Posted:  May 2, 2013


Martin Lee Chu-ming [ 李柱銘 ],  a founder of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, used the phrase about old cats getting too close to the fire with reference to himself.  He was embarrassed recently by jumping the gun and announcing his own first-draft proposal for electing a Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017, all on his own without consulting fellow pan-democrats.   The coming 2016/17 election cycle is supposed to mark an important way station along Hong Kong’s much-delayed journey to elected government and debate is already raging at the prospect.  Within two days, Lee had withdrawn his proposal and apologized as well saying he was like the proverbial old cat that sat too close to the fire and singed its whiskers [老貓燒鬚].

By way of explanation for his misstep, Lee cited political fatigue … after 30 years of protracted struggle … plus a cool reception from all sides within the democratic camp, and especially one critical opinion piece contributed by a 25-year-old Baptist University student.  The student, using a pen-name, challenged Lee not to play “Faust” by trying to strike a bargain with the devil  (Apple Daily, April 11).

The episode suggests why Hong Kong’s democracy movement may actually accomplish something “in the end,” whenever that might be and however defined.  There used to be a saying of the many early 20th century pre-communist reform efforts …  typically begun by one or a few idealistic individuals like Martin Lee and the late Szeto Wah.  The projects invariably died with the individuals who launched them.  Lee and Szeto, who founded the Democratic Party, represent the first generation of Hong Kong’s political reform leaders, but the project they began in the 1980s is not fading from the scene as their influence wanes.  Instead, they are being succeeded by many others who seem to have learned some important lessons about democratic institution-building along the way.  These others are now moving beyond the conservative confines of existing arrangements that Lee was ready to accept, as did Szeto Wah [司徒華] during the last political reform debate in 2010.


He focused on the chief institutional obstacle to introducing a “genuine” universal suffrage election for the Chief Executive in 2017, namely, the current Election Committee.  Hong Kong saw it at work most recently, in March last year, when it selected Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying  [梁振英 ].  The committee is a slightly expanded continuation of the first post-1997 body (defined in the Basic Law’s Annex I), with its four sections deliberately designed to empower conservative members of the business community and pro-Beijing stalwarts.  They dominate the 1,200 membership so completely that pan-democrats had difficulty mustering the 100+ individual signatures of committee members needed to field a single candidate (Jan. 16, 2012 post).  The Civic and Democratic Parties put forward candidates in 2007 and 2012, respectively, and can testify to the difficulties.  The two democrats succeeded in joining the competition but had no chance of winning.

Lee’s proposal actually contained two possibilities but the first was the focus of everyone’s attention including his.  It picked up where mainland official Qiao Xiaoyang left off in his March 24 Shenzhen speech (April 2 post).  Lee proposed to leave the Election Committee essentially as is and rename it the Nominating Committee, but with the proviso that it must name five candidates to contest the election.  Lee said this would at least guarantee that one democrat could be nominated as a candidate.   The voting public would then be able to choose via a universal suffrage election from among the five (Ming Pao Daily, April 10).

Qiao had not gone into any detail about the Nominating Committee itself except to assume there would be one, which is a Basic Law mandate.  According to Article 45:  “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

In fact, the Election Committee should be completely redesigned if it is to reflect anything like universal and equal voting rights.  Pan-democrats are currently discussing all kinds of options that would allow some sort of public participation in preliminary candidate selection … after which a Nominating Committee could be called upon to render judgment on the popular choices.  Yet here was Martin Lee inexplicably proposing not only to leave the stacked Election Committee in place but to grant it the sole right of nominee selection.


In 2010, Lee had seemed close to breaking with his Democratic Party over its moderate stands so his decidedly moderate proposal was puzzling to say the least.  Pan-democrats tried to be polite, leaving it to the anonymous student to voice their dismay at yet another ill-defined capitulation again coming from within the Democratic Party.

The student’s essay, addressed “To Martin,” reminded him that after June 4, 1989 he had been unwilling to serve as a token democratic decoration and resigned from the Beijing-appointed Basic Law Drafting Committee.  He had continued to struggle during all the years since, even speaking out in support of the so-called “radical” referendum campaign that his Democratic Party as a whole refused to join in 2010.   Most recently, he had come out in favor of the Occupy Central campaign.  Yet Lee was now asking voters to accept candidates chosen by the same “small-circle” 1,200-member committee that pan-democrats had been railing against for over a decade.

Trying to understand why, the student hit upon the story of Faust and accused Lee of striking a bargain for advantage with an adversary who would allow no retreat or space for regret afterward.  Here and now, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was the adversary, laying down conditions before the contest for Chief Executive even began, with the aim of never allowing Hong Kong to conduct a genuine universal suffrage election.  Not to oppose the CCP’s condition would mean to remain its servile plaything forever.

The essay ended with a personal appeal:  Someone like you, who has made democracy your life’s struggle, should be in the vanguard of our movement … please join us  (Apple, April 11, 13).   Lee withdrew his proposal a day after the essay was published.

The loyalist camp expressed its regret.  For a time they could not believe their good fortune and thought they might not even have to debate the issue of reforming their Election Committee (which is going to be a mammoth task since it is derived in large part from the Legislative Council’s Functional Constituencies, frequently derided here with the old British reform term “rotten boroughs”).

Worried that too many others might also succumb to the pressures being created by the official anti-universal suffrage campaign and accept defeat too soon, pan-democrats are fast-tracking their proposals for a new kind of Nominating Committee.  Their main Alliance for True Democracy is set to announce a preliminary outline proposal within days.

(Next:  An Old Leftist Stokes the Fire)



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