Posted: Jan. 14, 2015
News on the political reform front has not been kind to Yellow Umbrella/Occupy Central protesters since their road blockades were removed one by one … the last just a month ago on December 15. But probably the most discouraging result has come from independent opinion polls. People rushed out on September 28 in protest against Beijing’s restrictive August 31 ultimatum barring virtually every serious reform proposal that pro-democracy activists had brought forward during the past year.
The entire build-up to the blockade was spearheaded by Professor Benny Tai and his Occupy Central civil disobedience idea, which he had begun promoting in January 2013. His aim was that reforms during the next, 2016/17, election cycle must meet international standards. The 70-seat Legislative Council election will be held in 2016, that for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in 2017.
Benny Tai said Hong Kong should not settle for any more piecemeal reform projects designed to serve the interests of Beijing and local conservatives. Such reforms have been proceeding at a snail’s pace for 30 years, allowing pro-Beijing loyalists and conservatives to retain their dominant privileged positions in lawmaking and just about everything else.
When students came to his rescue after Beijing’s discouraging August 31 decision was announced, they said they were under no illusions. They knew their September class boycott could not force Beijing to backtrack on that decision. But they wanted to “wake up” people here, to help more of them understand the difference between what Beijing was proposing and “genuine” popular choice democracy.
The students explained continuously that they did not want to see Hong Kong evolve via its political reform project into just another mainland Chinese city, governed in the mainland way. Hopefully, they said, with these arguments public opinion could be brought to bear on the powers that be.
Polls at the start of their protest told students they had reason to hope for success. A series conducted by pollsters at the Chinese University suggested that the public was following the students’ line of reasoning. They wanted Beijing’s plan to be vetoed … when it comes up for a vote in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council … if Beijing refused to revise and resubmit. Still, as the street blockades dragged on and students came up with no variations on their simple demand for Beijing to withdraw its August 31 ultimatum, the public seemed to be losing track of the plot … of the link between protest and political reform.
Polls conducted over time, in September, October, and November, suggested an impressionable public, uncertain not in its commitments to the ideal of political reform but in understanding the details and implications of different reform models. Student orators and pro-democracy politicians alike have fallen down in this respect, by failing to follow up with the tedious details that will make all the difference … between where Hong Kong reformers say they want to go and where different reform blueprints are likely to take them (Nov. 24 post).*
Most recently, Ming Pao Daily commissioned the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program (POP) to test the waters again and the trends from last year continue into this. Incredibly, for all the effort that went into the universal suffrage campaign, 64% of those responding approved of Beijing’s restrictive August 31 format enough to give it the benefit of the doubt. Only 23% called for the veto that all 27 of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Legislative Councilors had agreed to after Beijing’s August 31 decision was announced!
The questions in Ming Pao’s telephone poll (conducted on January 7-8, with 500 respondents over the age of 18) were deliberately tricky and hypothetical. But they reflected the same logic that the Hong Kong government is using in its current sales pitch for Beijing’s restrictive August 31 format.
Question 1. Is Beijing’s August 31 decision on political reform: progress toward democracy (23%); a backward step (29%); neither one nor the other (39%).
Question 2. The Hong Kong government’s Chief Executive election reform proposal, based on Beijing’s design: should be passed by the Legislative Council (56%); should be vetoed (34%).
Question 3. If the Hong Kong government were to promise that after 2017 the election system could be made more democratic, would you accept the government’s 2017 election design based on Beijing’s decision (64%), or reject (23%) … Ming Pao Daily, January 11, 2015.
Hope and trust spring eternal. No reason to hold legislators to their promise of a veto if those poll numbers are accurate and remain steady.
THE GOVERNMENT’S POST-PROTEST REPORT (January 6)
Back at the beginning, after their September 22-26 class boycott ended, students and others rushed out to the streets, on September 28, and combined their action with Benny Tai’s street sit-in civil disobedience idea. Within days, students had more reason, beyond the initial positive poll numbers, to hope for success.
