Posted:  Nov. 24, 2014


The devil lies in the details, or so the saying goes, and evidence of both lies hidden within one recent Chinese University opinion poll on Hong Kong’s shifting views.  If accurate, the devil lies in the public’s view of a Nominating Committee detail.   And if so, the Yellow Umbrella Movement’s street occupations, now entering their third month, are in danger of losing the public’s attention or at least the renewed public focus on “genuine” universal suffrage elections that has been generated.

Initially, the protest movement … in response to Beijing’s restrictive August 31 decision on Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive election … produced an upsurge of popular interest and sympathy (Sept. 1, 2014 post).   It was led by idealistic young students, opposing a mainland-style managed election, and the police initially tried to turn them back with volleys of tear gas.  People rushed out instinctively to “protect our students” on September 28, when the street occupations began.

Now, two months later, the street sit-ins  … blockading two major thoroughfares, one on each side of the harbor … are taking their toll on the public’s patience.  But more than that, the public seems to be losing track of the plot.   If student leaders and political activists want to consolidate their achievement and carry it forward to register “genuine” electoral reform progress, they need to sharpen public understanding by paying more attention now to the tedious details of electoral reform.  Not as exciting as the unprecedented roadside demonstrations that have returned Hong Kong to the international spotlight.  But it’s those details that are going to make all the difference in whether or not “genuine” universal suffrage elections can ever be achieved. 


Actually, there have been a series of polls conducted by the Chinese University’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey. *   These polls, conducted in September, October, and November, suggest an impressionable public vacillating in mood and uncertain in commitment … a sure sign of the potential for danger ahead.  This is because the struggle over electoral reform is now first and foremost a struggle for public opinion with Beijing pulling out all the stops:  to discredit the democracy movement and promote Beijing’s restrictive August 31 decision that would create a mainland-style electoral precedent for Hong Kong’s long-promised first Chief Executive election to be conducted by universal suffrage in 2017. 

Beijing’s immediate need is also very specific:  a two-thirds Legislative Council super-majority must pass the government’s reform legislation, yet to be announced but sure to embody Beijing’s restrictive formulas.  Pro-democracy legislators occupy barely one-third of the 70-seat council and only a handful, responding to pressure from their constituents … or from elsewhere … would be able to swing the balance.  

The CUHK poll in September found 46.3% of respondents against the already much publicized but yet to begin Occupy Central idea.  After it began, when students and civil rights groups preempted Occupy Central’s carefully-rehearsed plans … with an unplanned rush into oncoming highway traffic on September 28 … opposition dipped to 35.5%.  It was back up to 43.5% when the most recent poll was conducted November 5-11.  Support for the street blockades was higher than opposition only in early October:  37.8 % support; 35.5 % oppose (Ming Pao Daily, Nov. 17).      

Additionally, the most headline-grabbing figure taken from the Nov. 5-11 poll was not that overall public support for the Occupy idea had fallen to 33.9%, but that 67.4% of respondents felt it was time to clear the streets, now (Ming Pao, Nov. 17).


Of greater concern for the future of “genuine” universal suffrage elections that have been the focus of pro-democracy efforts for decades, however, are the accompanying views on political reform itself.  Throughout the past year and more that Professor Benny Tai had been developing the Occupy Central idea, his much-repeated goal was to invoke the street sit-in protests if Beijing’s decisions for the 2016 and 2017 Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections did not conform to “international standards.”  The Occupy agitation and the goal of genuine universal suffrage elections have been clearly linked and articulated since early 2013.   Benny Tai himself was crestfallen when Beijing announced its August 31 decision.  He could not hide his distress and publically lamented his failure. 

Yet, even as public support rose with sympathy for the student/activist version of Benny Tai’s Occupy Central (now known simply as the Occupy or Yellow Umbrella Movement), public approval for Beijing’s restrictive August 31 decision actually grew by almost 7 percentage points!  This figure emerged from the Chinese University’s October 8-15 poll (Ming Pao, Oct. 23).   

