Posted:  April 23, 2014

 

No stone is being left unturned in the effort to convince everyone that Beijing’s official reading of the Basic Law should be accepted as the mandate for electing Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive in 2017.  Besides blanket daily coverage in the pro-Beijing media and what seems like a seminar a day on the topic of electoral reform, officials decided to invite Hong Kong’s entire Legislative Council on an expenses-paid two-day visit to Shanghai where they could hold even more discussions on electoral reform.  This sort of thing has been done before to no apparent political result … mostly good food, sight-seeing, and stilted mainland-style official meetings.  Members of the Legislative Council’s loyalist and conservative majority are regular cross-border travelers and will need little encouragement to approve Beijing’s designs.  The target group was the 27-member minority representing various shades of opinion within the democratic camp.  After much deliberation, the trip went off more-or-less as planned on April 12-13.

         Many local democracy activists have had their home-return permits revoked as punishment for their “dissident” status.  These permits are the travel documents ordinarily granted to all Hong Kong Chinese residents … except those who have been declared persona non grata for whatever reason.  Among legislators so regarded are “Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung and Democratic Party chair Emily Lau Wai-hing.  They were promised one-off permits for the Shanghai trip only but Lau said she would not cross the border except as a “free woman,” as is her right.  Long Hair disagreed.  He celebrated his permit with a photo-op saying he welcomed the opportunity for some cross-border agitation and intended to leave if conditions were not to his liking.  They were not and he took the next flight back to Hong Kong after customs officials searched his luggage and said he could not disembark with his publicity materials on the June Fourth 1989 Tiananmen Square protest movement.  Included among them was a big-character poster calling for an end to political dictatorship (Ming Pao Daily, April 12, 13).

         Labor Party legislators Cyd Ho Sau-lan and Peter Cheung Kwok-che then returned to Hong Kong in protest and the Civic Party’s caucus leader Alan Leong Kah-kit, who had planned to arrive late, decided to cancel.  Of the 14 pro-democracy legislators who signed on, only 10 completed the trip.  They included three other Civic Party legislators two of whom ran into a spot of trouble from their public security detail for trying to publicize Hong Kong electoral reform concerns on visits around town.  Emily Lau stayed home but the Democratic Party was represented by two other legislators:  Helena Wong Pik-wan and Sin Chung-kai who lost out in the South Horizons by-election last month (April 14 post).

           Ultimately, all 10 were granted a separate two-hour meeting to put their case before mainland officials without interference from their conservative/loyalist fellow councilors. That was the main condition democrats had insisted on beforehand and it was a victory in itself.  The invitation had originally been extended for a Shanghai study tour of the sort they were determined to avoid.

NO OFFICIAL CHANGE YET

          But for the symbolism involved, legislators need not have traveled all the way to Shanghai since they were already familiar with two of the three officials present.  The stiffly-formal Li Fei 【李飛】came to Hong Kong last November when he spoke to and met with many local officials and leaders.  His message to Hong Kong then was that the Chief Executive it elected must be “patriotic” and the mechanism for nominating candidates must be a committee (Nov. 27 post).  Another of the officials was Zhang Xiaoming 【張曉明】, Beijing’s representative in charge of its Liaison Office here.  Most important of the three, however, was Wang Guangya 【王光亞】, director of the central government’s  Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, meeting Hong Kong democrats for what he said was likely to be the first of many such exchanges in the months to come.

          Otherwise, the two sides had to be satisfied with shaking hands and re-stating their respective positions on the 2017 Chief Executive election.  Wang Guangya said the election had to be conducted according to the Basic Law; the person elected had to be patriotic; and the election reforms necessary to bring that about had to be conducted in accordance with the decisions issued by Beijing in the early 2000s.  These gave the central government prior decision-making authority over Hong Kong electoral reform proposals for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive.   Li Fei emphasized the reasons Beijing is so afraid of publicly-nominated candidates being elected on a one-person, one-vote basis.  All of that carried three grave risks:  political confrontation; constitutional crisis (if voters elected someone Beijing could not accept); and uncontrollable populism (Wen Wei Po, Ming Pao, April 14).

           Zhang Xiaoming seemed the most out of sorts … maybe because he had been responsible for arranging things from the Hong Kong end.   He complained that pan-dems had made too many demands, were deliberately provocative, and raised all kinds of extraneous issues.  He proceeded to lecture them on the correct attitude needed to reach agreement.  They must be sincere, rational, and farsighted.  Some of their slogans and proposals were in complete violation of the Basic Law and he couldn’t decide whether they really didn’t understand or were just feigning ignorance.

            Zhang nevertheless said he would be happy to meet in Hong Kong with legislators who had passed up the Shanghai trip.  Long Hair promptly responded with another demand saying he would be happy to accept the invitation … provided the meeting was broadcast live or recorded so everyone could learn what had been said.  Zhang also clarified one point saying that Beijing had never said all pro-democracy partisans were by definition unpatriotic.  Officials had only said that those democrats who were not patriotic, whether in word or deed, could not be Chief Executive (Wen Wei Po, Ming Pao, Apple, April 14).

