Posted: March 13, 2015
Decision time is approaching. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco) must soon vote up or down on Beijing’s controversial August 31 electoral reform ultimatum before the summer recess. Dubbed 831 for handy protest purposes, this is the decision authorizing Hong Kong’s long-promised first universal suffrage Chief Executive election, scheduled for 2017, that sparked the Umbrella-Occupy street blockades last year.
BETTER THAN NOTHING?
Despite the opposition, pressures to accept Beijing’s 831 election frameowrk are now coming from all the most powerful sides of the Hong Kong political equation. That includes not just the British … Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire … but even the Americans. Consul General Clifford Hart reportedly conveyed the same message to some pro-democracy legislators over a month ago. Something is better than nothing, say the diplomats.
Hong Kong’s tycoons, business interests, and pro-Beijing loyalists are of course shouting it from the rooftops. Other such champions include the conservative political parties as well as moderates and centrists of various stripes … all with at least one thing in common. They all say they want to be counted among the forces for democratic progress.
But throwing caution about future specifics to the winds, they say follow the course of least resistance and do what Beijing wants. No one in this crowd is asking what might come next, or the precedents that will be set by accepting 831.
“Pocket it first” are the code words, a local phrase 【袋住先】 first suggested last year by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam as her promotion campaign slogan. Now it’s synonymous among opponents with surrender … surrender to a proposal that would allow Beijing to vet two-three candidates prior to nomination by Hong Kong’s old un-reformed Election Committee, set for a simple name change to be recycled as the Nominating Committee, safely designed to guarantee safe results. Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage Chief Executive election could then proceed.
The logic of acceptance is the same, for all the same reasons that moderate political compromises have always been embraced here, rationalized with varying combinations of fear, fatalism, lethargy, and self-interest. Beijing is the sovereign authority. It can therefore do what it wants. Hong Kong is powerless to resist and powerless to have any moderating impact on the Chinese Communist Party’s way of political thinking … whether for application here or across the border. Democracy has taken centuries to build in Europe and America, so why rush it? The result here in any case will not be benign democracy but dangerous populism … angry protesters, street blockades, bad for business, and so forth. Hovering throughout: traditional Chinese deference to authority however established; reverence for the golden mean; fear of chaos even more than fear of autocracy.
Always in the past three decades of Hong Kong’s contemporary democracy movement, enough of its advocates have eventually bowed before these conservative considerations in deference to Beijing’s restrictive designs. Just enough votes have always been mustered to carry on incrementally from one decade to the next, that is, always since the first major reform controversy in 1988.
Everyone assumes something similar will happen this time around and all eyes are now focusing on the four or five “moderate” pan-democrats in the Legislative Council who hold the balance of power. Electoral reform legislation requires a two-thirds super-majority to pass. Pan-democrats occupy 27 of Legco’s 70 seats.
That has encouraged the Hong Kong government, Beijing’s Liaison Office here, and conservative partisans to direct all their persuasive powers toward those four or five moderates on the assumption that they can be “turned.” It happened in 2010 over a minor Legco election reform proposal, when Beijing made a minor concession at the very last minute as deadlines approached. Except that this time around it might not be so easy.
With memories of 2010 still fresh in pan-democrats’ minds, their Legco representatives have vowed repeatedly not to repeat that exercise. They aim to veto any government bill that is based, without revision, on Beijing’s 831 framework. But as the crescendo of calls for surrender grow louder, pressures have intensified on the usual suspects … including especially those with the most moderate least confrontational inclinations.
Hence to stiffen resolve and hopefully reduce speculation, legislators called a press conference on March 9 to reaffirm their vow. It was signed by all 27 legislators. That means including also the most problematic, Ronny Tong Ka-wah, and the most mercurial Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man. Wong is now suffering a kind of ostracism comparable to what he inflicted on the Democratic Party after it led the 2010 capitulation. All have put their names on the line, to declare (roughly translated):
Point 1: The National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision of August 31, 2014 (831 decision) “mistakes the tail for the horse,” takes away the voters’ right to nominate candidates, and calls the result a universal suffrage electoral system. That decision violates the Basic Law’s Articles 25, 26, 39, 45, 68, and also violates Beijing’s promise to Hong Kong for a universal suffrage election in 2017, as well as Hong Kongers’ aspirations for universal suffrage.
