Posted:  Aug. 5, 2013


All things considered, about the last exercise anyone would want to attempt is a comparison between Egypt and Hong Kong.  In fact, their political struggles bear one striking similarity and the danger signals are emerging here once more as Hong Kong gears up for its next big political reform campaign.  The lesson in both cases is that people power feet-on-the-ground activism may be a necessary ingredient but it is not sufficient to build viable new democratic institutions where none have existed before.

According to news reports from Egypt, the popular upheaval preceding President Mohamed Morsi’s recent overthrow began two months before when a small group of coffee house friends hatched the bright idea of starting an anti-Morsi signature campaign.  It would call for him to step down and for protesters to organize a demonstration on June 30, the first year anniversary of his inauguration as president.  The idea spread like wildfire, the petition received more signatures than anyone could count, enormous crowds again filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and the deed was done with a little help from Egypt’s military.  So now the protesters are right back where they started in January 2011, when 18 days of occupation in the square ended with the toppling of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The problem for people power Egyptian-style is that in-between Mubarak and Morsi there was an election, which Morsi won freely and fairly.  Secular liberals who had initially filled the square could not compete in terms of organization and election strategies with Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies.   People in the square are now calling for new elections but how can the result be any different?  They have yet to coalesce into a viable political party or coalition capable of sustaining an election campaign that has any realistic hope of besting their pro-Morsi adversary.

Just as important, neither side in this contest had any real conception of what should happen to the losers after an election.  The ability to accommodate a “loyal opposition” and behave like one … basic prerequisites for democratic institution-building … seems to have been absent on both sides.

Half a world away in Hong Kong, those same strengths and weaknesses are endemic features of its democracy movement as well.   Activists still dominate the street and protest demonstrations are Hong Kong’s most effective means of expressing public dissent.   But a solid coalition of pro-Beijing politicians and their conservative allies have now won a majority of the elected seats on all 18 of Hong Kong’s lowermost district-level councils.   Distracted by their factional concerns and misguided notions about “splitting to grow,” pro-democracy candidates have also allowed themselves to be outmaneuvered by loyalist/conservative candidates in one Legislative Council election after another.  The Chief Executive’s circle of appointed officials and advisors is dominated overwhelmingly by loyalists and conservatives allegedly at Beijing’s behest.  A few democrats have been admitted to that circle but only after abandoning all outward manifestations of their past political life.

Yet there is no end in sight.  Those same strengths and weaknesses … between people power activism and electoral institution-building … are now reproducing themselves in preparations for the next big stage of Hong Kong’s political reform campaign.


Democracy activists here now say they are determined to force the issue.  Their goal is the same as it has been since they began agitating in the mid-1980s:  directly elected local government. Beijing acknowledged the demand by writing it into Hong Kong’s new Basic Law constitution promulgated in 1990.  It promised eventual universal suffrage elections for both the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council (Articles 45, 68).   But since then Beijing,  its resolve bolstered by the enthusiastic lobbying of local conservatives and big business interests, has continued to procrastinate.  New conditions have pushed back deadlines from one election cycle to the next, while democrats have watched their electoral majorities shrink even as the number of directly elected seats in all councils continued to increase.

The next chance for any more reform beyond the haphazard patchwork of electoral designs now in place will be the 2016/17 election cycle.  According to Beijing’s current timetable, a full universal suffrage election for the Chief Executive can occur in 2017.  The first such Legislative Council election can be held in 2020.  If it actually is, 2016 will be the last conducted under the current mixed bag of arrangements.   But with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying yet to announce even a time frame for consultations to begin, democrats fear they’re already being set up for another round of “gradual and orderly progress.”  The last such exercise occurred in 2010 when the Democratic Party lost its nerve and succumbed to the siren song of compromise with little to show in return.

The pent up frustration after years of disappointment was what gave immediate life to Professor Benny Tai’s “Occupy Central” idea last January.  He was amused at the “political accident” he caused after his first article appeared in the intellectual op-ed pages of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.  Typically, he said, only a handful of people paid any attention to those pages but his suggestion that civil disobedience might be the only means of getting through to Beijing was an idea whose time had come.  It seemed to offer new hope to a democracy movement that had tried just about everything else to no avail …  except for the 2003 precedent when half-a-million angry marchers frightened the powers that be into withdrawing the proposed national political security legislation.  Feet on the ground and masses of people in the street could make a difference and Benny Tai’s Occupy Central civil disobedience idea carries that precedent a step further.

