Posted:  Feb. 9, 2015


Calls to rally around Beijing’s August 31 decision on the 2016/17 electoral reform cycle are rising on all sides.  Even British officials and American diplomats are now counseling 831 opponents that it’s time to retreat, give up the struggle, and take whatever Beijing wants to give.  The decision’s key features:  a 50% majority of 1,200 conservative/loyalist Nominating Committee members, endorsing two-three Beijing-vetted candidates, after which the general public can exercise its long-promised right to choose.

Unfortunately, none of these advisories come with follow-up suggestions about what direction the retreat should take, how long it could last, or where it’s supposed to end.  Except for those coming from the Beijing side, the message sounds more like a quick fix solution designed in haste to minimize immediate disruptions … rather than a serious consideration of where Hong Kong wants to go, what precedents will be set if 831 is accepted, and what is likely to follow.  Off on a wing and a hopeful prayer with everyone telling themselves “never mind … it will all work out in the end,” fully cognizant that they aren’t likely to be around here when the “end” comes so they will never have to contemplate the consequences.

But among the most intriguing champions of such compromise is the Civic Party’s Ronny Tong Ka-wah 【湯家驊】.  Tong is a barrister and long-time “moderate” critic of his party’s “radical” stands who nevertheless cannot bring himself to quit the party he loves.  Ronny Tong thinks his fellow pan-democrats’ vow to veto any unrevised version of Beijing’s August 31 ultimatum is a big mistake. 

He also says to any and all listeners, especially those ready to relay his concerns to the wider public, that there is no one in the entire pro-democracy camp today who is fit to lead.  All lack the necessary “political wisdom,” he told a TV interviewer on February 1.   One of the few, he told another TV interviewer several months ago, was one of the Democratic Party’s founding members, the late Szeto Wah 【司徒華】.  He lamented Szeto’s death for removing just about the only moderate democratic leader with the influence needed to keep misguided followers in check at this difficult time.

During a low point last year Tong even lauded Regina Ip (of Article 23 fame) for the work she is doing with her pro-Beijing New People’s Party.  He said it is achieving what he had initially thought his own Civic Party aimed to do … by working with moderates to strengthen the democratic cause.  Instead, his party is working to strengthen the democratic cause while turning off moderates like himself. 


Symptomatic of his frustration was the fate of his own proposal for Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive election.   Last year when the bandwagon began rolling among pan-democrats for civic nomination (meaning that the 2017 Chief Executive election candidates should be nominated by the general public), Tong dug in his heels against the idea.  He continued to lobby for his own proposal, which he had introduced early on (Ming Pao Daily, Apple, Oct. 16, 2013).

As of last spring, 2014, when pan-democrats were making their final choices among the many alternatives by then up for consideration, Tong was disconsolate, unable to understand why his proposal was among the least popular.  He protested that he had worked as long and as hard as anyone in designing it … all for naught.  Hence his anger at fellow democrats who failed to appreciate the need for moderation. 

His proposal for the 2017 Chief Executive election aimed to leave intact the special-interests design of the current 1,200-member Election/Nominating Committee.  This much-maligned body, with its four sectors and 28 Functional Constituency (FC) subsectors, has been endorsing Beijing’s choice of Chief Executive candidates since 1997 and is now set for retention under Beijing’s 831 decision.  Tong’s main innovation was to top up the 1,200 members with directly-elected District Councilors, something over 300  … his total was calculated at 1,514 members. 

Otherwise, in forming the committee itself, he would have left intact the custom of corporate selection for most of Sector One’s subsectors (eg., catering, hotels, commerce, import-export), but opened up all those employed in Sector Two’s professional categories (eg., accounting, architecture, health services, information technology). 

In other words, everyone employed in a professional capacity in these latter fields would have been eligible to vote for their Sector Two representatives on the Nominating Committee.  Corporate executives and business leaders would continue to dominate the selection of Sector One representatives.  Except for the social welfare subsector in Sector Three, pro-Beijing loyalists plus their conservative allies dominate.   Ditto all of Sector Four.  Each sector is formally calculated at 300 members.

Now, with Beijing refusing to revise its August 31 decision and pan-democrats vowing to veto it, Ronny Tong has come up with another moderate plan.  He wants to accept 831, albeit on condition that Beijing begins making a new round of promises for the next election cycle after 2016/17.   

The August 31 decision concerns the full 2016/17 cycle, but decrees that there will be no reforms in the 2016 Legislative Council (Legco) election.  This is despite long-standing public distaste for the small-circle Functional Constituency component of the council (30 of 70 seats). That same occupational component, divided into sectors and subsectors, is also responsible for electing most of the 1,200-member Election/Nominating Committee.   But Ronny Tong says that will be O.K. … if only Beijing now promises to grant full universal suffrage for the 2020 Legco election … and make the 2022 Chief Executive Nominating Committee more democratic (Apple Daily, Jan. 28).  Hope springs eternal.