Point 2: We therefore reaffirm that we must reject any framework based on the 831 decision. We cannot give the people of Hong Kong a political reform plan in the name of genuine choice that is actually fake democracy.
Point 3: The 831 decision is unfair, unreasonable, and unconstitutional. We call on the National People’s Congress, in accordance with Article 62 (11) of the Chinese constitution, to overturn the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s August 31 decision.
The names of all 27 members of Legco’s pro-democracy caucus are appended.
The arguments being used in support of the vow have been submitted to the government during its second two-month consultation period on the reform proposal, which has just ended. They also form the basis of a judicial review that one of the Umbrella/Occupy student leaders is requesting permission from the courts to pursue. The student is Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok, last year’s student union president at the University of Hong Kong. Her effort seems unlikely to succeed but it may serve as a delaying tactic, ahead of the government’s draft legislation that must soon be submitted to Legco. Or the judicial review exercise may simply serve as another source of public information.
Leung is arguing that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) exceeded its powers when it issued the August 31 decision. This follows from a previous NPCSC interpretation, in 2004, that in effect amended Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Annexes I and II. The annexes include provisions for possible future electoral reforms beyond the election procedures stipulated in the Basic Law when it was promulgated in 1990.
The 2004 NPCSC interpretation mandated a new intervening five-step procedure whereby the Hong Kong authorities must seek Beijing’s permission before any electoral reform project can be pursued. Yvonne Leung’s argument is that the 831 decision went way beyond merely granting permission to proceed since the decision specifies in detailed and restrictive ways how the 2017 Chief Executive election must be implemented in order to receive Beijing’s approval. Hence the Hong Kong government was wrong to take Beijing’s 831 decision at face value and proceed to base Hong Kong’s 2017 electoral reform plans on that decision.
This is a long shot. The Basic Law (Art. 158) grants the NPCSC in Beijing the unqualified right to interpret the Basic Law. Its Article 159 grants the NPCSC the right to amend the Basic Law, but only after a sequence of procedures have been completed here. The NPCSC has therefore been exercising its constitutional rights throughout the 2004-2014 decade of tedious revisions via the all-purpose power to interpret.
The Basic Law’s promises about autonomy, universal suffrage, and rights established by the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights can thus all be overridden by the powers granted to the NPCSC … a fact that Beijing has always made very clear. Hence a judicial review would have to conclude that the 2004-2014 changes probably amount to Basic Law amendments (an unqualified right not granted to the NPCSC), rather than mere interpretations. Seems logical from a Hong Kong vantage point, but Beijing probably won’t buy it.
In elaborating their arguments, pro-democracy partisans are otherwise relying simply on their own reading of the Basic Law’s words that promise equality before the law, universal suffrage, the right to vote and stand for election, etc. The net effect is to say that Hong Kong campaigners have taken those words to mean one thing while Beijing means another. The one thing is based on the ideals of Western democracy. In contrast, Beijing is using the definitions of communist party democratic-centralism.
Unfortunately, the two sides have not yet put it all together so the people who matter most, Hong Kong voters, can have a clear picture of just what it is they are being asked when pollsters come around to inquire. Neither side has yet begun spelling out what Beijing’s words most likely mean, namely, that its 831 decision is a replication, adapted for use in Hong Kong’s Chief Executive election, of mainland-style people’s congress precedents and procedures. These can be seen at work in basic-level elections all over China today.
So that after 30 years of campaigning, universal suffrage is finally to be allowed here … but only as a mainland-style version of the Western original. In this application, people’s congress rules make the project look like just one more means of moving Hong Kong along the path toward what seems to be Beijing’s aim of full one-country, one-system political integration.