Posted:  Sept. 4, 2013


Newcomers to Hong Kong’s political reform saga see many reasons to be optimistic about the democracy camp and its prospects for success.  With three decades of experience behind them, activists moved out early this year, far ahead of their pro-Beijing/establishment rivals.  All are preparing for the next round of reforms that have become part of Hong Kong’s election cycles.  Beijing promised that the 2017 election for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive can, for the first time, be conducted by universal suffrage and proposals are now being drafted in hopes of finally achieving that long-sought goal.   Planning for a people-power support campaign, known as Occupy Central, is already well-advanced.  A coalition of (almost all) the mainstream pro-democracy parties and groups was formed months ago to stand as a strong united front against conservative resistance.  Known as the Alliance for True Democracy, the coalition’s team of volunteer academic advisors issued a three-point platform proposal in July (Aug. 5 post).  All things considered it looks like full steam ahead for a genuine universal suffrage election in 2017.

The only difficulty for some of us old-timers is that we’ve seen it all before … as recently as 2010 when reform proposals were debated ahead of the 2012 election cycle.  The focus then was on the Legislative Council, not the Chief Executive, all part of the “gradual and orderly” progress toward some form of elected government that has been underway since the mid-1980s.   Yet the same fault lines and uncertainties that made it possible to predict mainstream pan-democrats’ capitulation in 2010 are reappearing now.

They say they learned lessons from that experience, aim to avoid the same mistakes, and are determined not be “short-changed” again.  They nevertheless seem to have picked up right where they left off in June 2010, when the final votes were tallied on the government’s incremental reform package.  All the recriminations against the Democratic Party’s sudden ill-defined compromise decision, and its subsequent electoral defeats, seem not to have been enough to overcome the same kind of uncertain definitions and negotiating skills that led to the 2010 decision.

The reasons for such lapses are hard to pin down because they go beyond the usual excuses of factionalism, too many cooks in the democracy camp’s kitchen, no recognized master chef to provide authoritative direction, insufficient funding to compete with the pro-Beijing/establishment juggernaut, and so on.  Probably the real reasons should be traced to something more basic:  like the near-total lack of pre-1997 experience in building a (Western-style) democratic electoral system, plus complete disregard for the (mainland Chinese-style) electoral system that their adversaries are quietly building all around them.   These failures can be traced in turn to the old colonial habit of keeping the peace here by keeping the two, “mainstream” and pro-Beijing “patriotic” communities, far apart …  so far that they existed for decades like two ships passing in the night and in many respects still do   …   but that’s another story.


          When pan-democrats say they were short-changed in 2010 they naturally blame Beijing first and foremost because Beijing is decision-maker.  Within the democratic camp, many also blamed then Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho.  Members of the mainstream 2010 coalition alliance had agreed that since he was leader of the largest pro-democracy party, he should head the final negotiations with Beijing’s Liaison Office here ahead of Beijing’s final decision.  Critics blamed him and party leaders for losing their nerve at the last minute when they failed to stand firm and refuse to accept the government’s package as everyone had initially pledged to do.  The annual July First march was memorable that year for the abuse he and his party contingent received all along the route.  He later said it was the worst experience of his entire life.

But during the months of soul-searching afterward, neither he nor anyone else in the coalition acknowledged the most basic weakness of their negotiating position.  They never explained clearly to the public, and maybe not even among themselves, about the two dimensions of the “universal suffrage” promise that Beijing had written into the Basic Law.  It is the same promise that Beijing continues to make and that is being applied by its local partisans here.  The promise, in other words, means one thing to pan-democrats and something else to Beijing.

As for negotiating skills, in 2010  they also let Beijing know from the start, in all kinds of statements and comments made by leading coalition members, that if only officials would give an undertaking … a “promise” to allow eventual genuine universal suffrage, that was their bottom line.*   Toward the end of the agitation and debate that dragged on for months in 2009/10, Beijing official Qiao Xiaoyang [喬曉陽 ] did come out with a statement.  He promised universal suffrage as the “equal and universal right to vote” (Wen Wei Po, and all sources, June 8, 2010).

At the time, democrats said simply that this was not very reassuring but a few days later Albert Ho and the coalition decided it was enough and agreed to the government’s reform package … with some incremental face-saving adjustments that Beijing agreed to make also at the last minute.  Yet even then the full implications of the promise (with its two dimensions) and the package (with its hidden agenda) were never explained anywhere.  A few who tried doing so in private among coalition alliance members said afterward that their arguments “fell on deaf ears.”

Qiao Xiaoyang’s undertaking was easy for him to give because it’s the same definition that applies to the conduct of local elections throughout Chinat today:  everyone votes.  The catch is that local communist party officials determine everything else including especially who can be nominated.  In Hong Kong, the government’s proposal had entailed the introduction into the Legislative Council of indirectly-elected legislators from the District Councils.  The catch is that pro-Beijing candidates and their conservative allies now prevail in District Council elections here.

