Posted: Feb. 6, 2014
Unlike other protracted disputes in other places, Hong Kong’s long-running confrontation with Beijing over demands for “genuine” democratic elections has always been entirely peaceful. It’s also likely to remain so … scaremongering over current plans for a civil disobedience campaign to the contrary not withstanding. Still, patience is beginning to wear thin and tempers are rising as the rhetorical struggle moves back and forth between pan-democrats and their various conservative opponents over proposals for the next round of election reforms. These are supposed to be ready in time for the next Legislative Council election in 2016 and the Chief Executive election in 2017.
The government-sponsored public consultation now underway was launched in early December and is due to reach preliminary conclusions later this spring (Dec. 6, 12, 18, 2013 posts). Pro-democracy parties and activists had been debating among themselves throughout 2013 and were ready within weeks to present a consensus, of sorts, on the guided questions posed by the government’s formal Consultation Document.
RE-CAP: PAN-DEMOCRATS’ DEMANDS AND DISAGREEMENTS
The answers don’t really qualify as a “consensus” since pan-democrats are as divided among themselves as ever. But they agree on a possible combination of reforms focusing first on the way Chief Executive candidates might be nominated. Radicals, so-called, want the general public to have a direct say in the process. That this demand is regarded here as “radical” says more about the conservative nature of the local political arena as a whole than about the idea itself or the people advocating it. Others are willing to stick with variations on the indirect approach currently used to endorse Beijing-approved Chief Executive nominees. In these formulations, the existing built-for-purpose Election Committee would become the Nominating Committee with some minor modifications and/or with the addition of District and Legislative Councilors.
Allowing political parties to nominate is also one of the three possibilities … along with public nomination and the committee option … in the summation announced by the mainstream Alliance for True Democracy (ATD) last month. The ATD proposals would allow the Nominating Committee to name its own candidates but the committee would also be obliged to endorse those of the public and political parties. (Jan. 13, 2014 post). So far there is no demand from the ATD for a redesign of the committee itself.
Radicals want to carry the campaign forward with an absolute demand that public nomination [ 公民提名 ] must be included. Moderates will settle for something less, if need be, when the time comes, which everyone knows it will. The Democratic Party is naturally among the moderates. It is also being constantly reminded of its climb-down during the 2010 reform cycle. People Power and the League of Social Democrats, plus the vanguard young scholars group (still too young to vote) lead the radical disposition. But instead of saying the disagreements are only helping Beijing, Democratic Party chair Emily Lau continues to make matters worse with her implausible accusation that the radicals are taking their cues from Beijing. The exchange of such insults led to a public altercation only yesterday that pan-democrats are trying to smooth over today. But it will be for naught if she continues to insist that “they are not our allies,” as she has done many times since the 2012 election.
The Civic Party still has its own share of internal disagreements, leading the irrepressible Ronny Tong Ka-wah [ 湯家驊 ] to announce a proposal of his own that precludes public nomination. He suggests using the current Election Committee with a top up of Legislative and District Councilors (Ming Pao Daily, Oct. 16, 2013). Still a world unto himself as he was throughout the entire 2010 reform sequence, Tong seemed genuinely dismayed and perplexed when young radicals condemned his proposal as a betrayal of the democratic cause.
Retired civil servant Anson Chan Fang On-sang [ 陳方安生 ] and some Civic Party members including its current chair Audrey Eu Yuet-mee [于若薇 ] were also ready with a response in early January. They blasted the government’s Consultation Document, for its mix of leading questions designed to guide public opinion in the direction Beijing is demanding (Jan. 13, 2014 post). That direction anticipates a simple name-change for the existing Election Committee, allowing it to become a Nominating Committee that can be relied upon to tap “safe” candidates.