Such a promise would entail yet another giant leap of faith with another big promise, namely, the abolition all 28 Functional Constituencies, in one go, for the 2020 Legco election.  Pan-democrats’ proposals had assumed these would begin to be phased out in 2016 since Beijing had promised, back in 2007, that the 2020 Legco election could be by universal suffrage.  Tong does at least still accept that real “universal suffrage” for Legco should mean one-person, one-vote to fill all 70 seats.   Some diehard conservatives have tried to argue in recent years that the small-circle Functional Constituencies also represent a form of universal suffrage because the small circles actually represent bigger circles, and so on.  This logic is used by those who want the FCs to remain forever.


Ronny Tong is proud to acknowledge the Beijing contacts and counterparts he has been cultivating for years.  So it’s hard to believe he has never asked them how they hope to see Hong Kong’s political reform project play out “in the end.”  He remains committed to the principles of Western-style democracy and knows that Beijing is not.  Perhaps he is so committed that he still believes in the power of positive thinking and the cross-border demonstration effect that sustained so much pro-democracy optimism in the 1990s. 

But if so, he should be explaining, to all those whose approval he seeks, why he continues to believe when there is so little mainland political reform to justify his good faith.

He should also be trying to explain why Beijing keeps kicking the universal suffrage can down the road, from one election cycle to the next, with so little progress to show for the endless delays that began, at Beijing’s behest, in 1988.  Beijing by now must have its reasons and plans. 

And assuming that Beijing does have some such master plan, Tong should be asking why the main pro-Beijing political party here has been so keen on building up the majority coalitions that now allow them to dominate all 18 of Hong Kong’s District Councils … after beginning with nothing in the 1990s.  Those coalitions have outmaneuvered pan-democrats, including Tong himself, time and again in consolidating their base at that level.

After parachuting into one such constituency in the last, 2011, District Councils election, he was at a loss to understand the dynamics of his landslide defeat.*  He had spent a few weekends standing on street corners, posing for photo-ops, and assuming his territory-side reputation would see him though … even though he had never actually done grassroots community work in that neighborhood.  Afterward, Tong seemed to think the locals came out to punish him for being a member of the “radical” Civic Party.

In any event, he definitely did not realize that his real handicap in that election was the strong social support network that pro-Beijing forces have been building for over a decade to sustain their influence on the Shatin District Council … and all 17 others as well (Dec. 5, 2011 post).  Many democratic candidates, for various reasons, parachuted into those constituencies in 2011 and every parachuter, whether radical or moderate, met the same fate as Ronny Tong because those constituencies are now loyalist/conservative electoral base areas (Nov. 14, 2011 post).

Beijing and its Hong Kong allies must have some endgame in mind, so why not call them out for a debate or at least an online interview.  There should be some way for Hong Kong voters to learn where the people they are voting for aim to lead.

Why also is that pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), so keen on winning as many Legco seats as possible?  Tong can see clearly that once in those seats DAB legislators and their close Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) allies, use their positions to oppose every pro-democracy initiative.  

And why are DAB legislators now proposing to re-draw the existing boundaries of Legislative Council election districts in such a way, for the 2016 election, as to make it even easier for them to win the additional seats they need to secure the two-thirds Legco majority they also need to pass any and all future political reform bills that Beijing might want to introduce?

Pro-democracy candidates won only 18 of 35 directly-elected Geographic Constituency seats in the last, 2012, Legco election.  This sector was once their unassailable turf … they owned it.  But with every election, their fractious strategies have unnecessarily ceded seat after seat to their loyalist/conservative opponents.  Democrats won some FC seats in 2012, to make a 27-member contingent among 70 Legco members total …  just barely enough to deprive their opponents of the two-thirds super majority they need to pass the 831 electoral reform bill on their own.


It’s possible to suggest some answers to these questions … hypothetical suspicions that moderates should have begun considering years ago.  That was when there was still time to ask Beijing for definitions … reality checks for use in thinking through its pie-in-the-sky promises and designing protective strategies accordingly.

The first hint came soon after the return to Chinese rule in late 1997, when Hong Kong was preparing to select its very first delegation to attend the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) meetings the next spring.   Mainland sources at the time contained a passing explanatory phrase:  because Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is “not yet” part of the people’s congress system, so it’s delegation needs to be selected differently from those of other provinces.

But despite what we all thought at the time, the new mechanism for delegate selection was no great concession to Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations.  The delegation was and continues to be chosen by the same FC-based Election/Nominating Committee that is causing so much controversy today.  The formula for selecting the delegates includes internal ranked-order name lists of approved candidates and bloc voting by committee members … this last to guarantee a good solid vote for all 36 delegates.  There are always a few extra names to serve as stand-by alternate members.**

The phrase “not yet” was scarcely noticed and soon forgotten.  Activists were totally focused on trying to build their own Hong Kong-based democratic system.  The Democratic Party actually tried to nominate candidates for inclusion on that first NPC delegation … to show Beijing how it should be done.  Permission was denied.

Today, almost two decades later, Hong Kong is well on its way to becoming part of that system and that system is no more democratic, in the Western sense, than it was then.  All it takes is a little imagination to see the outlines of the way ahead for Hong Kong as it is slowly re-fashioned to fit the people’s congress mold.