A highlight of the protest occurred early on, in an unprecedented exchange between student leaders and the principal government officials responsible for managing Hong Kong’s latest electoral reform project. That October 21 debate was an unusual concession. Ranking officials had never come out for a public debate with students and their demands for the encounter were all met: it had to be broadcast live, without government editing or interference, in Cantonese plus English translations (Oct. 27 post). **
And there were other reasons for optimism. Protest leaders had been asking that a second follow-up report be sent to Beijing, on the state of public sentiment in Hong Kong since the Augsut 31 decision was announced. They said that the first report, sent a few weeks earlier, had essentially told Beijing what Beijing wanted to hear and did not adequately reflect Hong Kong aspirations for the 2016/17 reforms. Officials initially refused saying constitutional procedures were firm and fixed and did not permit any such improvisation. But they agreed to look for a way. Protest leaders had also wanted some kind of permanent platform to discuss the specifics of ongoing political reform. The government agreed to that, too.
Still, students were not satisfied and continued for two hours to explain the differences between their aspirations for “genuine” elections and those spelled out in Beijing’s August 31 ultimatum. The government’s just issued report is what officials promised and it offers proof that the students were right on October 21 to be skeptical. Officials did not address their concerns then and the official report they promised then, euphemistically known as the public sentiment report 【民情報告】, is not addressing those concerns now.
The students had also asked specifically for the report to be sent to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SC/NPC), in Beijing, which is the formal authority issuing all the new decrees and ultimatums circumscribing Hong Kong’s political reforms. This Hong Kong officials still refused to do because it was outside formal procedures. The report was sent to an ordinary government office instead.
Issued on January 6, the Report on the Recent Community and Political Situation in Hong Kong, is essentially a day-to-day chronicle … from the government’s perspective using government terminology … of events as they unfolded between September 28 and December 15 (www.2017.gov.hk).
In retrospect, the officials seem to have been accommodating then in hopes of coaxing students off the streets because there is no more sign of actual understanding now than there was during the October 21 debate.
For instance, the special-interest Functional Constituencies that are allowed to fill almost half the seats in the Legislative Council have long been a subject of derision … and not just by pro-democracy activists. “Small circles” and “rotten boroughs” are favorite terms.
Making it even more arcane, the council is also divided into a “two-house” structure intended to keep the directly-elected half permanently disempowered. Demands have continued from one election cycle to the next for an end to this skewered system that was written by Beijing into Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law constitution. Yet Beijing’s August 31 ultimatum decrees no change and Hong Kong’s January 6 gloss urges everyone to acquiesce.
Students and activists want the public to be able to have its say in the nominating process. Instead, the January 6 report says only that Hong Kong must follow the August 31 ultimatum. The conservative Nominating Committee (to be elected largely by the special interest Functional Constituencies) must do the nominating. That means only “safe” conservative and pro-Beijing candidates can win the 50% of all committee votes that Beijing decreed on August 31 will be necessary to nominate.
This is to be Hong Kong’s first chance to elect its Chief Executive by one-person, one-vote universal suffrage. But Beijing will do the screening (only “patriotic” candidates need apply, according to the August 31 ultimatum) and the compliant Nominating Committee can be relied upon to do its duty.
The January 6 report also recalls that officials did agree to set up a platform for discussing future constitutional developments “after 2017” … if only everyone does what Beijing wants first in 2017. But neither Beijing nor the Hong Kong government has ever defined what they mean by future progress toward constitutional development.
Once the precedent for a mainland-style party-managed one-person-one-vote election has been set in 2017, where might it go from there? No one is saying. No one ever has. Pan-democrats do not ask beyond their demands for “promises.” They have never even explained why they do not ask for definitions instead.
So where is the guarantee that “after 2017”, the next step will be any different from the last? More likely future progress will be built on the 2017 precedent since it bears all the hallmarks of the various party-managed “elections” now commonplace throughout China.
The report says innocently, in conclusion: “It is the common aspiration of the Central Authorities, the HKSAR Government, and the people of Hong Kong to implement universal suffrage for the CE election in 2017 in Hong Kong as scheduled and strictly in accordance with the Basic Law and the relevant Interpretation and Decisions of the NPCSC (National People’s Congress Standing Committee).”
