Posted: April 17, 2015
Hong Kong’s electoral reform procedures may be denounced on many grounds but thoroughness is not one of them. The old bureaucratic art of public consultation has carried on in service from one sovereign to the next and at least no one can complain that the public isn’t being allowed to have its say … even if the end result is more-or-less identical to what Beijing officials, their Hong Kong counterparts, and local pro-Beijing loyalists have been articulating from the start. The start in this case was when this current phase of the political reform debate got under way two years ago (Mar. 25, Apr. 2, 2013 posts).
Finishing touches are now being put on the government’s plan for the 2017 Chief Executive election … the one that 27 pro-democracy legislators have vowed to veto if substantial revisions have not been made before the bill is tabled in the Legislative Council (Mar. 13 post). An up-or-down vote is expected before the summer recess, in about two months’ time.
This current penultimate presentation (there might be a few more touch-ups … maybe even some concessions) follows the just-concluded second round of public consultations, held during January and February (Jan. 14 post). Pan-democrats boycotted the second round because their input during the first, when everyone really put their hearts into it between December 2013 and May 2014, was largely ignored. Beijing followed up the first round with its August 31 (8.31) decision that essentially reiterated Beijing’s predetermined format … thereby provoking the 79-day Umbrella/Occupy protest movement between September and December last year. The Hong Kong government’s summation adheres in all respects to Beijing’s 8.31 decision.
The final version is not due out until next week, but government “sources” are busy previewing the details … part of a last ditch effort to lobby “moderate” pro-democracy legislators. The sources said that the government’s team is hoping not just to break the resolve of four legislators, the number needed to provide the two-thirds super-majority necessary for passage by the 70-seat Legislative Council (Legco). It is assumed that the majority … pro-Beijing loyalist and conservative legislators … will all support the government bill. But the government’s team is thinking big … aiming for a real victory, they say, with 13-14 pan-democrats breaking ranks to join the winning side.
Asked by journalists if this was not just campaign bravado, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying emerged as the cheerleader-in-chief during a question and answer session on April 14. He said he was aiming big because he had faith in the proposal and in his team’s ability to sell it to the public. If the public comes around, Legislative Councilors will have to follow http://webcast.info.gov.hk/2015/ce/ce1404.html .
Toward that end, the government and loyalists are piling on the pressure by producing all kinds of opinion polls to show vast majority public support for the government’s plan. Rumors have also been circulating for months about discreet transfers from hidden bank accounts, to be used for the purpose of wooing if not individual legislators then a few influential pro-democracy politicians around them.
According to “sources,” the government’s electoral reform bill will be based on the unreformed, stacked and padded, committee that has been endorsing Beijing’s approved candidates for Chief Executive since 1997. The committee has been enlarged since then but is to remain at its current size of 1,200 members. Previously called the Election Committee, it will be re-named the Nominating Committee.
The plan is for a two-step nominating process whereby anyone who can collect 120 endorsement signatures from the 1,200 committee members will become a preliminary recommended candidate. This is comparable to past Election Committee procedure whereby candidates qualified via endorsement signatures. But token democrats struggled in past selections to collect even that minimal number of signatures from committee members, a majority of whom could be counted on never to choose such a candidate in the final draw.
For 2017, no single aspirant would be allowed to collect more than 240 signatures. The aim is to “shortlist” five or six individuals who will then campaign for committee support. To qualify as a formal candidate, hopefuls would need to receive the votes of at least 601 committee members or 51%. A maximum of three candidates can be placed on the final public ballot. In selecting them, the 1,200 committee members will be required to indicate, on a secret ballot, who they will and will not support. They can presumably endorse all 5-6, or none of them but this point has not been clarified in the preliminary briefings. More likely, they will give the nod to only three.
Since Beijing will be vetting the final candidate list, it is assumed that this will be done behind closed doors at some point before the Nominating Committee members make their final choices. This point also has not been clarified (Ming Pao Daily, Apr. 14; Standard, Apr. 14, 15).
CAN THE VOW-TO-VETO HOLD?
No one is willing to bet that the current pan-democratic united front against 8.31 will not crack. First intimations of weakening revolve have already been registered in the form of a signed article by Nelson Wong Sing-chi 【黃成智】, a former legislator and still a core member of the Democratic Party (South China Morning Post, Apr. 13, 14). His statement appeared in the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal【信報】on April 3, during the long Easter/Ching Ming holiday weekend. Falling beneath the radar at first, his change-of-heart reverberated for days afterward (Apple, Ming Pao, April 7).
Everyone has been waiting for the Democratic Party to break ranks first and sure enough, there it was. But party leaders and most members are so far standing firm in their opposition to the 8.31 framework. All remain mindful of the thumping their candidates, including Wong, received in the 2012 Legco election … punishment for the party’s 2010 compromise with Beijing on Legco reform that members have yet to live down in the democratic camp nor benefit from elsewhere.
