Posted:  Jan. 26, 2015


Beijing is playing it as a hardline struggle.  But Hong Kong has been through this many times before, first while the conditions for its transfer back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 were being negotiated, and then in the years since.  The sequence is always the same whenever Beijing sees its sovereign interests challenged in any disagreement or confrontation with its Special Administrative Region. Consequently, everyone knows how the game will play out and the same routines can be seen emerging now in the final showdown over Hong Kong’s 2016/2017 electoral reform saga.  Beijing is confident of victory because by now it has the measure of all the contending players along with their strengths, weaknesses, and especially how to exploit the latter.

To win this present battle, Beijing and the Hong Kong government need only “turn” 4-5 pro-democracy Legislative Councilors among the 27 who have vowed to veto any election reform legislation based on Beijing’s restrictive August 31 decision.  Its key contentious features are:  a 50% majority of the 1,200 conservative/loyalist Nominating Committee members, voting to nominate 2-3 pre-approved candidates.  Up to now, all 27 pro-democracy legislators in the 70-seat council say they intend to veto any such arrangement.  A two-thirds majority of all 70 is needed to pass the legislation.

But will the 27 stand firm?  Nobody believes it.  Especially not after what happened in 2010, with a similar cliffhanger over Legislative Council reform.  That was when Albert Ho and his Democratic Party caved in at the last minute after all pan-democrats had made a similar vow.

The vow for this round was made in a much stronger activist environment created by the build-up to Umbrella/Occupy.  But the vow was also made when opinion polls … reflecting the views of voters who elect those legislators … were growing into majority support for a veto.  It was a time for mobilizing mass support around demands for popular or civic nomination rather than Beijing’s mainland-style party-managed alternative.  People around the world were taking notice as enthusiasm here built up for a real-life confrontation between Hong Kong protesters and the Beijing government.  Officials and opinion leaders in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere chimed in with words of encouragement as the momentum took hold. 

That was then, before the 79-day movement began on September 28, and after activists here had already been campaigning and lobbying for over a year.    Now is a different time … after Occupy … and Beijing knows well enough how to manipulate the key players in this game.  They include Beijing’s bogeymen, the much-hyped “foreign forces” outside Hong Kong.  And they include the conservative bedrock of Hong Kong society together with its movers and shakers. The latter also just happen to form the majority on the 1,200-member Nominating Committee.  

Confronted with Beijing’s still unyielding stand on its August 31 decision together with the daily media blitz targeting enemies real and imagined, foreign enthusiasm has collapsed, the siren song of compromise is again rising among local “moderates,” and opinion polls suggest the general public is losing track of the plot (Jan. 14 post).


London’s inevitable climb-down would be amusing if only the issues at stake here were not so fundamental.  Last year and the year before there was much big talk.  Beijing’s favorite Hong Kong villains, Martin Lee Chu-ming and Anson Chan Fang On-sang, were pilloried in Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing press for their week-long stay in London. 

While there, in July 2014, the two veterans lobbied British parliamentarians on the need for continued British attention and concern.  The talk was convincing enough to persuade the British Parliament’s 11-member Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) to conduct hearings into the state of political affairs here and the implementation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that spelled out conditions for Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China. 

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was quoted as saying he would ‘mobilize the international community’ if Beijing failed to live up to its pre-1997 promises for the “one country, two systems” formula that was supposed to protect Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms for 50 years after 1997 (2014: South China Morning Post, July 24, Dec. 30; Standard, July 17). 

These were the events leading up to Beijing’s angry declaration that the Joint Declaration had done what it was supposed to do as of 1997, and required no further British attention (Jan. 5, 2015 post).

Beijing also banned FAC members from visiting Hong Kong to conduct their investigations in person … even though British citizens enjoy visa free access.   Presumably, had committee members tried to visit in their official capacity, for the purpose intended, they would have been turned back at the airport, which would have made for a highly unusual photo-op if nothing else.  Instead, they took local testimony via video link in December.  But Beijing needn’t have worried quite so much. 

The potential impact of the hearings is dissipating rapidly in the face of statements and testimony from British notables in London.  Three reported commentaries are noteworthy. 

One was from Charles Powell, now Baron of Bayswater, then private secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she signed for Britain in 1984, after the Joint Declaration negotiations were finalized.  She had initially been so unhappy about returning Hong Kong to China that she explored the possibility of trying to grant the colony independence instead.  But if her old secretary had ever entertained such illusions they are long gone.  His comments received little notice when he made them, soon after Umbrella/Occupy got underway on September 28.  Recycled now, in the current climate, they have a prophetic ring.