He proposed that if  Beijing refused to approve an election for the Chief Executive in 2017 that could pass muster in accordance with generally recognized international standards for a free and fair universal suffrage poll, then Hong Kongers should begin a civil disobedience campaign similar to those launched in other countries by other movements against perceived injustice.  In this case he proposed to have 10,000 people sit themselves down and block intersections in downtown Hong Kong (March 14, 25 posts).

         Still in its introductory stages, Occupy Central is so far a runaway success.  Its first Deliberation Day in early June tapped several hundred activists, mostly invited from existing political parties and groups.  They gathered for a day of discussion to learn the basics about civil disobedience, which has never been attempted here before:  commitment to non-violence, defiance of police orders to clear the streets, accepting the consequences, likely formal arrest, and so on (Ming Pao Daily, June 10; Occupy Central, Facebook pages).  Protest demonstrations here have always followed public order procedures that require prior police permission.

Occupy Central’s three leaders:  Benny Tai, Professor Chan Kin-man, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, have been all over town talking to everyone who wants to listen in person, on-line, and on the air.  They’ve published countless articles explaining the hoped-for end results of universal suffrage:  accountable officials, a responsible electorate, inclusive governance … to include democrats who are still receiving a majority of votes cast for the Legislative Council’s directly-elected seats but are routinely excluded from official appointments.   The Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of many groups that organizes the annual July First protest march, agreed to feature Occupy Central this year and committed to join it a year from now when the civil disobedience campaign is scheduled to begin for real.  Public opinion is also warming to the idea (July 5 post).  Hyper-active loyalist/conservative opponents have done at least as much as promoters to advertise the coming event (April 18 post).

The only problem with all this consciousness-raising is that it’s a perfect reproduction of Hong Kong’s democracy movement to date:  strong on people power activism and weak on what now counts just as much, namely, designing a viable electoral reform project.  The street protest is already primed for take-off … one year ahead of time.  Meanwhile, democratic proposals for a universal suffrage Chief Executive election have finally begun to appear, but only on the pages of Facebook … and filled with the same fuzzy self-defeating ideas that should be held responsible for the Democratic Party’s last-minute collapse of courage in 2010.


       The preparations for Occupy Central are actually proceeding as planned.  A division of labor was agreed upon almost immediately last spring:  Occupy Central would provide the platform for protest … to be activated ONLY AS A LAST RESORT if all the proposals and attempts to reach a satisfactory solution fail to produce an electoral design that meets international standards.

The proposals themselves are being drafted by other groups, the main one being the Alliance for True Democracy (Chinese name:  Alliance for Genuine Universal Suffrage  真普選聯盟 ).  It originally had the backing of  all 27 pro-democracy Legislative Councilors (inevitably one has since split), with academic Joseph Cheng acting as the agreed-upon convener acceptable to all (March 25 post).  A second prominent group, Hong Kong 2020, is headed by retired civil servant Anson Chan.  It has yet to present its own proposals but she and Johannes Chan, the soon-to-retire dean of Hong Kong University’s law school have begun commenting on others.

The two tasks … preparing a protest platform and drafting proposals … are meant to be separate and distinct, and the two sets of leaders are deliberately keeping each other at arms length for now.   That the last step is ready to go first follows naturally from the democracy movement’s endemic defect.  So do the preliminary draft proposals and the discussion surrounding them.

Proposals and debate focus on the nominating process for the 2017 Chief Executive election.  Beijing officials have already gone on record to demand a “sifting” mechanism to filter out anti-communist party pro-democracy elements, which could transform the promise of a universal suffrage election into an empty rubber-stamp exercise (March 25, April 2 posts).    Hence the task for democratic drafters is admittedly difficult.  They must walk a fine line between Beijing’s demand for a filter and the democracy movement’s demand for a genuine universal suffrage election.

While no other absolute constraints have been laid down, official Beijing statements have assumed that the filtering function will be performed by some sort of Nominating Committee.  This derives from the relevant point in the Basic Law’s 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.”

Yet the preliminary democratic proposals and influential commentaries contain the same self-defeating suggestions that caused Democratic Party elder Martin Lee to singe his whiskers last April when members of the younger generation reacted in disbelief.  He had proposed simply that the current Chief Executive Election Committee be rechristened a Nominating Committee and promise to nominate one pro-democracy candidate.  He did not call for a redesign of the committee itself although its four sections were, and remain, deliberately drawn to exclude democrats and empower conservative members of the business community together with pro-Beijing stalwarts (May 2 post).

