Posted: March 11, 2014
Political campaign season is in full swing here and national leaders are pulling out all the stops in an effort to turn back rising demands for “genuine” democratic elections. That means mobilizing all possible forces … with soft power, not hard, following the guarantees built into Hong Kong’s “one-country, two-systems” relationship with Beijing … to discredit the demands and the people making them. Given their arguments and admonitions, officials evidently have two aims. One is to reduce expectations and dampen public interest so as to minimize the number of people likely to hit the streets as campaigning intensifies. The specter of instability that mass demonstrations evoke seems to loom foremost in Beijing minds, a concern always evident since July 1, 2003 when an unexpected 500,000 people turned out to protest national security legislation.
Beijing’s second aim is to win over the 70-member Legislative Council where electoral reform proposals need a two-thirds majority to pass. A disunited pro-democracy caucus is perfect for the purpose since pan-democrats hold only 27 seats and they are currently very disunited. But for the threat posed by people power feet-on-the-ground, Beijing’s task would be easy since there are already at least four persuadable democrats. So this is, for now, essentially what it should be: a battle for public opinion.
SETTING THE SCENE
Last week attention shifted briefly to Beijing where the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and its companion honorary body the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference are in progress. The sessions this year run from March 5 to 13. Observers love to dismiss the meetings as rubber-stamp affairs but that reflects Western assumptions about what representative assemblies are supposed to do. The Chinese variant gives an entirely different meaning to the term “do-nothing congress” because the NPC/CPPCC meetings fulfill many functions. They also stand in as a useful helpmate for communist party rule.
This year’s tasks include mobilization work to counter Hong Kong’s political reform demands and preparations for the struggle to come. Beijing’s intentions for the first Chief Executive election by universal suffrage in 2017 were spelled out in the clearest possible terms by the highest national leaders in their most authoritative setting: the Great Hall of the People on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Officials also told Hong Kong delegates what was expected of them: return to Hong Kong and work energetically to influence public opinion on Beijing’s behalf.
THE OFFICIAL WORD
Premier Li Keqiang [ 李克強 ] led the way, not by what he said but what he left unsaid in his official Government Work Report … taking us back to the old China-watching days when reading between the lines was developed into a fine art. For the past decade and more the annual work reports’ few words on Hong Kong have included the comforting phrases that embody its “two-systems” status and guarantees: “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong” with a “high degree of autonomy” from the central government. The phrases this year were absent. Premier Li spoke instead about a “completely precise implementation of the Basic Law,” “advancing democracy in accordance with the law,” and “safeguarding social harmony” (full report: Wen Wei Po, March 6). The omissions were no accidental oversight; limited autonomy was a theme repeated throughout.
The second ranking official to speak on Hong Kong was Zhang Dejiang [張德江 ], member of the Chinese Communist Party’s top decision-making Political Bureau Standing Committee, chairman of the NPC, and head of the party’s small working group that oversees Hong Kong affairs. During his March 6 meeting with the Hong Kong delegation Zhang spoke of Beijing’s one unwavering stand and three provisos. The unwavering stand: follow the law in advancing Hong Kong’s democracy. The provisos: universal suffrage elections must conform to Hong Kong’s “actual situation”; they must adhere to Basic Law directives; the result must be a patriotic Chief Executive.
Zhang went on to explain by recalling the old 20th century verdict on China’s many modern-era reform projects … all doomed to fail because in their rush to succeed after the collapse of the imperial order in 1911, reformers “mechanically copied” one foreign model after another. These included the attempt to introduce democratic elections a century ago although he did not mention that particular precedent … perhaps because it coincided so closely with the collapse of the last imperial dynasty. He said only that Hong Kong must not try to “copy mechanically” forms of democracy in other countries because they would be unfamiliar “unnatural” imports and could lead to chaos.
Zhang also warned everyone to be on guard in order to oppose all those who would threaten Hong Kong’s peace and prosperity with calls for alien forms of government that did not belong here. Although he didn’t name it in so many words, he was clearly referring to the “Occupy Central” movement and its plans for civil disobedience if Hong Kong’s 2017 election arrangements are not allowed to comply with internationally recognized standards for universal suffrage (Wen Wei Po, March 7).
Zhang Dejiang’s speech to the CPPCC delegations of Hong Kong and Macao was equally provocative. He said universal suffrage in Hong Kong must comply with its “actual situation” meaning “especially its legal status as a local administrative region directly under the central government.” It must therefore comply with Beijing’s decisions and “can’t just do something else.” He also said one-country, two-systems means ever-increasing cross-border unity.
As for autonomy, he was reported as saying, at both meetings, that it had been granted to Hong Kong by the central government in the Basic Law. But a high degree of autonomy did not mean complete freedom. The central government didn’t authorize autonomy only to relinquish all power. He did not discuss the degrees of autonomy that Hong Kong might be allowed to enjoy (Wen Wei Pao, March 5, 7).*
HONG KONG’S DELEGATES
Maria Tam Wai-chu [ 譚惠珠 ], current leader of Hong Kong’s 36-member NPC delegation, hastened to assure Chairman Zhang that its members were indeed working energetically to influence public opinion on Beijing’s behalf. She even volunteered that they were coordinating with Ming Pao Daily to publish opinion pieces in the paper, a claim the acting editor promptly denied (Ming Pao, March 7). But maybe she knows something he doesn’t since his pro-Beijing replacement is scheduled to take over soon. This is just the sort of assignment that the newsroom shake-up at Ming Pao, it is said, was intended to encourage (Feb. 26, 27 posts).
