Posted:  April 2, 2013

 

Beijing’s preemptive strike against Hong Kong’s reviving political reform movement deserves a little more scrutiny.  The sudden revival caught everyone by surprise including local activists themselves and national leaders used the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) meetings in Beijing to lay down some warning markers.  These appeared most prominently in the speech by Yu Zhengsheng [兪正聲 ], one of the seven all-powerful men who preside at the topmost level of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hierarchy (March 25 post).  But he was addressing an especially invited gathering of loyalists.

To make sure everyone else got the message as well, it was repeated by a ranking member of Beijing’s Hong Kong-management team, Qiao Xiaoyang [喬曉陽 ], who traveled south to the border town of Shenzhen for the purpose.  This has become standard practice when important political messages need to be conveyed.   Qiao heads the NPC’s Law Committee and specializes in matters related to Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution.  Pro-Beijing and other pro-establishment members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, close to 40 in all, were invited to hear Qiao deliver his lengthy speech on March 24 (March 25 post, update).  Pan-democrats were not invited.  Nor was the media, but a copy of the speech was subsequently posted on the website of Beijing’s Liaison Office here(http://www.locpg.hk/big5/shouyexinwen/201303/t20130327_7136.asp).

THE MESSAGE:  HARDLINE

            On the surface, Qiao’s line was tough and uncompromising.  And unfortunately for its long-term prospects, the lower-level council foundations of Hong Kong’s political reform project are also being completely overshadowed by the top Chief Executive prize.  Pan-democrats had campaigned for 2012 to be the year of universal suffrage since that was the only year when both the Legislative Council (Legco) and the Chief Executive would be up for election.  The latter’s mandate is renewed every five years; Legco’s every four.  Beijing preempted that demand, decreeing instead that such elections for the Chief Executive could not occur until 2017, with Legco to follow in 2020.  Hence attention is currently focused on the next, 2017, Chief Executive election to the exclusion of all else.

Qiao Xiaoyang began by acknowledging the controversy that erupted after Yu Zhengsheng’s speech limiting eligibility to those who “love China and Hong Kong” [愛國愛港 ].  “Opposition groups,” Beijing’s term for pan-democrats, had immediately concluded that they were being discriminated against and automatically disqualified from the contest before it began.   Suspicions were reinforced that Beijing would not tolerate anything like internationally recognized norms for a Chief Executive election.

Explanations were clearly needed and Qiao tried his best but ended up raising more questions than he answered.   He said Beijing meant to disqualify people who oppose the central government.  Opposing meant those who do not accept one-party rule in China and advocate an end to its unitary CCP-led government.  Such people could not serve as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.  He named names:  Audrey Eu of the Civic Party and the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho.

Poor Albert:  damned either way.  Qiao cited the three-part series Albert Ho published in Ming Pao Daily (2011:  May 10, 11, 12), when he was still struggling to justify the political reform compromise decision he had made the year before (June 1, 2011 post).  Critical democrats were not impressed either in 2010 or 2011, and neither was Qiao in 2013, albeit for different reasons.  He said Albert Ho had written “in black and white” that “for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties, their opponent is the CCP and the central government it leads, which governs all of China from Beijing.”  There it all was, summed up in a single sentence.

Concerning specific procedures for tapping the correct candidates, a Nominating Committee would separate wheat from chaff.  Voters could then exercise their right to choose. Beijing would formally approve the result or not as it chose.  Rules and methods had all been spelled out in the Basic Law and subsequent central government decisions, in 2004 and 2007.  They must all be followed.

Qiao’s message was also wrapped in the usual reminders about “one-country, two-systems.”   For extra weight, he cited the authority of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping who oversaw all the pre-1997 preparations for Hong Kong’s transfer from British to Chinese rule.  Deng had said that the people ruling Hong Kong must “love the nation and love Hong Kong,” and he doubted that universal suffrage elections could produce such people.

BUT WHAT IS POLITICAL LOVE?

          It was only as Qiao tried to translate the concept for cross-border use that he ran into trouble.  He claimed he was so worried about his presentation that he hadn’t been able to sleep properly the night before.  What he seemed to be saying, in effect, was that Beijing had realized it could no longer draw the old definitive lines between patriots and others. Hong Kong had reached a crossroads, he said.  So something more than the old formula would be needed to meet expectations and calm troubled waters.   But if Qiao was speaking for Beijing party-central, which presumably he was, then his Hong Kong listeners are not alone in their uncertainties.  He appeared to be feeling his way as one after another he eliminated the old reasons for calling pan-democrats bad names, like traitor and running dog … stock phrases from pro-Beijing editorial writers’ repertoire.

