Posted:  Sept. 23, 2013


Picking up where this story left off, the current state of the universal suffrage debate among Hong Kong democrats doesn’t   necessarily suggest a very different mindset compared to the initial idealistic impulses prevailing last spring (Sept. 4  post).   Better to say the spirit remains strong, renewed from one political season to the next … but in-between, spirits and ideals are hard put to stay the course given the forces ranged against them.  If democrats were revolutionaries, the spirit might translate into something really subversive and destabilizing to match the accusations currently being blown out of all proportion by Beijing loyalists and their conservative allies.  As it is, democrats accept their place in Beijing’s “one-country, two-systems” order of things.   That means much as they might like to break  free of the constraints, they will not.  Inevitably,   spirits are worn down once the task of setting ideals to paper begins and drafting proposals for use within Beijing’s two-systems design gets underway.

In this case, with the next phase of the Beijing’s “universal suffrage” promise at hand over the 2017 Chief Executive election, mainstream Alliance for True Democracy designers made one (probably calculated) major mistake:  they tried to tack true democracy ideals onto the existing arrangements codified in Hong Kong’s post-colonial  Basic Law constitution.  These have been used since 1997 to select Hong Kong’s post-colonial Chief Executives.  The calculation was to provide something for everyone:  the old way, unchanged and unreformed, for loyalist/conservative elites; new ways for everyone else.

The Alliance for True Democracy is a coalition of all the main pro-democracy parties and groups, led by all but one of the 27 pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council.  They along with their team of volunteer academic advisers drafted the three Alliance proposals.   The Alliance’s first statement of idealistic principles was announced in May; first draft proposals came a few months alter, in July (May 14, Aug. 5, Sept. 4 posts). 

            A split naturally developed over the gap between ideals and draft designs.  The debate now raging within the democratic camp is how to preserve the ideals that called for popular participation in the nominating process or civil nomination [公民提名], against the demands of loyalists and conservatives to preserve their existing privileged right to determine candidate selection … and also against the inclination of moderate democrats to compromise on this question sooner rather than later.


           All three of the Alliance proposals actually include the civil nomination ideal, although it features only in Proposal Two.  This would create a 400-member Nominating Committee to be directly elected by voters from 20 territory-wide districts.  Each district would elect 20 members.   They would presumably campaign for election on the basis of support for different candidates and/or political parties although these details were not specified.  There has been little discussion of this proposal and the public has yet to learn how it might work. One core member of the Alliance, the Labor Party’s Cyd Ho, has already dismissed this proposal as a non-starter.

In contrast, Proposals One and Three would rely on Nominating Committees created by other, indirect, means.  The civil nomination idea was tacked on in the form of signature campaigns.  Aspiring candidates who succeed in collecting a certain proportion of signatures would qualify for nomination.  The suggested proportion was 2% of all registered voters or 70-80,000 signatures.

The initial presentation of these two proposals didn’t go into detail about the intended relationship between the two types of nominations, committee and civil, that both contained.  But amid the growing controversy, Alliance leaders have tried to clarify that the intended aim of both Proposals One and Three was and is to provide a double-track:  candidates could be formally nominated either by the special committees or by the general public via signature write-in campaigns.

Maybe so, but the way it’s likely to go seems clearer than the clarification and conservatives, such as Hong Kong University law professor Albert Chen Hung-yee, see the possibilities.  No need to fret over the novel idea of public participation, he says.  The two types of nomination are perfectly compatible: ordinary voters can first have their say and Nominating Committee élites can then carry on deciding as they see fit (Ming Pao Daily, Sept. 12, South China Morning Post Sept. 17, 21).

Under Proposal One, that would mean a 1,500-member Nominating Committee designed in the same way as the 1,200-member Election Committee, which has been selecting Chief Executives since 1997.   Its four sectors are stacked with loyalists and conservatives. That 1,200-member committee would be topped up with District Councilors.   Under Proposal Three, which would create a 500-member committee composed of sitting Legislative and District Councilors, loyalists and conservatives would also predominate.

In the current Legislative Council, for example, there are only 27 pan-democratic legislators among 70 total.    In the last, November 2011, District Councils election, pro-democracy candidates won 93 seats; loyalist/conservatives 319 (Nov. 14, 2011 post).  Pan-democrats have been steadily losing ground to loyalist/conservative candidates in terms of seats and proportion of vote totals, especially at the district level, throughout the past decade.

Under Proposals One and Three, aspiring candidates would need endorsement by 10% of the committee members in order to qualify as nominees.  In 2007 and 2012, pro-democracy hopefuls, determined to try their luck, struggled to gain a similar number of endorsement signatures from Election Committee members in order to qualify as nominees for the Chief Executive contest.  Ironically, even Qiao Xiaoyang [喬曉陽], Beijing’s point man for Hong Kong electoral definitions, noted the problems with this option.  In his March statement, he said that the Election Committee’s custom of individual members endorsing prospective candidates was not a democratic way of nomination.*


What exactly Qiao Xiaoyang had in mind he did not say  beyond inviting  Hong Kongers to consult “rationally” and reach a consensus among themselves.  Only just be sure, he said, that whatever they decide conforms to Article 45 of the  Basic Law, and doesn’t produce a candidate who objects to one-party communist rule!