CPPCC delegates, too, were more than happy to endorse Zhang’s message. They said, of course, Hong Kong is not completely autonomous, Beijing certainly has the right to supervise, and so on (Wen Wei Po, March 5). CPPCC member and professor emeritus Lau Siu-kai [劉兆佳] explained the missing phrases on autonomy in Premier Li’s report. The policy direction remains unchanged, Lau told a TV interviewer, it’s just that in the past Beijing officials never said anything much about it. Now they feel they must (also Wen Wei Po, March 9). Professor Lau was the government’s favorite pollster from its preparatory days before 1997 until his retirement in 2012. Conservative to the core, he has never been able to take serious account either of pro-democracy activists or their demands.
Another prominent CPPCC member made headlines here with a speech to fellow delegates in Beijing that specifically targeted the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion pollster Robert Chung Ting-yao [鍾庭耀 ]. The speaker was Peter Lee Ka-kit [ 李家傑 ], eldest son of property tycoon Lee Shau-kee [ 李兆基 ] and a member of the CPPCC Standing Committee. Peter Lee accused Chung of conducting polls that were intended as tools to create favorable opinion for pan-democrats. Chung is currently collaborating with Occupy Central leaders to assess public views on political reform but he has long been a target for loyalists who almost succeeded in removing him as chief HKU pollster soon after 1997. Rather than go that route again, Peter Lee proposed setting up a new polling project, funded by Hong Kong’s major commercial associations, to provide a more favorable reflection of public opinion here (Wen Wei Po, Apple Daily, Standard, March 5).
THE HOME FRONT
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying travelled to Beijing for the occasion leaving his number two, Carrie Lam [ 林鄭月娥 ], to guard the home front. As Chief Secretary for Administration, she wears many hats and heads many projects including the task force that is leading the political reform consultation exercise. In that capacity, she is supposed to be collecting and collating public views on proposals for the 2017 election. But instead of just listening, learning, and reporting, she is also showing the way … just as her fellow task-force member Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen did a month ago (Feb. 6, 14 posts). Her contribution to the upsurge of official guidance from Beijing was an opinion piece of her own published, like Yuen’s, in Chinese and English-language versions. It was a copy of her speech at a youth forum on February 27.
Lam’s article was in the nature of an interim report on the public’s views gathered so far, halfway through the consultation period. In fact, her message was more like a threat: either accept Beijing’s guidelines or there won’t be a universal suffrage election in 2017, she strongly implied. This is the same pressure tactic that Hong Kong government officials used during the last reform sequence in 2010. She wrote that everyone seems to want universal suffrage; everyone agrees that the Basic law must be followed; and “many people” agree that Chief Executives must be patriotic.
The stumbling block was over nominating procedures, prior screening, and perhaps the definition of patriotism. “Quite a number of people” agree that a nominating committee alone should do the job. But some have other ideas … like popular or political party nomination and no screening. She warned that any such flights from “political reality” would be like “viewing flowers in a mirror or the moon’s reflection in water” [ 鏡花水月 ] . She might have chosen a less fanciful four-character phrase since democracy campaigners aren’t likely to set much store by such a poetic allusion to the futility of their cause (article: Wen Wei Po, Feb. 28; South China Morning Post, Standard, Ming Pao Daily, March 3). The moonlight and flowers anology nevertheless featured in many headlines reporting on her youth forum speech (Ta Kung Pao, Ming Pao Daily, HK Economic Times, HK Economic Journal, all Feb. 28).
During NPC week she spent more time talking to young people and her remarks at a college forum were featured along side the Beijing speeches. Lam’s choice of four-character phrases was more appropriate for her audience but the message was the same. “Hong Kong’s system must be conducted in accordance with its constitutional basis; democracy will be difficult to promote with proposals that ‘gallop across the sky like heavenly horses’ [ 天馬行空 ]” (Wen Wei Po, March 6).
So the awkward “one-country, two-systems” design with its 50-year shelf life … that made possible Hong Kong’s smooth return to China in 1997 … has reached a real impasse over the issue of electoral reform. Having promised universal suffrage in 2017, after years of procrastination, Beijing officials accept that they have to deliver something. But the two-systems formula was designed by Beijing to allow for transition to one-country, one-system unification by 2047. Beijing is pursuing that objective in many ways, from above and below, without explanation and without allowing the Hong Kong public any say in the matter.
Now officials are finally speaking out to say autonomy is limited and they aim to manipulate their universal suffrage promise as well. A genuine Western-style election is clearly not part of the transition agenda and there are plenty of other indicators as to the direction Beijing wants to go. Pressures for managed mainland-style people’s congress elections are at work below as well as above.
Had Hong Kong’s democracy movement faded away, as Prof. Lau and many others wishfully predicted before 1997, the impasse would not have reached its present point. But a majority of Hong Kong’s voting public continues to resist the growing pressures for integration they can see and feel all around them. Antagonism is growing as well, along with demands to safeguard the autonomy that Beijing allowed people here to assume would last forever.
There are, of course, ways out of the political reform impasse but the usual “give and take” compromise gloss won’t work as easily now as it did in 2010 … unless the participants can begin to spell out clearly just what it is they’re willing to give up in terms of Hong Kong’s long-term 2047 trajectory and what they expect to receive in return.
* A full two-page report on the most important content of his speeches to the NPC and CPPCC delegations was printed in WWP, March 16 … also posted on the Central Government’s Hong Kong Liaison Office website.