Posted: April 18, 2013
Beijing and all concerned parties must be very worried about the new phase of Hong Kong’s campaign for universal suffrage elections. The sequence is as familiar as pan-democrats’ long-standing demand. But this time the “anti-democrats” have marshaled their forces more quickly than usual and rushed into battle while the other side is still drawing up name lists and designing its logos.
The other side had also been moving with unusual speed since Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting [戴耀廷] published his bright idea about civil disobedience in January (March 14, 25 posts). He proposed to mobilize 10,000 people for a non-violent occupation of downtown central Hong Kong. It would be a last-ditch measure to be activated next year, aimed at pressuring the authorities into allowing genuine universal suffrage elections here if official proposals fail to meet international standards. Plans took shape quickly as Tai and two friends, Professor Chan Kin-man [陳健民] and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming [朱耀明], set up a committee of three to orchestrate their Occupy Central campaign. All three are veterans of all past campaigns dating back to the 1980s, all are moderates, all backed Albert Ho’s 2010 reform compromise, and all have concluded that Beijing will not be moved by anything but feet-on-the-ground popular pressure.
Pan-democrats also sent a delegation to advertise their frustration at the March meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, and they organized a new Alliance for True Democracy. The alliance has brought all pro-democracy factions together and will map plans for the next phase of political reform. Details must be finalized in time for the 2016/17 election cycle that is supposed to mark an important way station on Hong Kong’s long march toward elected government. Prof. Tai’s Occupy Central campaign would be activated in the event these plans fail to pass muster.
At least for now, however, pan-democrats are being overshadowed by an aggressive no-holds-barred attempt to throw them off balance and nip their new campaign firmly in the bud. The counter-campaign is addressing its message to all the key players in Hong Kong’s political arena and all pro-establishment partisans are being mobilized for the cause in one mighty push, from above and below, to discredit, discourage, and defeat. It is also already beginning to register the desired effect. If the current message is meant to convey the official bottom line and if it plays out as now being promoted, there will be precious little common ground. Nor is there likely ever to be a universal suffrage election here except as defined by Beijing on its terms.
TARGETING THE IDEA
Speaking like so many mainland political drill instructors, pro-Beijing opinion leaders are suddenly everywhere, trying to teach unruly Hong Kongers the civics lessons they and their children should be leaning via that national studies curriculum they rejected so vehemently last year. The message is being presented in stark all-or-nothing terms. There can be no alternative to the Chinese Communist Party’s unified “pyramid-shape” top-to-bottom rule. To advocate political reform for China as Hong Kong democrats do is therefore, by definition, to advocate an end to CCP rule. But to overthrow the party is a prescription for chaos because there is nothing to replace it. The communist order’s collapse in the Soviet Union is a case in point. Democracy is a Western concept, only a few hundred years old … alien and un-Chinese. It has never been one of Hong Kong’s core values. Only a few people are behind the Occupy Central campaign. Maybe the Americans are too, bent on breaking up China by provoking a “color revolution” like they did in central Asia after the collpase of Soviet communism. Pan-democrats can only promote such ideas because there is freedom of political expression here, the implication being that free political expression has dangerous subversive consequences.
Besides, representative democracy doesn’t work very well even in the West. For reasons he has never fully explained, professor emeritus Lau Siu-kai [ 劉兆佳 ] is a staunch opponent of Western-style democracy … so much so that his conservative opinion polls have served to underpin conservative Hong Kong government decisions against democratic reforms dating back to the 1980s. It was Prof. Lau who, as head of the Hong Kong government’s Central Policy Unit think tank, made the famous prediction that no more than about 30,000 people here cared enough about the democracy movement to turn out for the July 1, 2003 protest march … when the actual figure was half-a-million. He nevertheless persevered and has only just retired from his CPU post.
Last week Prof. Lau featured in a full-page article introducing the latest book on his favorite topic: Joshua Kurlantzick, Democracy in Retreat: the Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government (Yale University Press, 2013). Lau also said Beijing had too many other big global and national problems on its plate and could not be bothered compromising further with Hong Kong democrats bent on permanently marginalizing themselves from the national mainstream. He said Hong Kong does not need to meet international standards for universal suffrage (meaning the universal and equal right to vote and contest elections), as spelled out in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, because Hong Kong is a special case (Wen Wei Po, April 9).
THE ANTITHESIS OF PATRIOTISM
Beijing officials spoke out a few weeks ago on the specific qualification for Hong Kong chief executives: they must “love China and love Hong Kong.” Democrats raised a hue and cry saying they were being deprived of the right to contest the election in violation of international standards. For those who thought there might be room for maneuver around this requirement … like loving the nation but not the communist party as democrats like to say (April 2 post), another full-page interview set the record straight. There can be no such thing as “abstract love,” declared the giant headline. No way to love one and not the other. Such an idea can only mean one thing: “concrete opposition” to the party-led central government (Wen Wei Po, April 12).
The featured authority elaborating this declaration was long-time pro-Beijing labor union leader Cheng Yiu-tong [ 鄭耀棠] a Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress, member of the Chief Executive’s Executive Council cabinet, and among those assumed to be members of Hong Kong’s unacknowledged CCP branch. He explained how tolerant Beijing had been. Hong Kong was a British colony for over a hundred years, but in the past decade the central government had acquiesced to local wishes and allowed electoral reform to proceed. Yet pan-democrats, that is, “the opposition parties” had “raised the banner of abstract love to bring a concrete end to one party dictatorship.” Such people could not be allowed to participate in government affairs.
