Posted: Oct. 24, 2013
Legislative Council president and pro-Beijing loyalist Jasper Tsang Yok-sing [曾鈺成 ] recently found himself in an unfamiliar situation. He was the target of a critical commentary in the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po [文匯報] newspaper. At issue were remarks he made while hosting a tea party for local journalists from across the political spectrum to mark the start of the 2013/14 legislative year. He was discussing Beijing’s reluctance to accept democratic demands for universal suffrage elections and used the term xinmo [心魔 ] … difficult to translate as obsessive fears or inner demons … but suggesting something more subjective than real.
The impression Tsang conveyed was one commonly held by local democrats and outside observers alike. Beijing’s over-the-top revolutionary rhetoric is making pro-democracy forces here seem more like make-believe bogeymen conjured up for political effect … rather than the mortal regime-threatening danger Beijing keeps insisting they are. Wen Wei Po’s October 2 commentary aimed to set the record straight. Beijing doesn’t fear universal suffrage, proclaimed the headline, “the inner demons that must be cast out are dissident forces” [ 需除心魔的是反對派 ].
The commentary did not name Tsang, but his tea-party remarks had been widely reported so everyone knew it concerned his choice of words. They also illustrate the very real clash of political cultures that is gathering pace here. These are not just about policy differences between political adversaries like liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans in the United States. They all at least accept the existing political system and its basic rules. Here the adversaries have yet to agree on the system itself, much less the rules. The debate currently being argued is not just about who can win the next election, but about how to design rules that will determine the nature of the next election and all others to follow. Beijing’s local tormentors are holding out for Western-style polls with real choices. Beijing sees this for what it is: a threat to its unified one-party top-to-bottom domination of elections and all else. No wonder its image makers are forever conjuring up fears of Armageddon.
NOT MUCH MIDDLE GROUND
Translating the polemic for use in everyday Hong Kong language is not easy but Tsang Yok-sing does his best. He was the founding chairman, two decades ago, of what has become the main pro-Beijing political party here (the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB). He is also assumed by all to be a member of Hong Kong’s still underground unacknowledged communist party branch. Whenever asked to confirm his membership he never denies but instead deflects the question, the opt out of an honest man, some say.
Additionally, Tsang presides over the Legislative Council as its president, reportedly at Beijing’s behest given his impeccable loyalist credentials. But he has earned the respect of pro-democracy legislators for his even-handed decisions and outgoing manner. He is even on good terms with “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, radical champion of democracy and one of the council’s bad boys. They regularly thumb their noses at parliamentary dress and decorum to demonstrate their contempt for the council’s undemocratic establishment of which Tsang Yok-sing is an integral part.
So if anyone can bridge the gulf between local democrats and Beijing, it should be him and he has long said that is one of his ambitions. Those around him say he also aspires to be Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive. But the narrow margin for maneuver Beijing has drawn around the biggest issues at stake here suggests the difficulty of his attempts to play man in the middle.
He reviewed the challenges for his guests. Whether a member of the pro-democracy camp can be nominated for the post of Chief Executive is the crux of the problem, key to deciding whether election reform legislation can pass with the necessary two-thirds majority vote in the Legislative Council, and whether a universal suffrage election can actually be conducted come 2017, as Beijing has promised. He said Beijing officials’ worst nightmare [未解的魔咒 ] is that they would not be able to accept the person elected by universal suffrage. Beijing’s substantive approval is a Basic Law requirement (Article 45).
All of this is common knowledge. What attracted attention was his use of subjective terms to describe it and his nonchalant approach to Beijing’s nightmare scenario. If a true anti-one-party-rule democrat were to be elected by universal suffrage, he said, that would pit the people of Hong Kong against the central government. Beijing would be left with only two options: either approve the election of an anti-communist or reject the voters’ choice. A true constitutional crisis if ever there was one, which didn’t seem to bother him very much. He reportedly said that “it would not be such a great calamity if democrats were elected” because they would not be able to do as they please … with Beijing above and the DAB keeping watch below. He suggested that much could be achieved by way of a breakthrough if only Beijing could conquer its fears and not insist on trying to find ways of filtering out undesirable elements beforehand (Ming Pao Daily, Sept 27, Oct. 1).
The upsurge of rhetorical pressure began within days, courtesy of Wen Wei Po’s “casting out demons” blast. Tsang was the target even if he wasn’t named: “All patriots should stand firm, and support the Basic Law.” Those who oppose the Center cannot be Chief Executive. There can be “no margin for compromise.” It is dissident elements under the influence of Anglo-American forces who need to banish their obsessive fears (WWP, Oct. 2).
Tsang “humbly accepted” the putdown and said he had not meant to minimize the contradictions between Beijing and Hong Kong democrats. He was only trying to help Beijing deal with its seemingly insoluble electoral reform dilemma (Ming Pao Daily, Oct. 7).
A CANDIDATE FOR 2017?
Probably not. But maybe … and he evidently hasn’t given up hoping. Tsang’s problem now is that his ambition may have gotten the better of him. By stepping so far out of line in playing to the democratic gallery and saying what they want to hear, he has broken the basic rule of loyalty to Beijing that he is expected to live by and always has … except for a brief period after the June 4, 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
The origin of Tsang Yok-sing’s ambition, or at least the public’s knowledge thereof, dates back to the Chief Executive selection campaign last year … back to the days when the candidacy of the anointed favorite Henry Tang was collapsing and Leung Chun-ying was waiting in the wings. Leung was no one’s first choice and Tsang stepped briefly into the void. He clearly relished the attention telling journalists at one press conference that he felt duty-bound to consider the prospect since so many people had so sincerely asked him to join the contest.
Tsang was correct in that respect and some pan-democrats were among them. They argued that at least with Tsang, everyone knew they were getting a communist, whereas CY Leung seemed more like a loyalist cipher who would do Beijing’s bidding whether he was a party member or not.
Also, unlike Leung who had never participated in any election before, Tsang Yok-sing and his DAB had joined the fray in the early 1990s, against their inclinations, and built their voter base from nothing. He was one of the original “red shoots,” young leftists who came of political age during the late 1960s Cultural Revolution and had come up the hard way. He also understood pan-democrats’ aspirations and some trusted him to intercede with Beijing on Hong Kong’s behalf. Now he has spoken up so well in that regard that he may have damaged his loyalist credentials. But one thing for sure, his September tea party performance did nothing to harm his standing within the democratic camp.*
* A verbatim account of Tsang’s views was printed in Ming Pao Daily, Oct. 26 (p. A27), the day after his public question-and-answer discussion meeting with students and faculty at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He said, among other things, that except for a brief period last year during the Chief Executive election contest he had never entertained the idea of becoming Hong Kong’s Chief executive and he did not intend to run in 2017. He also said that if no genuine electoral reform is in place by 2017, Hong Kong would in effect become ungovernable. But he did his best to obfuscate the anger he had caused among his pro-Beijing loyalist colleagues with his “inner demons” comments and efforts to play peacemaker between loyalists and pan-democrats, an objective he continued to pursue during the October 25th CUHK meeting.