mechanism. It worked reasonably well, with Joseph Cheng serving as chief coordinator, until some radicals refused to go along during the 2011/12 election cycle and now have the scars to show for it.
Cheng’s first test will be keeping the most radical People Power radicals within the coalition. But he knows they will help clarify the distinctions (sure to become muddled as debate over electoral designs resumes) between the equal and universal one-person-one-vote ideal and the mainland’s party-dominated adaptation.
* UPDATE: More Beijing Definitions. A top mainland official who often speaks on Hong Kong election reform matters has since provided more forceful clarification of Beijing’s thinking. At a closed-door meeting with pro-establishment Hong Kong Legislative Councilors across the border in Shenzhen on March 24, Qiao Xiaoyang [喬曉陽 ] said that those who insist on confronting the central government cannot expect to qualify as candidates for Chief Executive in 2017. As an example of such confrontation, he cited the standard democratic demand for an end to one-party dictatorship in China. Even worse for pan-democrats, he said there must be a filtering process and it should be conducted by something like the existing Election Committee, after which the general public could choose among the approved candidates. He also said that Beijing had been very “tolerant” in dealing with Hong Kong, suggesting that maybe Beijing’s patience is running thin. … A copy of Qiao’s remarks circulated afterward, providing the basis for all Hong Kong news media accounts on March 24/25. He is head of the Law Committee of the NPC.