Posted July 17, 2014
Report from Hong Kong’s Chief Executive on the need for electoral reforms, addressed to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing, July 15, 2014 (www.2017.gov.hk)
This report is part of the elaborate process decreed by Beijing in 2004, after Hong Kong’s unanticipated 2003 protest against Beijing-mandated national security legislation. Accordingly, Beijing must agree on the need for any changes to Hong Kong’s existing election laws before any changes can be made. Beijing will announce its answer probably in August.
The past year of debate and agitation, including the five-month (December-thru-April) official consultation period, has focused on how such reforms might be made with specific reference to the next Legislative Council (Legco) election in 2016, and the next Chief Executive election in 2017. This follows from Beijing’s official 2007 promise that universal suffrage elections can be held here for the 2017 election, and for the 2020-24 Legco term. Such promises have been bumped from one election cycle to the next since 1988.
Beijing has nevertheless also announced many times, most recently in its June 10 White Paper, that only its views on electoral reform will do (June 12 post). Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has thus obliged … almost as if several hundred thousand Hong Kong voters and marchers had not indicated otherwise during the past month since the White Paper was issued (June 24, July 7 posts).
FROM OFFICIAL HONG KONG TO OFFICIAL BEIJING
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying purports to convey the sense of the community’s views collected by the government during the consultation period. He asks Beijing for permission to proceed with reforms by telling Beijing that the community is eager to see its first universal suffrage election for Chief Executive in 2017. He says the community also agrees that such an election must conform to the Basic Law, and that the person elected must be one who “loves the country and loves Hong Kong.” This is the standard term used to signify non-dissenters meaning those who do not oppose one-party communist rule in China.
Specifically, Leung’s report says “mainstream opinion” agrees that in accordance with the all-important Article 45 of the Basic Law, the power to nominate Chief Executive candidates “is vested in the Nominating Committee only,” and that “such power of nomination must not be undermined or bypassed directly or indirectly.”
Moreover, the composition of that committee “should be decided by reference to the existing methods of forming the Election Committee,” with “four sectors in equal portions” … in order to meet the Basic Law requirement of being “broadly representative.” The report says that this is the view of “relatively more” people in the community.
Finally, there are to be no reforms introduced for the 2016 Legislative Council election … as anticipated by the do-nothing chapter on the subject in the government’s introductory consultation document (Dec. 12, 2013 post). Since Beijing has officially committed itself to a universal suffrage Legco election in 2020, democratic reformers have used that date to call for the abolition of all special-interest small-circle Functional Constituencies that currently fill almost half of Legco’s 70 seats. It follows that reforms should begin in the next 2016 election since it would be far more traumatic to abolish them all at one go in 2020. But it seems like maybe the corporate power brokers who began lobbying just after the last reform cycle in 2010 … on the logic of keeping their Functional Constituency privileges forever … are going to have their way (Oct. 8, 2010 post). Leung’s report says “the public generally agrees” that there is no need for any changes in 2016.
MARGINS FOR MANEUVER: Not Many
The only bow to popular calls for public participation in the nominating process is an off-hand admission that besides all the politically correct proposals, there are others “from some organizations and individuals.” These proposals advocate the novel idea of letting the public or at least its political party representatives have a say in the nominating process outside the purview of the Nominating Committee. This option surprisingly made it into the report … despite all prior indications to the contrary.
Additionally, in answering questions after the formal report presentations to the Legislative Council on July 15, Raymond Tam, who is a member of the three-person team in charge of the public consultation project, again mentioned the possibility of allowing “public recommendation.” This refers to a moderate proposal from some pro-democracy academics that officials have not mentioned in positive terms since the end of the formal consultation period in late April. Instead of civil or popular nomination, the idea that has swept the pro-democracy reform movement during the past year, the public would be allowed to recommend candidates which the Nominating Committee would then still have the right to veto or not.
The only other possible changes in current arrangements, as reflected in Leung’s report, are those that were proposed by the leading pro-Beijing party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB). It suggests introducing a few more sectors to those already represented on the Election/Nominating committee (May 2 post). The committee is elected by the same special-interest voters that elect the Functional Constituency Legislative Councilors … so it looks like this ancient occupation-based political power-sharing arrangement is due to live on here indefinitely with even more interest groups establishing themselves in the mix.
The number of candidates and committee procedures for designating them are also open to change. But these questions carry the same ominous suggestions that have been coming from Beijing sources throughout … dating back to the first intervention by Beijing Basic Law authority Qiao Xiaoyang over a year ago (2013: March 25, April 2 posts).