Until recently, Hong Kongers have thought that their leaders would speak to Beijing on Hong Kong’s behalf. Now everyone can see it’s the other way around. Local leaders speak to Hong Kong on Beijing’s behalf.
TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT: THE GOVRNMENT’S SECOND CONSULTATION REPORT (January 7)
No need to have issued the January 6 chronicle of Umbrella/Occupy’s daily progress because the powers-that-be remain unmoved. Students obviously did not “awaken” any sympathy among officials either in Beijing or Hong Kong. Hence the government’s pro forma Second Consultation report … asking the public yet again what it wants to do about the coming 2017 Chief Executive election … offers no options beyond Beijing’s August 31 ultimatum. Events are proceeding as though Umbrella/Occupy never happened.
The second consultation follows standard procedure: a first public consultation (winter/spring 2013-14); report to Beijing on the public’s views (June 2014); Beijing’s reply (Aug. 31 decision); a second public consultation to work out final details in accordance with Beijing’s reply; and finally an up-or-down vote in the Legislative Council probably sometime before the summer recess.
Only this time around the public is left with little to discuss. Many democrats want to boycott the exercise altogether since their views were ignored the first time and so few options remain open for consideration. The official consultation report, with its self-promoting title, 2017: Seize the Opportunity, was issued on January 7 and spells out the only choices allowed (www.2017.gov.hk).
Since public nomination is not an option, the “Views Sought” chapter begins with a fait accompli, namely, the formation of the Nominating Committee. This must have 1,200 members, divided into four sectors, with 38 subsectors. These are all the same sectors and subsectors that made up the old Election Committee. It had been endorsing Beijing’s choice of Hong Kong Chief Executives since 1997. There might, however, be a few changes among the subsectors.
Knowing from the start what Beijing would decree, pro-Beijing loyalist politicians didn’t waste time last year on the public nomination debate. They just suggested adding two more subsectors to the 38: one for women and another for youth. This may be allowed but existing subsectors will have to agree to give up some of their seats because the total number cannot exceed 1,200. Actually, this should be easy since there are so many overlaps among the subsectors that the full complement does not add up to 1,200 members.
The next big question is how the Nominating Committee is to nominate. Its 1,200 members might individually be allowed to recommend candidates on a preliminary basis. But past experience (when this same committee was the Chief Executive Election Committee) has been that its four sectors and 38 subsectors, like the Functional Constituencies that “elect” them, are cherry-picked among the population.
In other words, pro-democracy candidates can receive no more than about 150 endorsements. Only about 150 of the 1,200 committee members would likely be willing to recommend a pro-democracy candidates.
Beijing’s August 31 ultimatum decrees that half the entire committee will be needed to confirm the candidacy of no more than 3 individuals … probably no more than two unless they agree to a block vote, meaning every member would have to vote for three potential candidates.
The one and only innovation for actual voters … that has not already been vetoed by officials … is the blank ballot suggestion advanced by some conservatives. On Election Day, voters unhappy with the 2-3 approved candidates could in effect vote for “none of the above” … thereby exercising their right to choose in Hong Kong’s first ever universal suffrage Chief Executive election!
Officials also had not ruled out the idea of “public recommendation” instead of public nomination. Both proposals were advanced last year. But the August 31 ultimatum did not approve the recommendation proposal, which would have obliged the Nominating Committee to consider the public’s choice. So far no one has tried to revive that option.
Hard to believe that after almost two years of constant debate and agitation, the public is now willing to accept such arrangements … especially when the community rallied so strongly to the students’ defense after September 28. Granted, opinion is fickle and people are tired of talking in circles around the same issues for years on end … so best wait for more polls and some explanations before rushing to conclusions.
But there seems to be a fatalistic flaw in Hong Kong’s democracy movement that defies description, especially since they themselves do not discuss or identify it. Safe to say, however, that if the latest Ming Pao poll is accurate and if those poll numbers hold … then Benny Tai was right the first time, just after Beijing’s August 31 decision was announced. He stunned everyone the next day when he lamented his failure to make any difference at all in Hong Kong’s mirage-like quest for democratic elections.