Beijing’s decision mandates the built-for-purpose Nominating Committee, which is stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists and conservatives.   Public opinion in favor of this option grew by 6.8% to give it a 36% approval rating.   Some 48.5% of respondents said the August 31 decision should be vetoed, but those who said so fell by 5.2% (Ming Pao, Oct. 23)

Still, the most problematic result for pro-democracy partisans came in the November poll when respondents were again asked what the Legislative Council should do about Beijing’s August 31 decision.  The “no’s” still prevailed:  46.7% against to 36.1% for passage.  But all the government would have to do to win approval from the public would be to abolish “corporate votes” in the 1,200-member nominating committee.  This is the custom whereby voting to select the committee members themselves is restricted in many sectors to individual companies or corporations (instead of even the individuals employed within them …  much less the general public). 

Some 35% of the respondents said the proposal should still be vetoed; but 45.4% said it would be O.K. to approve if the corporate votes were abolished.   Close to 20% of those asked either refused to answer or had no opinion.  This was the Nov. 5-11 poll that also revealed a 67.4% response in favor of ending Occupy now (Ming Pao Daily, Nov. 17).   


So we’re back to the Election Committee with its four sectors and 38 subsectors, with all their grab-bag of corporate constituencies that are derived from the Functional Constituencies that also elect half the Legislative Council’s 70 members! **   Beijing’s August 31 decision mandates that this design of the existing Election Committee, which has been endorsing Beijing’s approved candidates since 1997, should undergo only a simple name change to become the Nominating Committee for the 2017 Chief Executive election.

The danger lies in the committee’s convoluted details. Had activists and politicians taken the trouble to try and dissect this monster during the past two years while the reform debates were underway, the public would have some useful guidelines to go by.  People would know that it will take a lot more than the simple “abolition of corporate voting” when selecting its 1,200 committee members … if this committee is to permit anything like “genuine” choice for a universal suffrage election in 2017.

But despite all the proposals that were offered up during the past year, designers invariably shrank before the task of grappling with the Election Committee’s convoluted format.  One of the main proposals, from the all-party coalition Alliance for True Democracy, was drafted with the help of nine academic advisors led by Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok.  But when ATD convener and political science professor Joseph Cheng was asked why its final proposal, announced in January this year, contained no more than a limp recommendation that the Nominating Committee should be “the more democratic the better,” he had no answer …  except to say “not to worry” …  it would all work out …

When former Chief Secretary Anson Chan introduced her HongKong 2020 group’s proposal last March, she admitted that trying to redesign the existing Election Committee was just too mind-boggling a task.  Her solution was to try and accommodate the growing calls for civic nomination by the general public.  This she did by adding 317 directly-elected members to the existing committee.  These new members would be elected directly by the voting public from small single-member constituencies for the one specific purpose of joining the committee in 2017.

Civic Party member Ronny Tong ultimately proposed abolishing corporate voting in nine subsectors.  But then he went on to top up his Nominating Committee with the elected members of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils, about 300 in all.  Instead of being directly and separately elected for the purpose of joining the committee in 2017, as in Anson Chan’s plan, Ronny Tong proposed simply to add another task to those of sitting District Councilors.

Despite the drubbing he got when he parachuted into one such District Council constituency in the last, 2011, District Council election, Ronny Tong still fails to appreciate that the main pro-Beijing political party and its loyalist/conservative allies now have majorities on all 18 District Councils where they have become entrenched in the 300+ constituencies by reason of the well-funded social services they are providing.

Since the Nominating Committee’s basic sectors will be elected by the Functional Constituencies with all their many subsector components … and since the Nominating Committee also contains all 70 Legislative Councilors, half of whom are also elected by the Functional Constituencies … Ronny Tong’s proposal would essentially triplicate or at least reinforce the existing committee bias in favor of pro-Beijing loyalist/conservative candidates.  Pro-democracy competitors still wouldn’t stand a chance.

Little wonder that public opinion is floundering amid the mass of convoluted incomprehensible detail.  And little wonder that students … with the uncomplicated clear-eyed vision of youth … tapped civic nomination as the best way out of the morass. 

The only problem now is that youthful idealism has come up against a solid brick wall in the form of Beijing’s August 31 decision.  There are ways over and around it.  But for that the Hong Kong government’s election reform team led by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam would have to pluck up their courage and intercede with Beijing on behalf of some plausible compromises.  These would be aimed at finding informal ways to let the public have its say in recommending candidates, and at reducing the overriding power of an unreformed Nominating Committee.



**  Chief Executive Election Ordinance$FILE/CAP_569_e_b5.pdf


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