The report emphasizes, correctly, that many proposals call for endorsement by a certain proportion of Nominating Committee members as the requirement for candidacy. But the report also says that such proposals are meant “to demonstrate that such a person has cross-sector support in the Nomination Committee; to reflect the democratic principle of ‘the majority rule,’ and to meet the requirement of the Nominating Committee to nominate as an organization.” The official idea, repeated many times by now, is that the Nominating Committee should provide a sort of bloc stamp-of-approval while the public’s universal suffrage vote would then serve as a kind of rubber-stamp affirmation.
A MASTERFUL SLEIGHT-OF-HAND?
The public is cynical about official government consultations because they are so easy for the government to manipulate and the end result always seems to justify what the government aimed to do in the first place. Hong Kong’s civil servants are past masters in the art of managing such exercises … drafting, designing, presenting, and summing up afterward. It all moves very smoothly and dates back to the days when they owed their allegiance to London not Beijing. Hong Kong’s democracy reformers still recall the first brush-off they received in this way almost 30 years ago* But considering Hong Kong’s present plight over all, it’s possible to see the June 15 reports … there are two of them … in a somewhat different light than the Chief Executive’s deferential request for permission to proceed suggests. Such skills can be used to cut many ways.
The second report was presented by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam who heads the electoral reform consultation team. Her report provides the details that allow outside observers a glimpse, but only a glimpse, inside the complex world over which she presides along with the effort that went into the consultation exercise.
Altogether, her team received 124,700 written submissions from organizations and individuals during the five month December-April consultation period. The submissions are available for public viewing online: www.2017.gov.hk , along with many summaries that are included in her Report on the Public Consultation.
Everything and everyone is included … as if it had all taken place in a value-free political vacuum. The partisan distinctions that now dominate Hong Kong political discourse are absent. Views are presented in sanitized form as “some,” “relatively more,” “mainstream opinion,” and so on. Hence not identified as such is the overwhelming weight created by the dense web of pro-Beijing commercial and social organizations that now extend into every neighborhood and sector of Hong Kong life. This sort of exercise shows why Beijing’s Liaison Office here courts these groups so attentively … as illustrated daily in the back pages of the local pro-Beijing press.
Also included are statements from Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils, all now governed by solid “safe” elected majorities. The District Councils did what they are often called upon to do: provide the government with authoritative motion statements of approval for its policy initiatives. So they all want to see universal suffrage in 2017, all agree that the coming round of electoral reforms must follow the Basic Law, and so on. Opinion polls are also cited to illustrate the ambiguity of public opinion … but not included is the June 20-29 mock referendum that showed just the opposite. Neither report mentions the referendum or the big defiant July First protest march.
Still, what the finished product suggests is not just a sanitized report addressed to Beijing but a difficult political game of feint and maneuver to be played by a cast of thousands, with Hong Kong government leaders trying to lay the groundwork for a plausible outcome. Hence they have produced a hardline report designed to please what is generally agreed to be the current reinforced tough stance toward Hong Kong. It follows that the report is also calculated to provoke local democrats and this it is doing. The civil disobedience Occupy Central campaigners say they might begin early afer all. They no longer want to wait for the prescribed (since 2004) elaborate “five-step” dance routines between Hong Kong and Beijing reform negotiators that will take many more months to complete.
The margin for maneuver has nevertheless been allowed to remain … waiting for whatever democracy campaigners can make of it if they dare. The assumption is that it’s a trap laid amid widespread expectations that democrats will again be cowed by the political barrage laid down against them and that they will again succumb to the crescendo of cries for “compromise” … with only 2010-type tokens and more promises received in return.
But if campaigners could for once hold out on their demand that “no deal is better than a phony one” … there are possibilities … and there is also a key consideration to use for leverage. Beijing is now committed to its promise of “universal suffrage for Hong Kong in 2017” and needs to be able to proclaim success for its “one-country, two-systems” experiment … White Paper appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
What has been lost probably for good, however, is the opportunity to demand a redesign of the Election/Nomination Committee itself and with it the Functional Constituencies that have become entrenched features of a loyalist-patronage political system. The most that pan-democrats have suggested are proposals to include all District Councilors on the committee and this may well succeed because it is music to official ears. The District Councils are all now dominated by pro-Beijing/conservative majorities and can be counted on to approve every official political proposal they are asked to champion.
* Mark Roberti, Fall of Hong Kong, 1996, chap. 17.