          The 10 legislators used as their platform the final three-track Alliance for True Democracy proposal announced in January.  The three tracks:  public nomination via a signature campaign; party nomination; or nomination by a committee (Jan. 13 post).  The officials ruled out tracks one and two saying both were in violation of the Basic Law.  Legislators pressed the issue noting that the Basic Law does not rule out either of the two in so many words.  Officials nevertheless refused to budge.  Asked specifically about public recommendation, Wang Guangya nixed that as well.  The idea of public recommendation has emerged as a fallback position suggested by several academics during the past month.  It would allow the public to recommend candidates but a nominating committee would make the final decisions (April 1 post, updates).

           Wang was quoted as saying:  ‘The foundation of law is the Basic Law and a nominating committee is stipulated in the Basic Law, the one and only nominating mechanism stipulated in that law.  If it is to be done according to law, this is something everyone should understand.  If it is decided to implement the objective of universal suffrage in 2017, it must be done in accordance with the law and this law is not something to be taken over form someplace else. It is only the Basic Law’ (Wen Wei Po, April 14).

REINFORCING THE MESSAGE

           Shanghai was followed up immediately with more of the same … another forum showcasing the mainland message on political reform.  Hosting the event was the new mainland-based Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies set up a few months ago to promote cross-border mainland interests.  Among its sponsors is long time local loyalist professor emeritus Lau Siu-kai.  The April 15 event was the association’s first to be held in Hong Kong.  Mainland and local loyalists dominated a program designed to refute and mock the arguments and ideas currently prevailing within Hong Kong’s democracy movement.  These were defended by Professors Joseph Cheng (Alliance for True Democracy convener) and Benny Tai (Occupy Central originator), along with Civic Party moderate Ronny Tong.

          The featured guest speaker was Wang Zhenmin 【王振民】, professor of law at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.  He is known as a second generation “Basic Law guardian,” the first generation being its original 1980s drafters.  Wang brought the Shanghai message directly home to Hong Kong, dismissing both public nomination and recommendation as violations of the Basic Law.  He said they would dilute the constitutional power and authority of the nominating committee concept that is enshrined in Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.  He also mocked the idea of an “international standard” for universal suffrage … adopted by Benny Tai as the litmus test for Hong Kong’s electoral reform proposals.  Wang referred to it as a “so-called” standard saying that each country has its own different election arrangements.  This means there is no set standard.  Hong Kong should therefore create standards of its own for use in its own unique situation (Wen Wei Po, Ming Pao, Apple, South China Morning Post, April 16).

WEARING THEM DOWN?

          But is the repetitive hard sell working?  Nothing much was accomplished during the weekend in Shanghai.  Pro-democracy legislators nevertheless did what they could with the opportunity and probably made their point.  Those who participated were the moderates among the 27 pan-democrats in Hong Kong’s 70-seat Legislative Council.  Yet those 10 were obviously enough to try the patience of Liaison Office director Zhang Xiaoming who didn’t try to hide his exasperation.  He and other officials must now be asking themselves:  if the moderates are giving us this much trouble what will the Hong Kong political scene be like when everyone gets into the mix?   Is the hard line enforceable?

         Officials must also realize that their “adhere to the Basic Law” mantra is wearing a little thin since the Basic Law doesn’t really say what they keep insisting it does and too many people here are saying as much.  Perhaps that’s why Beijing officials seem to be shifting their emphasis from legal to political points … the fears Li Fei articulated are far more urgent. 

          Perhaps those considerations are also why currents can be felt shifting ever so slightly and why the speech Professor Wang was reading might need to be revised for future use.  Amid the solid chorus of “no’s” that have greeted every pro-democracy reform proposal, the Hong Kong government’s consultation team leaders have been quoted as saying, more than once, that the proposal for public recommendation put forward by 18 moderate academics earlier this month is worth a second look.  Coordinator for this group is University of Hong Kong law lecturer Eric Cheung Tat-ming. 

          Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said the proposal merits consideration to assess whether or not it conforms to the Basic Law.  Another member of her team said the same thing a few days later.  They were speaking just before and just after the Shanghai trip (South China Morning Post, April 12; Standard, April 16).  But a pro-Beijing party leader, Starry Lee, seems to have been the first to look kindly on the proposal (Standard, April 7).   Since it obviously does not violate any aspect of the Basic Law and since this proposal is not that much different from some others, what everyone must mean is that decision-makers  somewhere have begun to understand they need to lighten up.

          Eric Cheung and his friends propose that any aspiring candidate who can collect 70,000 signatures from registered voters should qualify for an up or down vote by a nominating committee.  The committee must consider the public’s choice, but the committee retains the authority to reject.  If approved by one-eighth of committee members, the candidate would then be placed on the public ballot.  In this proposal, the existing Election Committee would be used as the Nominating Committee with minimal changes.  The promoters argue that their plan respects both the public’s right to choose and the committee’s authority to decide (www.facebook.com/ScholarProposal). 

           Meanwhile, the leading pro-Beijing party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong or DAB), having said virtually nothing throughout the past year of pro-democracy debates, has just announced its proposal.  This would give Beijing all it wants including designs so conservative that there would be ample scope for bartering a solution, if only Beijing can be persuaded to accept it.  Otherwise, Benny Tai and his disobedience campaign are waiting in the wings and so are many others … 

 

Update, April 25:  Something is definitely in the wind for pan-dems.  One of the three lead members of Carrie Lam’s consultation team said straight away in response to the DAB proposal that it would be difficult for the community to accept.  The official was Raymond Tam, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs  (Ming Pao Daily, April 24).

pepper@cuhk.edu.hk

 

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