Interviewed on BBC radio in early October, Lord Powell referred to the electoral reform controversy as a ‘small black cloud’ that had been hanging over Hong Kong for a long time … but ‘that’s life,’ he said.  Beijing had written its intentions into the 1990 Basic Law and he didn’t believe anything could change them.  He also acknowledged that the British had never introduced democracy during colonial times but claimed ‘one reason we didn’t is because we knew it was eventually going back to China and it would have been far worse to introduce full democracy and then taken it away from them’  ( ).

Another memorable comment came earlier this month from a current Foreign Office official, Stephen Lillie, in his testimony to the not yet concluded FAC hearings.  He endorsed Beijing’s August 31 framework for the 2017 election, saying the Foreign Office had decided after all that it did offer a ‘genuine choice’ of candidates to Hong Kong voters.  ‘Our assessment is that it is still possible to come up with arrangements that would allow that’ (SCMP, Jan. 15, 2015).

Best of all, however, were the comments of Hugo Swire due to the controversy he had provoked earlier on the same subject.  Swire is a Foreign Office minister and he, too, was giving testimony to the FAC in London.  He said Beijing’s August 31 framework might not be perfect but ‘something is better than nothing.’  He said it represented a genuine improvement although he didn’t explain exactly what he thought that meant (SCMP, Jan. 15).

As it happened, Swire had paid a quiet visit to Hong Kong just the week before his mid-January London testimony.  While here he commended Beijing’s August 31 framework to local legislators including pan-democrats, although the advice was not reported until after his London testimony had been made public (Ming Pao Daily, Jan. 16).  But Swire’s advice to pan-democrats was the same both here and there:  Don’t veto Beijing’s August 31 framework.

Government leaders here maybe didn’t know about his new line since it also later emerged that both of Hong Kong’s two top officials,   Chief Executive CY Leung and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, had refused to see him while he was here (SCMP, Jan. 25).

Hugo Swire’s message was especially noteworthy given the climb-down it represented.  He had created quite a stir in 2013 when he wrote an op-ed piece, published in both English and Chinese, to celebrate the United Nations’ International Day of Democracy, September 15.  Beijing protested loudly because he had declared that “the strengthening of democratic institutions is at the core of Britain’s foreign policy.”  He wanted to mark the occasion by saying why the transition to universal suffrage was so important for Hong Kong … “vital to its future stability and prosperity.” 

Britain therefore took “very seriously” its commitment under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that guarantees Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy, basic rights and freedoms, the observance of which the United Kingdom takes an active interest in.”  He noted Hong Kongers’ enthusiasm for the coming electoral reform debate and said the most important thing is that “the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice to enable them to feel they have a real stake in the outcome.”  What angered Beijing most was the clincher:  “Britain stands ready to support in any way we can” (SCMP, Ming Pao, Sept. 14, 2013).

Journalist Frank Ching traced the evolution in London’s willingness to defy Beijing between 2012 and now.  Declining enthusiasm for Hong Kong’s universal suffrage campaign, he suggests, seems to be a direct tradeoff, reflected in the conclusion of major Sino-British trade deals; the visit to London by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last year, just in time to make a pitch for his London hosts against the Scottish independence vote; and Hugo Swire’s own China trip just a few weeks ago, accompanied of course by a British trade delegation. (

As of December, at least one other European diplomatic delegation was moving into step with the British position.*  Probably they can all be counted on to counsel surrender, which is the way it was in 2010.  Hong Kong’s consular corps had united in agreement that pan-democrats should accept the government’s 2010 Legislative Council reform plan … without even noting that it was designed on the mainland people’s congress model of indirect party-managed elections.

And so it has always been.  Little wonder that Hong Kong politicians and activists have grown cynical in their association with the “foreign forces” that Beijing loves to rail against while knowing full well how easy it is to tame paper tigers.  But for the uninitiated, there is always the promise of tomorrow. 

Swire told the FAC that the British government was really looking to see ‘a purer form of democracy undertaken by 2017 and then ultimately in 2020’ (SCMP, Jan. 15).   Where he got that idea is a mystery.  It couldn’t have come from either of Hong Kong’s two top officials during his most recent visit becasue they both refused to see him.