Another helpful hint in this regard can be found in China’s own national constitution and the way it is currently being implemented.    The constitution gives everyone 18 years and above the right to vote (Article 34).  It also says that the people’s congresses of counties, city districts, and townships “are elected directly by their constituencies” (Art. 97). Such elections are held all over China today.  Congresses above the county are indirectly elected by the level below.

Hong Kong democrats disregard these elections, as well they might, since the entire representative structure from top to bottom is managed and vetted by the local communist party organization where all decision-making power resides.   

But Hong Kong democrats should consider the similarities with Hong Kong’s own District Council elections, where Ronny Tong came to grief in 2011.  These elections are now dominated by the DAB, FTU, and their conservative allies who are entrenched in the small consistencies by reason of the social services they provide for residents.   

District Councilors are elected by one-person, one-vote universal suffrage.  But the local communist party branch has not yet come out from underground to declare itself in the light of day with the DAB as its electoral wing.  Until that happens,  Hong Kong voters are not likely to understand how their District Council elections are already being shaped, vetted, and managed in the manner of their cross-border counterparts. 

Ronny Tong might have put two and two together after his 2011 Shatin District Council defeat, but he didn’t.  Instead, two years later, he tacked all District Councilors onto his 2017 Chief Executive election proposal saying they would make the Nominating Committee more democratic because they themselves had been elected on the basis of one-person, one-vote!   Perfect companions for the great majority of the Nominating Committee’s loyalist/conservative members. 

Tong’s reasoning, like his uncluttered idealism, seems to be a carry-over from pre-1997 days when the colonial government used the same argument to sell some of its complicated indirectly-elected designs.   

He also hadn’t noticed that when the Hong Kong government and DAB wanted to make Legco more democratic during the 2010 reform cycle, their solution was the indirect election of District Councilors to sit in the Legislative Council.  The proposal was for the District Councilors to select five of their number to become “two-hat” councilors and occupy seats in Legco as well.  That really would have been an unvarnished mainland-style solution:  party-vetted “universal suffrage” at the lowermost grassroots level, and indirect elections from the county level all the way up to the National People’s Congress!

Just like now, pan-democrats had united in 2010 around a pledge to veto that idea but they also authorized then Democratic Party Chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan 【何俊仁】to try and negotiate a better deal.  He agreed to the last-minute concession by Beijing whereby everyone (not just District Councilors) could vote for those District Councilors nominated by their council colleagues.  He is still trying to live down that decision.  But his greatest lapse was not to have explained, maybe not even to himself, who was behind the “two-hat” councilors idea or its cross-border provenance.

In response to Ronny Tong’s latest idea about 2020 Legco election “promises,” the official responses have actually been more candid than usual.  Raymond Tam from the government’s lead task force said making such promises so far ahead would not be possible since it’s too soon to say if all future Beijing and Hong Kong leaders will agree on the need for further reform.  Such prior permission is now a prerequisite for any future electoral reforms.

Tam also said the Nominating Committee’s mandate for a 50% majority endorsement of Chief Executive candidates was permanent.  Hong Kong’s Basic Law would otherwise have to be amended … even though the single sentence in Article 45 covering the matter says nothing about an all-committee majority nominating power, or even a permanet role for the committee.  

Beijing’s August 31 decision also gives the impression of finality:  having agreed to universal suffrage, the mechanism for 2017 seems precedent-setting and permanent.  But on this point, Raymond Tam 【譚志源】says it might be possible to soften it somewhat … with more promises (Wen Wei Po, South China Morning Post, Jan. 30; Ming Pao, Jan. 28). 

In contrast, Basic Law authority and founding DAB member Elsie Leung Oi-sie 【梁愛詩】 says the Functional Constituencies are the best of all representative worlds.  Anyway, abolishing them in time for the 2020 Legco election is “not realistic” (Ming Pao, Feb. 2).   

Long-time loyalist Professor Lau Siu-kai 【劉兆佳】says the same thing and more.  Lau says Beijing’s aim is to retain the FC’s indefinitely while creating some sort of hybrid universal suffrage-FC electoral combo.  He says Beijing’s thinks such an arrangement would best reflect Hong Kong’s hybrid one-country, two systems status (Wen Wei Po, SCMP, Feb. 6).

So the peaceful legal “take-over” of Hong Kong’s political institutions via electoral means is now already well-advanced …  quite an impressive feat actually.  The Chinese Communist Party has never done it like this before … with Functional Constituencies and District Councils serving as the essential building blocks.

Perhaps other pan-democrats are not so “lacking in wisdom” after all.  More likely, it’s for Ronny Tong to explain to the others how his moderate manipulated designs are ever going to give Hong Kong the kind of open un-vetted un-managed election system they all say they want.

* Ronny Tong, Letter to Hong Kong, RTHK, Nov. 13, 2011. 

**  S. Pepper, “Hong Kong Joins the National People’s Congress,” Journal of Contemporary China (1999),  8 (21), pp. 319-343.





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