Qiao said he knew many Hong Kongers do not like the CCP or socialism, but “that is normal.”  He wasn’t asking them not to criticize Beijing and he wasn’t asking them to accept its ideology.  Pan-democrats had been treated with great tolerance.  No one had been sent to jail for anything they said or did, a great fear before 1997.  No pro-democracy leaders had emigrated either.  On the contrary, many had been elected to Legco and appointed to government committees.

He also acknowledged that political “love” and “opposition to the center” would be difficult to define in law, much less enforce in practice.  It was just “something for people to feel in their hearts.”  Hence all that was left to qualify as a Chief Executive candidate, he kept repeating, was not to oppose the central government by which he meant accept the reality of Beijing’s one-party unified mainland rule.

 A NEW COMMITTEE

         Qiao also mentioned the Nominating Committee that would vet candidates.  He reminded listeners of his June 7, 2010 universal suffrage speech (just before Albert Ho’s famous climb-down on political reform).  In that speech, Qiao had declined to go into detail about procedures for the 2017 election, saying simply that they would be “completely different” from the election committee method that had been used to choose chief executives since 1997.   Well, not completely …

Beijing is thinking in terms of something like the Election Committee.  But Qiao told his Shenzhen audience that the procedures for selecting candidates will have to be different from the past practice of simply collecting a certain number of nominating signatures from committee members.  “Therefore, it will be necessary to decide whether or not the methods used by the Nominating Committee to nominate candidates are actually democratic.  This is entirely something that can be discussed rationally in search of a consensus.”

MARGINS FOR MANEUVER

          None of this is going down very well among pan-democrats, of course.  Qiao should have invited all of Legco to Shenzhen or he should have delivered his message to us here, they say.  They also have many plans for public participation in the nominating process and every reason to fear an officially-designed Nominating Committee   But there were also some openings in Qiao’s presentation that pan-democrats might exploit to their advantage.

Most obvious is the apparent redefinition of political love.  Always in the past the term “love China,” translated in English as “patriotic,” was used with reference, for example, to the local community of tried and true pro-Beijing partisans who followed the party center’s every twist and turn.  Soon after 1997, they coined the term “traditional leftists,” to differentiate themselves from the newly-converted who were (and still are) regarded as opportunists and power-seekers.  In contrast, Qiao’s definition is far less demanding.  It sounded more like the old 1950s American loyalty oath questions  …  when overzealous government investigators wanted to know whether or not a suspect advocated the overthrow of the United States government.

In fact, the wisdom of continuing to use slogans (dating from June 4, 1989 days) demanding an end to Beijing’s one-party dictatorship has been debated among pan-democrats for years.  It became an issue most recently in 2010, at the last June 4 candle light vigil presided over by Szeto Wah before his death a few months later.  So if that’s really all Beijing is demanding as proof of love, then many pan-democrats might qualify.

Similarly, Qiao’s comments on the need for “democratic procedures” in the nominating process suggest many possibilities.  These include both the design of his proposed Nominating Committee, and the integration of democrats’ plans for popular primaries, on-line preferential assessments, etc.

Even more important, however, is the opening Qiao created with his comment (paragraph 5) about the permanent nature of “one-country, two-systems.”  He cited a favorite mainland saying, used often before 1997, about well water not mixing with river water.  It meant: Hong Kong must not try to subvert the mainland with ideas about democracy.    Activists were enthusiastic about the possibility of serving as a bridgehead for democracy in China across the 1997 divide.  But then Qiao went on to emphasize his point by saying, “neither side of one-country, two-systems will change, which means preserving Hong Kong’s original capitalist system and preserving China’s CCP-led system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Some clarifications are definitely in order here.  For one thing, when mainland officials speak in this way they seem to be referring to Hong Kong’s capitalist economic system only.  CCP-led socialism includes the CCP-led political system as well.   But they never mention how Hong Kong’s never-ending capitalist system will be governed … especially important in light of its ill-defined 50-year Basic Law guarantee.

Similarly, the other half of the old saying has not been mentioned for years:  river water is also not supposed to mix with well water.  Yet mainland political ways are now intruding here at many levels and at the behest of many messengers.  The dikes may not have been breached but cracks are appearing nonetheless.  Pan-democrats might therefore begin by proposing a trade off:  they will stop advocating the democratization of CCP rule in China if Beijing agrees to amend the Basic Law’s Article 5, thereby guaranteeing that Hong Kong’s political way of life like its economic system can also remain unchanged forever.

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