Posted:  Jan. 6, 2014


Hong Kong’s democracy movement celebrated the first day of 2014  the same way it saw in 2013:  with a two-hour protest march across town from Victoria Park to the downtown financial district.  Only this year protesters failed to reaffirm the power of feet-on-the-ground as they usually do.   If expectations are high and the weather is fine but people don’t show up, campaigners can only ponder the reasons why.  So far there are no answers.

Last year the chief target was Hong Kong’s recently-installed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, mocked as “Mr. 689” because his mandate came from only 689 votes in the 1,200-member Election Committee that formally selects candidates approved by Beijing.  This year the marching slogans carried forward the cause to demand “real” universal suffrage elections and an end to the predictable outcomes of a purpose-built committee with predetermined candidates.

Lead coordinator for both marches was the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of many activist groups with many different causes and one common aim.  They prepared for a 50,000 turnout but could claim only 30,000.  Starting time was delayed to no avail.  Nor were more people waiting in side streets to join along the way. The police estimate was 11,000.   Both figures were down substantially on 2013 claims of 130,000 versus 26,000 (Jan. 9, 2013 post).

Even the pro-Beijing patriotic hecklers were all but absent.  They made their first appearance in 2013 but after a year of disruptive antics, rumor has it that instructions from on high came down with a message to cool it.  For whatever reason, their presence was minimal along the January First route this year.

Clues as to what went wrong and how to set it right perhaps lay elsewhere.  Supporters this year had the option of a mock election and 62,000 voted overwhelmingly for:  a more representative nominating committee;  no prior government vetting of candidates; and public participation in the nominating process.  The poll was organized by Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program following up on the experience gained from a similar exercise ahead of  Leung Chun-ying’s 2012 Election Committee selection.  The idea then was to see if the public cared enough to participate in a mock election and over 200,000 did  (March 29, 2012 post).  On January First:  40,000 voted via a mobile phone application; 19,000 used the organizer’s website; and 2, 771 voted at a polling booth set up in Victoria Park before the march.

Co-sponsor of the poll was Occupy Central, the movement that captured imaginations early last year by promising Hong Kong’s first ever civil disobedience campaign if genuine voting rights are again delayed and denied as they have been through every election reform cycle dating back to the 1980s (  Also sponsoring the day’s events was the new Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of all but one pro-democracy Legislative Councilors and their political parties (  This group, too, was formed early last year to focus debate and draft proposals for the coming round of reforms scheduled to take effect in 2016 and 2017.  The one drop-out, Raymond Wong Yuk-man, was present and accounted for … loud and clear … positioned at a roadside fund-raising stall along the route.


Everyone was there who should have been, except for a mass turnout of the people who will ultimately matter most:  the general voting public.  Yet by now Hong Kong voters should be well aware of what is at stake.  Calls for a freely-elected local government began  in the 1980s, as soon as Hong Kong learned it would be returned to China after the British left in 1997.  The motive then was fear of Chinese communist dictatorship.  It still is.  The aim was and remains to try and protect Hong Kong’s existing way of political life by allowing Hong Kong voters themselves to serve as the guardians of its post-1997 future.

Beijing accepted the challenge, up to a point, and agreed to continue the limited experiment belatedly begun by the departing colonial government.  Now finally, 17 years after 1997, Hong Kong is looking forward to electing its own Chief Executive on a one-person, one-vote basis.  The date is 2017.  That much is certain because  Beijing has said so.  Under Hong Kong’s “one-country, two-systems” relationship with the rest of China, local autonomy is also limited and such big constitutional questions are for Beijing to decide.  But who can be a candidate?  Who can nominate and how?  These are questions of contested political autonomy and the decibel levels have been rising throughout the past year as deadlines approach for drafting the new electoral regulations.

         If  Beijing has its way, all will be over except for the shouting by the time voters cast their ballots in 2017.  Hong Kong reformers have learned the hard way, through many such reform cycles, that Beijing’s promise about universal suffrage was easy to make.  What they should have been demanding all along were definitions not promises.  Now they know.   The current contest of strength is about whose definition will prevail.

Universal suffrage means one thing in mainland parlance and another in international practice, a clear case of clashing political cultures if ever there was one.  But Chinese officials are actually very familiar with the Western concept of universal suffrage.  They began adapting it for use three decades ago with the help of unsuspecting Western advisors and the end result is probably not what they were anticipating.  In any event, the experiment served as a means of stabilizing  and  rebuilding the communist party’s basic level leadership demoralized by the changes following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.

Today the base of  the people’s congress system is elected via universal suffrage in villages and townships nationwide. Congresses at all levels above are indirectly elected by those below.  The catch is that the grassroots universal suffrage elections are managed and candidates determined by the ubiquitous communist party organization that extends to the  lowermost  village level.