Unfortunately, none of pan-democrats’ civil nomination proposals meet Qiao’s criteria.  The Civic Party scheduled a forum for September 22, titled “Civil Nomination, What’s to Fear?” and invited the head of Beijing’s Liaison Office here to attend.  He refused in an open letter rather rudely explaining why.   Zhang Xiaoming  [張曉明] said the idea of civil nomination violated Article 45 of the Basic Law.  He cited the passage which states that when Hong Kong achieves the ultimate aim of a universal suffrage Chief Executive election, the candidates are to be nominated “by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”  And that’s it, he wrote, “There is no other way.”   He then signed off with some gratuitous comments to the effect that legal professionals should know better than to make such a proposal.  The Civic Party’s core members are mostly all legal professionals.**


So pan-democrats are trying to decide.  The plan is to assess public opinion and have a finished draft of the three proposals ready by year’s end, well before the formal government consultation period is due to begin.   In fact, many democrats are less than enthusiastic about civil nomination … which makes their tolerance for the old Election Committee design all the more surprising.  Most important of those refusing to sign on to the student-led lobbying effort for civil nomination (Sept. 4  post) are the Democratic Party, Labor Party, and the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood (an old organization best known for its district-level work).

The student group Scholarism, famous for its 2011/12 campaign against the government’s political education project, began arguing for civil nomination during the summer and got nowhere with the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho.  Still bearing the marks of his encounter with the Liaison Office in 2010, when he tried to negotiate over a much less important package of political reforms, he called the young people naive idealistic dreamers.  He also explained why the signature nomination alternative had been tacked onto Proposals One and Three.

He said he had backed that idea given the possibility of an independent candidate who enjoyed popular support yet belonged to no political party.  Albert Ho says he approves of civil nomination “in principle.”   But realistically he advised the students to accept defeat, that is, to be satisfied as he is with the simple prospect of one democratic candidate actually being allowed to enter the race for Chief Executive.   The Democratic Party seems to have accepted Martin Lee’s controversial April proposal after all (May 2 post) and young Joshua Wong, founder of Scholarism, refused to be impressed.  He stood his ground during the radio debate between them and told Albert Ho he had given up too easily …  he was not aiming high enough.***

Toward that end, Wong and his friends have added to the relevant passage of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights … the passage about universal and equal suffrage meaning to vote and to be elected.  They are demanding an equal right to nominate as well (Ming Pao Daily, July 26, 27, Aug. 12).   By late August, they had drawn up a charter and begun lobbying democratic Legislative Councilors to sign, committing their parties to make civil nomination the number one priority during the coming campaign to design electoral arrangements for a universal suffrage Chief Executive election in 2017.

Those who have agreed to sign come from what is known as the radical end of  Hong Kong’s pro-democracy spectrum.  They are:  People Power (under new post-Raymond Wong management); League of Social Democrats (led by a graying “Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung); Neo-Democrats (Democratic Party defectors); and the Neighborhood and Workers Services Center (another district-level organization).  The Civic Party signed on with reservations.

The Democratic and Labor Parties claim that the students’ original wording was too restrictive since they disregarded the nominating committees that dominate Proposals One and Three.  Alliance convener, Joseph Cheng, is doing his best.  He says all its members support civil nomination:  the difference is between those who are advocating a double track (committee and civil), and those who want to focus on a single (civil nomination) track  (Ming Pao Daily, SCMP, Sept. 9).

Only it’s not quite that simple.  The Democratic and Labor Parties have a plan.  They seem to be the chief sponsors of  Proposal Three.  This would create a nominating committee of sitting Legislative and District Councilors.  The motivation actually derives from another dream, dating back to pre-1997 days when liberals (as pan-democrats were called then) ruled the electoral roost.  Their dream for autonomy within Beijing’s promised new one-country, two-systems order would be guaranteed by a liberal-dominated government ruling Hong Kong.  To guard against any such possibility, back in the days when liberal majorities were strong enough to underpin such a dream,  the government insisted on legislation banning party affiliations for Chief Executives (Chief Exectuive Election Ordinance, Section 31).

Pan-democrats have chaffed under this rule ever since and see the 2017 political reform exercise as a chance to try again.  They do not seem to mind that the party now  in the best position to take advantage of such an arrangement is the big pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of  Hong Kong (DAB).  Asked in 2010 how he could continue to champion the idea of party affiliation for Chief Exectuives under such changed circumstances, one leading Civic Party member dismissed the question saying, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

The idea  now, in any case, is that pro-democracy political  parties could agree to sponsor a single candidate and then (assuming he/she wins) form a coalition party government.  Emily Lau (DP chair) and Cyd Ho (LP vice-chair) have had the most to say on this score.  Labor Party chairman Lee Cheuk-yan has explained that his support for Proposal Three is the reason his party cannot go along with civil nomination as the number one priority.  We advocate a double track, he says, not a single one.    The students have an answer for this, too.   We don’t want Legislative and District Councilors and especially not that lot to make decisions for us, they say.  Chief Executive candidates should be nominated by the people themselves.

Two questions stand out from all the foregoing that the Alliance for True Democracy’s legislators and academics have yet to address:

(1)  Why did they recommend the existing highly skewered Election Committee design when they might at least have suggested something with a more equitable representation of the community’s interests?   Loyalists and conservatives together still do not account for half the voting public, so it’s difficult to see why they should be granted  90% representation on the Election/Nominating Committee.

(2)  Since pan-democrats seem to have built defeat into their expectations, why are they still advocating party-affiliated Chief Executives when the party most likely to benefit is their arch rival?


* Qiao Xiaoyang, March 27, 2013:

** Zhang Xiaoming, Sept. 12, 2013:

*** Ming Pao Daily, Aug. 13;  also, 信報 (HK Economic Journal, Aug. 9, 10/11, 13).

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