Posted: Sept. 8, 2014
For reasons they have yet to explain, pan-democrats were rattled by what they said was Beijing’s unexpectedly hardline decision on the 2017 Chief Executive election reform project (Sept. 1 post). It shouldn’t have been a surprise. The warning signals have been loud and clear for months.
Beijing wants the public to endorse its approved candidate for Chief Executive in the same way that the existing stacked Election Committee has been doing since 1997. The only difference is that the same kind of Election Committee will be renamed the Nominating Committee and the general public is to be granted the privilege of endorsing the Beijing-vetted committee-nominated candidates. This would be a major step forward along the route to one-country-one-system-one-party rule … supposedly not due until 2047.
In this way, Beijing could claim it has fulfilled its promise, made long ago via Article 45 of Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law constitution, to allow Hong Kong to elect its Chief Executive through universal suffrage elections. The time line was fixed a decade ago, in 2007, to allow the first such election to take place in 2017. Chief Executives serve five-year terms. Hong Kong democrats originally thought it was going to happen in 2007, following provisions in the letter of the Basic Law, and local impatience was what prompted Beijing’s announcement then. Beijing is obviously not ready even now.
The shock was registered in front-page headlines featured by gloating conservative editors after an interview Benny Tai Yiu-ting gave to Bloomberg News the day after a night of continuous demonstrating. Professor Tai is the originator of the Occupy Central movement that for over a year has been helping to build public awareness about the difference between “genuine” electoral choice and mainland-style pre-determined results.
Tai was quoted as saying his movement had “failed” because he thought the threat to occupy the streets of Hong Kong’s downtown financial district with 10,000 protesters would pressure Beijing into allowing real elections here that met international standards. What’s more, because Beijing had not softened its stand, so pragmatic Hong Kongers would not want to turn out and risk arrest for a lost cause and he could not in good conscience ask them to do so. In any case, he said, public support for the downtown sit-in was waning (Bloomberg News, Sept. 2; South China Morning Post, Sept. 3).
Did he really believe his movement alone had the power to move mountains? And did he really believe the movement had failed just because the mountains had not yet budged at this midway point in the negotiating process? Hard to say … but Benny Tai’s is a legal mind not a political one and law professors have their own literal ways of thinking. As for those he inspired to join him, just about everyone else seemed to have understood the movement each in their own different ways … and everyone rushed to rescue what they had helped build. People gather round in a crisis and for Hong Kong’s democracy movement this is a crisis.
His co-founder Professor Chan Kin-man, a sociologist, said some people might be discouraged and drop out. But others were joining and he thought the numbers would not be much affected. The third member of the founding trio, Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, said what most were probably thinking, namely, that it was too soon to give up because the struggle for a universal suffrage Chief Executive election in 2017 was only half-way done.
RE-GROUPING FOR THE NEXT PHASE
After Occupy Central’s Deliberation Day last May, all seemed lost just like now (May 28 post). Young activists had “hijacked” the exercise, moderates complained loudly, and the three leaders contemplated a hasty retreat … until 800,000 ordinary citizens turned out in June for the mock referendum that Occupy Central had organized. Their message was clear: no election reform deal is better than a phony one (June 24, July 7 posts).
Occupy Central’s office staff issued a hasty press release on September 2, aimed at the same sort of revival. Hopes for genuine international standards may have been dashed by Beijing’s August 31 decision, as Benny Tai had said. But the coherence of Hong Kong’s democracy movement was now hanging in the balance and those 800,000 voters are looking for backup and vindication.
Activists and politicians who seemed hesitant before are rallying to the cause. University students announced that they are going ahead with their class boycott idea … now scheduled for the week beginning September 22. Professors are promising support and administrators not to punish.
Another (hopefully) big march out of Victoria Park is being planned and the threat of civil disobedience looms over all. Marchers and protesters are talking about plans to defy the rules and come out onto the streets without the required police permission “letter-of-no-objection.” Plus minimum-disruption small-scale central district sit-ins are being rehearsed, to honor that part of the original Occupy Central plan.
But attention is also shifting, as it must, to the Legislative Council where a two-thirds majority is needed to pass the government’s electoral reform bill that will be based on Beijing’s August 31 decision. According to tradition, the government will draft the legislation, publish it, and a second round of public consultations will follow … like the first between December and April that the government essentially ignored (July 17 post). Some parties and activists are talking about organizing a formal boycott of the second consultation in protest against its anticipated futility.
The main remaining objective, however, is to ensure that the pan-democratic one-third Legislative Council minority stands united in defeating the government’s bill … unless serious revisions can be made. The final vote should come sometime next year, in March or April.
As of now, the Civic Party has announced that all of its six Legislative Councilors … including the tempestuous moderate Ronny Tong … will veto any bill based on an unadulterated adherence to Beijing’s decision. They will veto, they say, because it would mark the end of Hong Kong’s democracy movement because it is now clear that Beijing has no intention of ever allowing anything but a mainland-style pre-determined election. The decision offers no hint of any future modification in the election method, which means the 30-year dream of building a democratic system in Hong Kong’s half of the one-country, two-systems design would be well and truly ended. Finally they will veto the bill because they have heard, as has everyone with any pro-government contacts, that Beijing’s purpose is to see the present much disliked Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying allowed a second term in office to be ostensibly legitimized by a popular vote.
Beijing believes its authority can only be established in this way, to counter first, the successful pro-democracy protests that made it necessary to remove the first ineffectual Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, mid-way through his second term in office; plus the mockery that marred the ineffectual second Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s years in office; and finally, the popular opposition to Beijing’s already approved candidate Henry Tang in 2012. Beijing has concluded that it has yet to establish its unchallenged authority here and that a hardline on 2017 is the way to do it.
Now that attention is turning to the all-important Legislative Council vote, however, popular protest is adjusting as well. And the students are already onto that challenge … of winning public understanding for their fight back from the corner into which the democracy movement has been painted. Either approve our plan, says the Hong Kong government in its latest subliminal TV ad, or be damned forever more as obstacles to the achievement of a glorious universal suffrage election in 2017. We must explain to the public, say the students, why no deal is still better than a phony one and why this deal will give us nothing but a mainland-style election.
The one point that students and others seem as yet uncertain about is that, in fact, Beijing needs the 2017 universal suffrage vote as much, if not more, than Hong Kong does. Because for Beijing, the exercise is a way of showing the world that it has brought “democracy” to Hong Kong after 150 years of autocratic colonial rule … thereby fulfilling the one-country, two-systems promise of Hong Kong’s new Basic Law constitution. The loss to Beijing of this historic boast would be great in terms of political face, prestige, and legitimacy.
That being the case, Hong Kong’s 27 pro-democracy legislators have much to play for if they can stand united … as they failed to do during a similar political reform cliffhanger in 2010. Everyone has a list of concessions to negotiate. One set would include: some way of allowing the public to have a say in the nominating process if only via “public recommendation”; an explicit statement that pledging allegiance would be sufficient to demonstrate love-of-country; and some serious remodeling of that fossilized Nominating Committee … not just by granting a few extra votes to corporate electors to distribute among their directors and managers as they are now anticipating.
If such demands could be spelled out, they would also serve the purpose of illustrating further what a real election might look like. If Beijing still says no, the public would at least be able to see more clearly than is now the case why pan-democrats are willing to reject what Beijing is trying to sell as an acceptable alternative.