Democracy campaigners here see their future in that mainland pattern.  Yet despite the determination to avoid it, they have also seen their bargaining power grow weaker by the year:  due as much to their own mistakes as to their opponents’ skill in exploiting them.  Long gone are the days when democracy activists could claim Hong Kong’s new political arena as their own.  Beijing  was shocked by the massive protest march on July 1, 2003 against the  Hong Kong government’s attempt to push a national political security law through the local legislature.  The bill was shelved but the democracy movement is paying a heavy price for that victory.

Since then Beijing has steadily increased its interventions and especially its oversight of  Hong Kong’s political reform agenda.  Additionally, the local pro-Beijing or patriotic community, as it likes to call itself, has taken to electioneering like ducks to water.  By 2004, their forces included Hong Kong’s largest political party, plus allied friends and affiliated labor union politicians.  Together they were winning 40% of the votes cast at the Legislative Council level by 2008.  Today they are closing in on 50%.  They also now dominate with majorities on all 18 of Hong Kong’s District Councils and in 2010 tried to use these to leapfrog into the Legislative Council with a people’s congress-style indirect election reform plan.


For democracy supporters, the streets are still their turf.   But the uncomfortable reality is that voting with their feet has become their only sure option … or at least that has been the assumption.  It worked for us in 2003, they say, and it worked again in 2012 when the government tried to introduce a compulsory mainland-style political studies curriculum for all students.  Whether it works during the next political reform cycle is something else again since their chief adversaries now are Beijing decision-makers not the Hong Kong government.  Feet on the ground are also not enough to win a contest of wits and strength being waged over the intricacies of comparative constitutional law … which may help explain the disappointing turnout on January First.

Still, there are margins for maneuver and rhetorical advantages to pursue.  These are being provided by Beijing’s advocates themselves as they struggle to impose mainland logic on Hong Kong’s Basic Law guarantees. The law was promulgated by Beijing in 1990, to serve as Hong Kong’s constitution during the 50-year life-span (1997 to 2047), of the one-country, two-systems experiment.

The chief points in official arguments and polemics that have filled mainland media sources throughout the past year are that 2017 electoral regulations must not diverge from the Basic Law, and the Chief Executive must be “patriotic.”  The term means unqualified loyalty to the current communist party-led system government, which would automatically disqualify most local democrats depending on how they parse their words.  Also, nominating candidates should be the work of the old purpose-built Election Committee, reborn as the 2017  Nominating Committee.  The New Year’s Day marching slogans and mock-election questions were protesters’ answer to the media campaign and mockery was the order of the day since the official talking points make such easy targets.

The Basic Law, for instance, says nothing about a “patriotic” requirement for Chief Executives.  When challenged, officials and opinion leaders can only say it is self-evident, “assumed.”   Actually, the Basic Law uses the international standard.  Article 26 grants all residents  “the right to vote and the right to stand for election.”

The Basic Law also says nothing about using the old Election Committee as a Nominating Committee once the ultimate aim of a universal suffrage election has been reached.  Apologists say, nevertheless it was the “legislative intent” of drafters all those years ago.  To bolster their case, mainland officials hit upon the term “with reference to” when discussing plans for a Nominating Committee to be designed “with reference to” the old Election Committee.

Trying to be helpful, the Hong Kong government’s recently issued Consultation Document notes that when used in mainland law, the phrase “with reference to” has binding effect.  Numbers of such mainland laws are cited as proof.  The document was issued early last month to serve as a guide for the election reform debate (  Actually, it’s written to guide the debate in Beijing’s direction.  So much so that drafters  forgot about Article 18 of the Basic Law, which states clearly that mainland laws “shall not be applied” in Hong Kong.

Consultation Document drafters also wrote, following mainland officials’ statements, that the Basic Law’s Article 45 instruction for “democratic” nominating  procedures actually means “organizational” or “collective” nomination.  This evidently means the committee should nominate approved candidates by a “committee-of-the-whole” approach, rather than by individual member’s signatures as has been the practice since 1997.  Yet the Basic Law contains no such mention of collective nomination once the time comes for universal suffrage elections.

Evidently,  the  Basic Law  is a work-of-art-in-motion … meaning whatever Beijing officials say it means, whenever they choose to say it.  They seem to be making it up as they go along.

Protesters have many miles to walk before this debate is done and political satire can do wonders to boost flagging spirits.  But the real test for democracy campaigners is whether they can wrestle Beijing to a draw and win something other than a mainland-style pre-arranged election for 2017.   For that they will need not just a few thousand pairs of feet on the ground but many tens of thousands.  And for that they will need more compelling arguments to clarify the association between specific election designs and the dangers Hong Kong campaigners have been working to avoid for the past three decades.


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