Promises only, but still no definitions being uttered in the House of Commons committee room.   Everyone there is no doubt talking about Western-style free-choice elections. Beijing on the other hand is talking about mainland-style communist party-managed elections … with not ever a word being uttered anywhere about how and when the twain might meet.


Many moderates were as disappointed as committed hard-core democrats when Beijing announced its August 31 ultimatum.  Everyone saw it as a dead end, with no link to future progress in Chief Executive elections and no indication as to whether the small-circle Functional Constituencies will ever be eliminated either from the Chief Executive Nominating Committee or the Legislative Council.  The small-circles themselves have been lobbying for years in hopes that Beijing will allow them to remain forever. 

Nor do the many moderate voices now rising all around seem inclined even to use the word “compromise” … probably because there is virtually no room for it in Beijing’s August 31 framework.  Yet one after another, they are falling into line … just like Hugo Swire and the British Foreign Office … because the will to resist is collapsing and there seems little appetite for designing serious alternatives now, at this late date, and in the face of Beijing’s intransigence. 

This is despite the 2010 experience that suggests Beijing is playing another round of brinkmanship … hardline intransigence to, almost, the very end with last-minute miniscule concessions that will by then seem like a lifeline.

It follows that only small cosmetic adjustments can be found among the rising number of moderate voices counseling surrender.  Such ideas can always find a sympathetic hearing, for example, among Ming Pao Daily’s editorial writers … who very much want pan-democrats to find some excuse for not boycotting the government’s second consultation exercise now underway (Jan. 14 post).  

But the suggestions on offer hardly seem worth the sacrifice …  token gestures like more transparent procedures for the Nominating Committee’s work, or trying to devise a maneuver whereby a pan-democratic candidate might just slip through; or giving voters the option of a negative none-of-the-above choice …  if they are really keen to exercise their precious right but don’t like any of the formal candidates approved by the committee (Ming Pao Daily, editorials, Jan. 6, 8).

South China Morning Post management is even more amenable to moderation and like-minded souls can always find a home there.  For example, Professor Kerry Kennedy at the Hong Kong Institute of Education calls on pan-democrats to face reality and bow to the inevitable.  He takes at face value the official threat to retain the current unelected system indefinitely if pan-dems veto Beijing’s August 31 framework.  He therefore calls on them to take the long view and cites Britain’s Reform Act of 1832 to illustrate just how long (SCMP, Jan. 15).  At that rate, 2047 will have come and gone before anyone need seriously contemplate “true” democracy again.

Writer Michael Paskewitz also counsels acceptance.  Pan-democrats, he suggests, could agree to support one of the Nominating Committee’s conservative candidates (the least objectionable) in exchange for I.O.U. promises on future policies (SCMP, Jan. 14). 

Professor David Zweig, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, also counsels acceptance.  He argues that if pan-dems veto the August 31 framework, they are likely to guarantee a second term for their nemesis, Chief Executive CY Leung, because he has emerged the real winner in the confrontation with Umbrella/Occupy’s defeated protesters (SCMP, Jan. 20). 

Hong Kong University law professor, Simon Young, also counsels caution in voting down Beijing’s August 31 framework.  This is because he thinks that’s exactly what Beijing officials want.  They would just as soon carry on without seeing their promise for a 2017 universal suffrage Chief Executive election materialize.  But his quid pro quo would rest only on demands for more promises from Beijing about future reforms (SCMP, Jan. 16).

Pan-democrats’ goal of real choice exercised in a one-person, one-vote election seems to have already receded beyond the point of recognition.  As in the House of Commons committee room, there is no discussion among these moderates to explain …  to a public needing such guidance before responding to opinion pollsters … the difference between promises and definitions. 

Are Hong Kong democrats and Beijing officials even talking about the same thing when they speak of “universal suffrage elections”?  In which direction are the post-2017 promises supposed to lead?   

There is still no hint of a suggestion from moderate opinion leaders that Beijing’s August 31 framework actually looks more like it’s trying to set precedents and continue laying the groundwork for Hong Kong’s integration within the mainland people’s congress system.  Certainly there is no indication that Beijing’s framework is anticipating or working toward Western-style electoral reform. 

As of January, make that two including the U.S. Consul General here.  When asked, the diplomats always look aggreived and say indignantly that they never take sides in local political controversies, never interfere, etc., etc. …  but somehow, with so many lunches and dinners and teas … it’s seems impossible for them to keep their opinions to themselves, especially when pan-dems are among the invited guests.


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