The proposal, which the government and the main pro-Beijing political party (the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB) have been trying to introduce since 2005, is comparable to the mainland people’s congress set up.  Accordingly, direct elections are held in the basic grassroots constituencies, with indirect elections from the county-level upwards.  Yet Hong Kong voters and politicians remain oblivious to the comparison even after the long years of debate on this specific reform proposal.

The aim was actually explained to the public most fully in the government’s July 2007 Green Paper on Constitutional Development where it was introduced as one of three options (after two others projected as being unacceptable).  Proposal three anticipated eventual replacement of ALL the special-interest Functional Constituency legislators, who made up half the Legislative Council, with District Councilors indirectly elected by the members of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils.  This aim was also articulated in passing during the 2010 debates by Executive Councilor Anthony Cheung (South China Morning Post, Feb. 19, 2010) and by DAB leaders a well.  Pan-democrats nevertheless carried on afterward as before.   Heedless of the long-term implications, they proceeded to lose even more seats to their adversaries in the 2011 District Councils election.


The immediate challenge now is the 2017 Chief Executive election and how to reconcile Beijing’s demands with those of Hong Kong democrats.  Beijing official Qiao Xiaoyang again served as spokesman when he articulated Beijing’s bottom-line:  the candidate must not challenge or oppose one-party communist rule.  Given what he means by challenge, that condition would automatically disqualify even moderate democrats (April 2 post).

For their part, democrats are demanding not just a free and fair election with equal voting rights for all, but one that conforms to international standards whereby everyone has an equal right “to vote and to be elected.”  Any prior filtering, they say, would make a mockery of universal suffrage by transforming the election into an endorsement of officially approved candidates.

It follows that voting is the easy part; the real challenge lies in nominating the candidates.  Despite much sound and fury, Beijing and Hong Kong officials have yet to come forward with proposals of their own but the mainstream Alliance for True Democracy has (Aug. 5 post).  In terms of definitions and negotiating skills, however, it looks like a replay of 2010.  The bottom line bargaining position has already been given away suggesting that pan-democrats are willing to settle for much less than their current rallying cries indicate …   much like the constant pleas for a satisfactory  “promise” in 2010.

Even more telling:  this giveaway actually originated with the democracy movement’s founding father Martin Lee.  He soon retracted his early proposal to turn the existing unreformed Chief Executive Election Committee into the 2017 Nominating Committee.  Given its four-sector design, this committee would defeat any demand to give pan-democrats an equal shot at nomination and he had asked only that the committee promise to nominate one pro-democracy candidate on a roster of five.   Young activists were incredulous and Lee apologized, citing political fatigue after decades of defeat (May 2 post).   But moderate commentators at the time said only that Lee was unwise to reveal pan-democrats’ bottom line final bargaining position so early in the game!

Even more incredible,  the academic platform drafters of the mainstream Alliance for True Democracy featured the very same idea as the first among their three proposals  …  without any recommendation for reform or redesign of the committee itself except for a top-up addition to the committee of all District Councilors (Aug. 5 post).  Endorsement by 10% of committee members would be sufficient to nominate a candidate.  The only bow to current popular demands for wider public participation in the nominating process in Proposal One is the proviso that a signature campaign, with 2% of all registered voters (about 70-80,000), could also designate a candidate for nomination.  But the proposal fails to clarify whether such a person could automatically become a candidate or would still need endorsement by the unreformed conservative-dominated Nominating Committee.

The same signature campaign problem exists with the Alliance’s Proposal Three, where it is also  listed as an option.  Proposal three posits a Nominating Committee composed of Legislative and District councilors.  This would mean a significant pro-Beijing/conservative majority committee.  The likelihood of it endorsing a pro-democracy candidate is not explored.

And then there are the comments made in passing.  Benny Tai is lead organizer of the Occupy Central campaign demanding international standards, which is causing so much consternation in patriotic and conservative circles.  He was reported to have said he didn’t care whether a democratic candidate won.  His main concern was only whether such a person would be allowed to contest  …  a low hurdle indeed and the same that satisfied Martin Lee when he drew up his original proposal.   It now satisfies the Democratic Party as well.   But pro-democracy candidates can contest even now, for all the good it does them, under Election Committee rules.

Most recently Lee has come forward with another idea. He told interviewers that Hong Kong had reached a critical stage, the “very final round of our battle for democracy.”  We should not accept any arrangement for 2017 that fell short of international standards, he said bravely … unless legislation could be passed with yet another promise.  The hoped-for legislation would give a timetable for introducing full democracy, the definition and dimensions of which he failed to articulate (South China Morning Post, Aug. 27).