DON’T IMPROVISE AND NO INNOVATIONS
The main problem with the debate so far is that the government’s Consultation Document questions were indeed designed to produce answers the Chinese government wants to hear and these were no secret. Beijing jumped the gun and began laying down its own conditions months ago, most prominently with visits and speeches by leading officials Qiao Xiaoyang [ 喬曉陽 ] and Li Fei [李飛 ] (April 2, Nov. 27, 2013 posts). Loyalist forces here took up the refrain and other pro-establishment conservatives have followed suit producing a daily drum beat of politically correct publicity.
Yet rather than let the consultation process play itself out … and risk losing the struggle to shape public opinion … the Hong Kong government has now stepped forward again with its most unambiguous statement to date. This came from the Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung [ 袁囯強 ] on the eve of the Lunar New Year holiday break when everyone is always too busy to launch serious political protests. He is one of the three top Hong Kong government officials who are leading the political reform task force. Yuen was not inviting the community to state its preferences but rather laying down the law, so to speak … telling everyone, yet again, what Beijing wants those preferences to be.
His message marking the half-way point in the five-month consultation period appeared in multiple copies, Chinese and English, across the political spectrum.* Yuen addressed specifically the ATD’s January summation of proposals and the Anson Chan/Civic Party critique. His main point: only the Nominating Committee has the power to nominate candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive election. The implication was for all elections beyond as well, given the nature of his argument.
Yuen cautioned that public and political party nomination derived from an incorrect reading of the Basic Law. Only a “proper interpretation” of the relevant Article 45 passage would be legal: “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.”
He dismissed arguments that call for a purposive rather than a narrow interpretation of the words used. The Basic Law is not a “living” document that can be elaborated to meet the needs of a changing society. Provisions elsewhere in the Basic Law do state that all Hong Kong residents are equal before the law. All permanent residents are also granted the right to vote and stand for election, as pro-democracy critics point out. But these provisions are not absolute and must not be taken literally, he wrote, because Article 45 supersedes them. If the Nominating Committee is obliged to endorse candidates chosen by the public or political parties as the ATD proposals anticipate, that would confuse procedure with power and preempt the committee’s role as the sole nominating authority.
RAILROADING THE PUBLIC?
In a follow-up interview published a few days later, he seemed to be trying to soften the dictatorial tone … somewhat. He said the government’s mind was not yet closed nor was it listening with deaf ears. He would be happy to consider “good counter- arguments” should any be raised and had presented his message only with the aim of contributing to a “balanced and informed consideration” of the issues. He seemed to acknowledge the growing demands for some sort of public nomination. But he added that once people understand they are demanding something “illegal,” they would likely change their minds.
Yuen nevertheless threatened the usual dire consequences for Hong Kong’s standing among international investors if political reform led to turmoil here. He even invoked the authority of the conservative Heritage Foundation in the United States and Canada’s Fraser Institute to reinforce his message about the need for a safe and smooth solution. They might downgrade Hong Kong’s economic ranking if political stability could not be assured. Consequently, he implied they would prefer an imperfect universal suffrage solution for the sake of investor confidence and so did he. An imperfect solution would be better than no solution or political turmoil. Any imperfections could be corrected “in the future” (SCMP, Feb. 4).
The message seems especially overbearing because it comes from Beijing via Hong Kong’s own Secretary for Justice … yet another reminder of “one country” rule. But public cynicism about the Hong Kong government’s way with public consultations was born long ago and the style still harks back to British days even if directions are now coming from Beijing.
As it happens, the British Broadcasting Corporation is currently re-showing episodes from the 1980s satirical “Yes Minister” series and one line fits Hong Kong’s current dilemma perfectly. On how to accommodate conflicting demands among constituents, a veteran civil servant explains to his newly-appointed political minister about the importance of keeping up appearances, especially as regards the appearance of neutrality, while nevertheless persisting in what he aims to accomplish. For example, nothing could appear more neutrally objective than railway carriages. But once the track is laid, they all move in the same direction. Rimsky Yuen can only hope his effort to reinforce Beijing’s guidelines will pay off in similar fashion.
* South China Morning Post, Standard, Wen Wei Po, Ming Pao Daily, all Jan. 29; China Daily, Jan. 30-Feb. 3.