Rumor had it at the time that he and his friend Anson Chan had come up with this idea together and maybe they did.  But unlike Lee, who quickly retracted, she seems oblivious to the fact that it is precisely this committee that will transform the promise of universal suffrage into an embarrassing rubber-stamp exercise.  She was recently quoted as saying:  ‘If we were starting from scratch, I think certainly we could consider a nominating committee that reflected majority view, i.e., one-man, one vote.  But we have these four sectors which have been tied to the Legislative Council election for many years …’ (South China Morning Post, June 26).   The four sectors that dominate the Election Committee design are essentially the same as those responsible for electing Functional Constituency legislators …  the scrapping of which lies at the heart of democratic demands for universal suffrage at the Legislative Council level!

Equally surprising, given its original seven-point statement of purpose (May 14 post), is the set of proposals announced by the Alliance for True Democracy on July 10.  Drafting was entrusted to sympathetic academics but their work reflects much the same mindset as that of Albert Ho’s 2010 brain trust.  The set contains three alternatives.  One (Proposal A) is based on the same name-change for the Election Committee suggested by Martin Lee and Anson Chan.  It would become the new Nominating Committee, albeit with an addition that can only reinforce what would have been the result without it.  The addition is all directly-elected District Councilors. Proposal C would create a 500-member Nominating Committee composed of all current Legislative and District Councilors.

Only Proposal B reflects the spirit of the original seven-point statement.  This proposal would create a 400-member Nominating Committee elected directly by voters in 20 territory-wide districts.  The procedure would be something like United States presidential primary elections that designate the public’s preference, subsequently formalized at party conventions.  In this proposal, the Nominating Committee would play the role of a U.S. party nominating convention (Ming Pao Daily, July 11; Alliance for True Democracy, Facebook pages, July 10).

The problem here is the inclusion of District Councilors, and also legislators, on a Nominating Committee without explaining the full implications of these proposals.  The public has been asked repeatedly, at different times and in different ways, to endorse such ideas, and vote in district-level elections based upon them, without understanding where they come from or where they might lead.


         One way of explaining this strange lapse is to go back to the beginning  …  back to the days when Anson Chan was a ranking civil servant and Martin Lee the most prominent member of Hong Kong’s new democracy movement.  Since then constitutional designers have grown accustomed to the (lazy?) habit of recycling incumbents from one level for use in another.

The rationale dates from the last two decades of British rule when the concept and practice of universal suffrage were first introduced here.  It was said then, for example, that the small District Council (then District Board) constituencies represented the first step in what would be a long-term democracy-building project.  But that same rationale was still being used in 2009/10, even by moderate democrats, to justify their support for the government’s plan that would have allowed the 400+ District Councilors to elect Legislative Councilors.  The indirect arrangement was accepted on grounds that District Councilors were themselves directly elected, on the basis of one-person, one-vote … a formalistic argument made without any regard to the changing political significance of those district-level elections.

One very big difference between the 1980s and now, of course, is that a new political party has been born and come of age.  With 20,000+ members, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) is Hong Kong’s largest political party by far …  well organized, disciplined, with unlimited funding, a social-service orientation, and coordinated election strategies designed for one purpose only:  to win.  It is also known informally (but never in print or official public discourse) as the electoral wing of Hong Kong’s underground (but still unacknowledged) communist party branch.  Consequently, it proclaims unquestioning acceptance of the patriotic pro-communist loyalties that remain anathema to Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Yet the implications of this political development had not sunk in among pan-democrats as of the last 2011 District Council election.  And despite their massive defeat in that election … leading to the now inescapably clear dominance of all 18 District Councils by the DAB and its allies …  pan-democrats are preparing to give District Councilors a new key role in the Nominating Committee that is to select candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive election.  Since they themselves were directly elected, they must represent a democratic addition to the committee.  The old rationale is being recycled for use once more …  in an electoral environment that has changed dramatically.

It’s still early days and August is the time for vacationing not politics.  But Anson Chan’s Hong Kong 2020 colleague, Dean Johannes Chan, has already volunteered a predictable discouraging note on the practicality of Proposal B (Ming Pao Daily, July 24 and Hong Kong 2020 Facebook pages).  As for loyalists and conservatives, they should have no trouble with either Proposals A or C.  Both should be more than adequate to perform the necessary loyalist/conservative filtering function.


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