Still, it’s early days say newcomers to this scene.  Pan-democrats have time to get their act together, refine their definitions, and sharpen their negotiating positions.  True.  But where are the ideas to come from and who has the influence necessary to stiffen resolve?  Most mainstream actors and opinion leaders have already shown their hands and political alignments are even weaker than in 2010.

The 2010 mainstream Alliance for Ultimate Universal Suffrage acknowledged its problematic past and was laid to rest, replaced this past spring by the Alliance for True Democracy.  The re-set caused hopes to revive.  But the spectrum remains more-or-less unchanged, with “moderates” prevailing and “radicals” taking positions along the periphery or outside.  As in 2010, the Alliance brain trust of academic advisers and platform drafters is as moderate as any conservative could hope for.  It was their failure to explain the implications of the government’s indirect election scheme that made it possible to anticipate the June 2010 collapse of resolve.  They had offered no compelling reasons to hold the line.

In 2010, the Civic Party struck up an alliance with the radical League of Social Democrats, then led by “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man.  Their referendum campaign, calculated to add extra populist weight to the demand for genuine reform, is comparable to the current Occupy Central campaign, being led by Benny Tai and two other 2010 moderates.  The forces of resistance pulled out all the stops to discredit and delegitimize and ultimately neutralize the effect of the referendum, just as they are doing now with Occupy Central.

But also undermining its impact was Barrister Ronny Tong, who could not bring himself to support the extra-legal referendum adventure.  He is happy now to see his Civic Party back where he thinks it belongs in the moderate temporizing fold.  The party initially said it would not negotiate with Beijing’s representatives “behind closed doors” like Albert Ho did in 2010.  But Civic Party leader Audrey Eu has recently changed her mind about closed door meetings.

People who hang out on the radical fringe are usually a source of new ideas and activist energy, and so are they now.   They might actually have had an important role to play this time around, had their political power base not imploded or more accurately self-destructed.   This development resulted from the constant infighting that initially split the radical League of Social Democrats during the winter of 2010/11.  Blame for that and much else can be attributed to one man more than any other:  the mercurial Raymond Wong.

Wong’s faults are legion.  But he is also a talented and charismatic politician who attracted thousands of energetic young people to the esoteric cause of political reform.  They in turn helped build his new People Power action group into a potentially effective political force …  until he led it to defeat with his disastrous 2011 District Councils election strategy …  and then most recently abandoned it altogether.

Among other things he:  had a falling out with his main financial backer; cultivated many protégés who either turned against him or vice versa; doesn’t think much of the Occupy Central campaign although it has taken a leaf from his book of road-blocking protests; quit the Alliance for True Democracy after it accepted the unreformed Nominating Committee design; and withdrew in late May from People Power vowing never to go near anything like a political party again.  He cited members’ willingness to go along with the Nominating Committee idea as his reason.

Moderates and many others may be breathing sighs of relief but for now Wong’s dramatic disappearing act has removed one of the most committed voices from the 2017 election debates.  Whether his People Power base can regenerate without him … in time to have any impact on the end result … remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the clearest demands for “radical” reform are coming from a small band of politically precocious youngsters who are not even old enough to vote.  They call their group Scholar-ism in English (or intellectual trends in Chinese:  學民思潮 ) and made a name for themselves last year by spearheading a successful campaign against the government’s plan to introduce compulsory political studies for all students (July 31, 2012 post).

This year they have turned their attention to political reform and are lobbying all the political parties to sign a charter pledging to stand firm for Proposal Two of the Alliance for True Democracy’s platform.  This would allow something like an American-style primary election whereby all voters would elect the Nominating Committee with its members pledged to different candidates.  So far the Civic Party (with reservations), People Power, the League of Social Democrats, and two smaller parties have signed the pledge in support of civil nomination.  The Democratic Party has refused to sign and so has the Labor Party.  Its vice-chair, Cyd Ho, a long-time supporter of radical causes, says that however attractive, civil nomination is not a feasible option here and now.

So the real stumbling block to fair nomination is the Election/Nominating Committee that seems set to lead the way.  Yet in his defining speech last March, Qiao Xiaoyang said only that there should be a committee.   He did not specify the existing model, stacked as it is with so many political, economic, social, religious, and rural conservatives that pro-democracy candidates can barely muster votes from 10% of its members.  Why the Alliance for True Democracy’s platform drafters did not at least recommend a revamp or redesign of this committee once they decided to go ahead and use it is a mystery no one has yet addressed. The Alliance’s initial seven-point statement of principles suggested a very different mindset (May 14 post).

*S. Pepper,   定義之爭比普選承諾重要 (Universal Suffrage:  Struggle for Definitions, Not Promises), Ming Pao Daily, May 27, 2010.

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