Of course, said Cheng, there was always the possibility that some in the opposition camp might profess true love. But for those who do not and go so far as to advocate an end to one-party dictatorship, Beijing’s worries are entirely legitimate. Patriotic redemption is apparently possible. But to achieve it pan-democrats will have to abandon an article of faith (about mainland political reform) that has sustained their movement since 1989. The choice is calculated to fracture their movement even further.
FROM BELOW: Targeting People Power
The Occupy Central trio of moderates is correct to conclude that their good intentions in 2010 led nowhere (which should have been obvious at the time given the design of the government’s election reform package). They are also correct to conclude that the one thing Beijing worries most about is the threat of instability here since, thanks to one-country, two-systems, it cannot be contained with mainland-style “hard power” methods. Hence one of the first things the anti-universal suffrage campaign did was to sponsor an opinion poll … designed to show what the public thought about 10,000 people “paralyzing” Hong Kong’s downtown financial district.
With much fanfare, the main pro-Beijing political party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong or DAB) and its youth wing called a press conference to announce the findings: 70% of 1,000 respondents definitely do not like the idea. DAB leaders claimed it was a random sample but were honest enough to admit that 70% of their respondents also just happened to be 50 or older … the age group most receptive to conservative scare-mongering and the age group targeted by the DAB in building its district-level constituencies. DAB leaders, young and old, nevertheless challenged Occupy Central organizers to abandon their project forthwith. There were many reasons: it would surely mean losses for the economy; it would harm Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial center; it would disrupt relations with the central government; do nothing for political development; and would no doubt lead to violence (Wen Wei Po, April 10). To reinforce the message, Prof. Lau Siu-kai also warned there would very likely be violence, and the police chief came out to say his force was prepared for all contingencies, protesters would not be allowed to block city streets, and so on.
In fact, the dangers of physical disruption are already being felt but they are not coming from pan-democrats. This problem is not new. Soon after 1997, the “old uncles” … retired leftist workers … who like to hang out in Victoria Park were the chief culprits. They enjoyed shouting abuse and throwing stones at pro-democracy Sunday afternoon speakers and for a time drove them from the weekly event held there. Now a new generation of patriotic avengers is making its presence felt. They were first noticed during the New Year marches for and against Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. One of their number made history by striking the first blow in defense of the motherland and celebrated his achievement with a “V” for victory sign after being found guilty of assault (Jan. 9, 2013 post).
The groups making the most noise call themselves Loving Hong Kong Power [愛護香港力量 ] and Voice of Loving Hong Kong [ 愛港之聲 ]. For this crowd there is no middle ground. Their mission is to attack what they regard as anti-Beijing subversion whenever they see it and members are showing up, courtesy of Facebook, wherever pan-democrats gather. Two dozen hecklers crashed the first meeting of the Alliance for True Democracy on April 7, shouting abuse and complaining about not being invited. They created such a commotion that the meeting had to be abandoned after campus security guards refused to intervene.
The same thing happened last Saturday, April 13, at an Occupy Central forum also held on a university campus, although organizers soldiered on. The intruders created another rowdy scene claiming the Occupy Central campaign had provoked them beyond endurance. Some arrived “in uniform” … white windbreakers emblazoned with red dragons. They unfurled huge Chinese and Hong Kong flags to demonstrate their patriotism and stood on desks and chairs to dramatize their message. But their best photo-op pose was a fascist-like solute of accusation pointed in the direction of the speakers’ lectern (Wen Wei Po, Ming Pao Daily, Apple, all April 14).
FROM ABOVE: The Siren Song of Compromise
What could be more reassuring amid all the noise than soothing voices of calm and reason. And who better to provide it than a kindly silver-haired retiree: Elsie Leung Oi-sie [ 梁愛詩 ]. She is a life-long pro-Beijing partisan, was a founding member of the DAB in the 1990s, served as post-1997 Hong Kong’s first Secretary for Justice, is now a member of Beijing’s advisory Basic Law Committee, and speaks out as needed with patriotic advice on controversial legal matters. Not to worry, she said. No need to get everything done all at once. “Don’t see 2017 as the final year for establishing a perfect democratic, universal suffrage system.” First introduce a plan that two-thirds of the Legislative Council will accept and establish the principle of one-person, one-vote. Later the system can be improved gradually (Ming Pao Daily, April 8). To which pan-democrats reply that the first time they heard the refrain about gradual and orderly progress was in 1988, and they’ve been getting the run-around ever since.
Bernard Chan [ 陳智思 ] is another well-spoken elite-level member of the pro-Beijing establishment. Among other things he is a delegate to the National People’s Congress and claimed he heard no mention at the March meetings about the need for a prior filtering mechanism to tap suitable Chief Executive candidates. But he called the controversy “a storm in a teacup.” Like Elsie Leung, he said that “2017 will not necessarily be an end point where our political development is concerned.” And besides, it was all part of the greater Chinese national development project (South China Morning Post, March 22). Lau Siu-kai gave yet another interview in which he, too, repeated what must be the new official line, namely, that 2017 should not be seen as the end game (SCMP, April 9).
If official voices of reason are serious about their message they should spell out the official plans for Hong Kong society five, 10, 15 years down the line. Democratic hearts can only be put at ease if someone calls off the patriotic vigilantes and addresses the long-term prospects for Hong Kong’s “freedom of political expression.” Old-time patriotic pundits are happy though. Their tea house gossip says it all. They already sense that, as in 2010, big business and the diplomatic community … “especially the British and Americans” … are quietly rallying to Elsie Leung’s message … “for the sake of Hong Kong’s stability.” And when that happens, as in 2010, pan-democrats will be sure to acquiesce. The only question is whether they will settle for an electoral reform package that is as detrimental to their interests as the one moderates accepted in 2010, without any mention of Hong Kong’s long-term political prospects while two-systems fade into one.