Posted: Sept. 1, 2014
After more than a year of debate and demonstrations, plus political forums and proposals too numerous to count, Beijing has finally issued its all-important directive on how Hong Kong might proceed to carry out its first universal suffrage election for Chief Executive in 2017. The announcement came on August 31 imposing a design even more conservative than expected.
Accordingly, a Nominating Committee the size and composition of the current Election Committee is to do the nominating of candidates and each candidate must receive the approval of half the committee’s members. These currently number 1,200 divided into four sectors: business and finance; professionals; grassroots: labor, social; political: local and national representatives plus Beijing’s honorary appointees. The composition of the committee is such that an overwhelming majority of members are partisan pro-Beijing loyalists and conservatives, meaning they are not sympathetic to democratic causes. The number of candidates will be limited to two or three.
The official explanation said further that the Chief Executive must be a person who “loves” China and Hong Kong. *
The decision may be even more conservative than anticipated, but are these really Beijing’s last and only words? Talking tough at the start is an old negotiating tactic. If it is Beijing’s last word, then the design will not receive the two-thirds majority needed to win Legislative Council approval. Even Hong Kong’s most moderate pro-democracy legislators will not be able to bring themselves to “pocket it first and hope for a better deal later,” to cite Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam’s most recent advice on the matter.
Still, that may depend on how long she expects Hong Kong to wait and for what … since there is much at stake and much that needs explaining now … before anyone can agree to pocket anything. Specifically:
- What is patriotic love? Does it mean a routine pledge of allegiance; or an old-fashioned loyalty oath professing that prospective candidates do not now nor have they ever advocated the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party; or does it mean the vow of unqualified obedience as currently practiced by the members of Hong Kong’s patriotic community?
- Will the public be allowed any say at all in the nominating process?
- What is to be done about all the widely-acknowledged anomalies that have marred the Election Committee since its inception in 1997?
The decision to accept or not rests with a handful of moderate democrats, so characterized by reason of their personalities and concerns. They will hold the balance in the 70-seat Legislative Council where pan-democrats currently occupy only 27 seats. All the others, loyalists and conservatives, are expected to approve whatever the government’s election reform bill contains. It would be a startling upset if they didn’t … although it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. The pro-business Liberal Party unexpectedly saved Hong Kong from the Article 23 national security legislation in 2003, but there is as yet no sign of such independence among them on election reform.
BEIJING’S OWN DESIGN
The basic outline is of course exactly what Beijing had in mind all along. When the main pro-Beijing political party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB) announced its own proposal last spring, leaders acknowledged that their design mirrored their understanding of what Beijing wanted (May 2 post). The pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions followed suit with a similar proposal. At the time, no one other than these pro-Beijing DAB and FTU partisans paid much attention.
Everyone was doing their own thing last spring and people submitted all kinds of proposals to the government during the formal December-April period for public consultation. It was a truly “democratic” exercise. Too bad the same could not be said for the government’s report on these submissions, published a few weeks ago (July 17 post). It was forwarded to Beijing in time for the August 25-31 National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s meeting and its promised decision.
The two key points made in the government’s summation report were that the Nominating Committee should do the nominating; and also that the candidates, to qualify, must “love” China and Hong Kong.
These two points contradicted the two main demands to emerge from the pro-democracy debates and proposals, namely, that the general public should be able to participate in the nominating process; and that no political vetting of potential candidates should be allowed.
PAN-DEMOCRATS OUT-MANEUVERED AGAIN?
If Beijing knew all along both what it wanted and what it would do to get it … why bother with an expensive time-consuming consultation process that generated so much hopeful expectation among so many members of the public? The system may be perverse but it’s not irrationally so. There must be some reason why the city and its people were encouraged to embark on a year-long debating exercise … only to be told in the end it was all just an elaborate charade.
In fact, it wasn’t just for show. Its purpose was in the nature of Beijing’s mass-mobilization routines such as we saw at work in last month’s anti-Occupy Central campaign that culminated in the big August 17 march-past (Aug. 18 post). It follows that the aim of the universal suffrage consultation and debate was to mobilize loyalist and conservative support for Beijing’s design, and also to encourage the inevitable moderates who are always present seeking compromise and non-confrontational solutions.
Everyone else, whose demands can be counted on to be shouted out clearly and loudly in any open consultation exercise, can then be sidelined or discredited. The latter is currently being attempted via the ongoing smear campaigns against Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai and all those on his campaign donations’ list, plus the allegations against Joseph Cheng, convener of the all-party Alliance for True Democracy (July 28 post). The sidelining and discrediting is also being done in other more subtle ways like the government’s “pocket it first” and “treasure your vote” publicity barrage.
