Posted: Oct. 21, 2014
There are ways out of Hong Kong’s current impasse over political reform, if only the principals can indulge in some creative political thinking. Beijing does not need to back down as student protesters have been demanding. It just needs to move forward and the way forward lies in two directions. One is that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying should not serve a second term; the other is that public recommendation can serve as a substitute for public nomination.
For those new to this story, the impasse has arisen from Beijing’s August 31 ultimatum on arrangements for Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive election to be conducted by universal suffrage. The election is scheduled for 2017. Beijing has insisted on a mainland-style exercise with Beijing vetting the candidates and a failsafe committee mechanism anointing nominees (Sept. 1 post).
But those arrangements would require a two-thirds super majority vote from Hong Kong’s 70-member Legislative Council and its 27 pro-democracy legislators have vowed not to approve the Beijing-decreed model. Toward that end, protesting the model, Hong Kong college students staged a five-day classroom boycott in late September … precipitating the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement that has kept key intersections of the city occupied by protesters ever since. As of now, their basic demands are: (1) withdrawal of Beijing’s August 31 decision; and (2) the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to take responsibility for the electoral reform project.
More immediately, students are asking the Hong Kong government to submit a supplementary report to Beijing reflecting the true course of the protest movement. Government officials have not accepted this idea but talks between student leaders and officials are due to begin this evening (televised, 6-8 p.m., Hong Kong time) in what will be the most ambitious direct attempt to defuse the current crisis.
First, the Leung Chun-ying problem. Nothing has been said officially about who Beijing wants to stand as its preferred candidate in the 2017 election. But local loyalist partisans have not been shy about voicing what they assume to be Beijing’s intentions. Beijing is, they say, exceedingly chagrined over the failure of all three post-1997 Chief Executives to establish the authority needed to govern properly. With their constant carping and agitation, pro-democracy forces have succeeded in discrediting all of Beijing’s choices.
Leung is widely unpopular and only won the post, in 2012, because the other main contender, Henry Tang, enjoyed even less support. The voting was done by a 1,200-member Election Committee that is fit-for-purpose, meaning it is designed in such a way as to prevent any pro-democracy candidates from winning. Beijing is insisting that the same design must be used to create the 2017 Nominating Committee.
Officials evidently have yet to grasp that their ways do not sit well with the Hong Kong public as a whole and that stable effective governance here must be based on some approximation of the consent of the governed ideal. So be it. This can be a learning experience for Beijing as well because its current thinking about how to establish that consent cannot work.
Accordingly, Beijing’s idea is to have the Nominating Committee nominate Leung Chun-ying. Voters will then rubber-stamp his election as the leading candidate with the advantage of incumbency. That would, as Beijing sees it, create a Chief Executive legitimized and strengthened by Hong Kong’s first ever universal suffrage election. This is all nice in theory but it is based on a strange formalistic view of how democratic authority is established. … Actually, not so strange from a mainland perspective since that’s how elections work there.
The recent re-emergence of Tung Chee-hwa serves to illustrate Beijing’s assumptions in this regard. Tung was Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Chief Executive. He had to be removed mid-way through his second term due not to his health, which still seems fine, but for reasons of political ineptitude. Soon after the August 31 decision was announced, and with much publicity, he emerged from retirement to lead a large group of Hong Kong tycoons to Beijing where all were received in grand audience by President Xi Jinping himself. The tycoons (who figure prominently as Nominating Committee members) are not all fans of Leung Chun-ying. But Tung Chee-hwa is, and Tung is also a close advisor to Xi Jinping. The high-level September junket seems to have been a Beijing-style attempt at authority-building for the beleaguered Leung Chung-ying.
In any case, and especially after the debacle of the current electoral reform exercise, it is probably safe to assume that CY Leung may receive the Nominating Committee’s endorsement but he will not be receiving many votes from the 50+% of the voting public that has continued to elect pro-democracy candidates. These voters do so because their candidates espouse pro-democracy core values, not necessarily because people have any great faith in pan-democrats’ political skills or abilities … which means that these voters care most about those values and want to safeguard them.
Hence the first thing Beijing might do is NOT, as protesters have been demanding, force a Leung Chung-ying resignation now. All Beijing needs to do is see to it that all talk of a second term for Leung is laid to rest and the sooner the better. The talk has circulated among political activists on all sides. But since nothing has been said officially in public concerning their bright idea, Beijing officials need not worry about the embarrassment of losing political “face” and the legitimacy they think comes with it by backing down on a stated position.
Depriving Leung of a second term will then open up the candidate field and the second most powerful man responsible for Hong Kong decision-making in Beijing, Zhang Dejiang, had something relevant to say a few weeks ago. He told a group of Hong Kong visitors that although the August 31 decision had specified the candidate must be patriotic, that did not necessarily mean that only a dyed-in-the-wool pro-communist loyalist could qualify. The person did not have to “love” … meaning profess loyalty to … the communist party. Candidates must only not be among those who advocate an end to one-party dictatorship in China.
That leaves the way open for pan-democrats to begin organizing their own primary campaign, just as they have been informally organizing over political reform proposals throughout the past year when the idea of public nomination caught people’s imaginations. The public could simply nominate its own preferred candidates via mock referendums and mock primaries. Then it would be up to Beijing and its Nominating Committee stalwarts to find their way out of the impasse they have created for themselves.
Some judicious redesigning of the inherited committee would be a good place to begin. But even better would be to formally adopt the public recommendation idea that was advanced most prominently by 18 academics at the end of the public consultation exercise last spring. This is the only proposal from the public that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam did not veto. She did so for all the others on grounds that they violated Hong Kong’s constitutional Basic Law requirements as defined by Beijing. Hence Beijing need only authorize the Nominating Committee to consider pan-democrats’ informally “recommended” candidates.
And once all this is accomplished, new precedents would be set to build on next time. Protesters and pan-democrats could then stop worrying about the clear end-of-the-road implications that are reflected in the August 31 decision. It does specify that it concerns the 2017 election. But there is no hint or any suggestion of further progress after that. It is as though Beijing sees the August 31 solution as a permanent fix for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive elections from here on out, until the one-country, two-systems experiment expiries in 2047. This thought has done more than all the rest to galvanize sentiment against the decision.
Meanwhile, the beauty of the two possibilities … concerning Leung’s second term and public recommendation … is that they could be accomplished while leaving intact the August 31 decision itself. Beijing now says it is written in stone and cannot ever be changed. But officials don’t need to back down. They need only begin thinking more creatively about institution-building and citizenship in a country with two different political systems. One-size-fits-all will probably never work smoothly here but it certainly cannot work now.
(A shorter version of this article was published in the South China Morning Post on Oct. 18.)