Clues to the trap that is thus being laid for moderates can be seen more clearly in the details of that DAB election reform proposal (May 2 post). Another clue is the Hong Kong government’s curiously positive response to one … and only one … of the moderate pro-democracy proposals (May 2 post).
The DAB proposed a two-step sequence within the Nominating Committee, adapting the present process whereby any prospective candidate who collects signatures from one-eighth of all Election Committee members could qualify as a candidate to be endorsed by the committee as a whole. Under present rules, followed by Hong Kong Election Committees since 1997, the winning Chief Executive candidates need 50% of all committee members’ votes to be elected. In 2012, for example, Leung Chun-ying won with 689 votes from a committee of 1,200.
Last spring the DAB proposed a two-step nominating process. Signatures from one-tenth of all committee members would first be needed to qualify for the second round, which would be an internal committee ballot. At this second stage, up to four of the preliminary nominees would need a 50% endorsement from the committee as a whole to achieve formal candidate status and a place on the public ballot. That would mean a stacked conservative-loyalist committee, with perhaps a few more representatives from women’s and youth groups, presenting the general voting public with a slate of safe conservative/loyalist candidates from which to choose (Wen Wei Po, Ming Pao Daily, Apple, April 23).
The one pan-democratic proposal the Hong Kong government has continued to nod favorably upon is that of the “18 academics” led by moderate Brian Fong Chi-hang. They suggested that a nominating committee should, not must, consider candidate commendations from the public. Hong Kong government officials nodded positively by not saying, as they did with all other democratic proposals, that this one violated Beijing’s demands for a Chief Executive election, based on Beijing’s elaborations concerning the Basic Law’s cryptic notations on the matter.
Brian Fong is a protégé of Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, a founding member of the Democratic Party who quit the party several years ago and is now a leading member of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s governing team. Other members of the “group-of-18” include Democratic Party member Law Chi-kwong and Hong Kong University law professor Eric Cheung Tat-ming.
These two proposals, from the DAB and the group-of-18, could easily be combined to allow some sort of public recommendation for the committee’s members to consider and endorse with their signatures during the first round of committee selection. There might even be multiple candidates for the first round … then reduced to only two-three during the second round when a 50% endorsement would be required.
The question for pan-democrats to ponder is whether they will be able to withstand the tremendous pressure that Beijing and local patriots are already exerting … plus all the polls they are producing to show that the public really doesn’t mind an imperfect first Chief Executive universal suffrage election … if only to quiet the clamor.
Will pan-democrats and their moderate wing be able to hold the line? Probably they will not. Especially not if Beijing acquiesces at the very last minute (as in 2010) by magnanimously agreeing to the DAB’s and group-of-18’s proposals. Moderates supported the Democratic Party’s 2010 compromise and expressed no concern, at all, about the long-term political implications of that compromise and its details in terms of the precedent being set. Nor are moderates articulating any such concerns now.
Brian Fong and others speak eloquently about their disappointment … looking back to where they began, in the 1980s, when they really thought they were being given the opportunity to build a democratic order within their half of the one-county, two-systems promise. But now they are only mourning their loss without trying to look forward to how much more they have to lose and how they might try at least to protect what remains.
So they find themselves in exactly the same place as in 2010: asking Beijing for “promises” but not definitions. They might, for instance, be asking how Beijing intends to perfect “later” what it is asking them to accept now. But so far, no one has asked for definitions. In holding out the promise with their “pocket it first” come-on, Beijing and the Hong Kong government might just as well mean perfected in the direction of one-country-one-system unified rule … rather than perfection to enhance what’s left of Hong Kong’s two-systems democratic dream.
Before they agree to anything moderates should also be asking the three basic questions left unanswered by Beijing’s August 31 decision: about patriotic love; how the public can have its say; and how to rationalize the haphazard contents of the Election Committee.
Otherwise, Beijing will succeed in establishing the precedent of a mainland-style pre-determined election that will be endorsed by voters in Hong Kong’s first ever universal suffrage Chief Executive election. The word among patriots here is that they even have a candidate. They mean to see the current much-maligned Chief Executive, Leung Chung-ying, elected for a second term, this time not by 689 Election Committee votes but by universal suffrage … in order to demonstrate beyond doubt the strength of Beijing’s authority!
* translation of the decision and explanation: http://www.2017.gov.hk/filemanager/template/en/doc/20140831a.pdf