Nelson Wong is a Christian conservative and more out of step with his party’s liberal views on social issues than with generally conservative public opinion. He has twice served as a directly-elected Legislative Councilor but lost his seat in the last, 2012, election. His reasons for deciding to go along with Beijing’s 8.31 electoral framework, spelled out in the article and in later interviews, deserve attention because they illustrate the failure of those who champion centrist compromises to consider their wider political significance and long term implications.
Wong said his main reason for accepting Beijing’s 8.31 framework is that Hong Kong will otherwise have to continue with the present system. Pan-democrats are arguing that if 8.31 is accepted, the pressure will be off Beijing and that will be the end of further progress on electoral reform because Beijing can say, indeed is saying, that the Basic Law’s promise of universal suffrage has been fulfilled.
Wong argues that if 8.31 is not accepted, the Election Committee would then return Leung Chun-ying for a second term and such a person, wholly lacking in legitimacy as he is, would never allow Hong Kong’s democracy movement to continue its struggle for universal suffrage. Why would he re-start the whole arduous process of electoral reform when he obviously has no interest even in discussing the concept, much less transforming it into reality? How could a person elected under Beijing’s 8.31 conditions be any worse than CY Leung, asks Wong.
In answer to pan-dems’ argument that the 8.31 framework would produce a fake universal suffrage election lacking in legitimacy, Wong thinks it’s a matter of degree. But he thinks that even if the candidates are all Beijing-vetted, the general public could at least be counted on not to re-elect CY Leung who would have to be the least acceptable of all possible contenders, in Wong’s view.
Pan-dems argue further that a vetted Chief Executive with fake legitimacy from a fake popular election would nevertheless be able to hijack the popular momentum that propelled him into office for a second term. He could then use that wave of voter support to push through politically regressive or repressive policies.
Wong says that in democratic countries elected leaders are not the sole source of balanced government. An elected legislature and civil society are just as important … but probably not possible if Beijing’s chronology is disrupted in 2017 by the 8.31 veto.
Beijing has promised a legislature elected by universal suffrage in 2020, after the 2017 universal suffrage Chief Executive election. At least by accepting Beijing’s conditions for the 2017 election, argues Wong, Hong Kong’s struggle for an elected legislature could carry on whereas that opportunity might otherwise be lost.
These arguments are addressed to his fellow pro-democracy partisans but probably won’t gain much traction in that quarter … nor is the loyalist/conservative bloc likely to be overjoyed at the prospect of Nelson Wong promoting their cause in this way. But the main problem with his reasoning is that even after the obvious example of Beijing defining its 8.31 decision as a proposal for universal suffrage, he does not pause to ponder what Beijing might mean by universal suffrage for Legco.
In fact, loyalists and conservatives have made no secret of their hope that the corporate-style Legco Functional Constituencies can continue forever. Their champions say the small-circle closed constituencies that elect their legislators also constitute a form of universal suffrage.
One major reason for pan-dems’ desire to reject 8.31 is precisely this question of Legco and how that promise of a 2020 universal suffrage election can be achieved. Beijing has rejected all proposals for starting to phase out the Functional Constituencies ahead of the next, 2016, election and they cannot possibly be eliminated all at once in 2020.
So where are Beijing’s plans and proposals for that Legco phase of the universal suffrage promise? There are none. Wong ignores this question just as he ignores Beijing’s current arguments about the Nominating Committee format being the only possibility the Basic Law contemplates for its entire 50-year life span.
The second problem with Wong’s argument is his apparent obsession with the current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying … perhaps he protests too much because he thinks that’s the best way to sell his decision to break with the anti-8.31 united front. Along with this focus is his assumption that ordinary Hong Kong voters will not elect Leung for a second term. Wong thinks the current Election Committee would likely do so but ordinary voters would not.
He obviously hasn’t spent a lot of time with his loyalist counterparts. But that would be one easy way for him to learn that Beijing is especially intent on bolstering Leung’s legitimacy with the veneer of a universal suffrage popular vote. Beijing sees that as a means of consolidating the success of its one-country, two-systems Hong Kong experiment.
Pan-dems may have little political power, but their constant carping and protesting has managed to undermine the reputation and authority of all three post-1997 Chief Executives … and thereby undermine Beijing’s authority as well since all are Beijing’s men.
The 8.31 design can produce a controlled environment, fit-for-purpose in the form of a candidate list that could easily achieve re-election for CY Leung by making him the strongest among the other contenders. His incumbency advantage would count for a lot if the other candidate was, for example, Regina Ip of Article 23 fame, and the same is true of the others that loyalists have mentioned as possible candidates.
Regina Ip is keen to run and has reportedly received Beijing’s blessing in that regard. For those not familiar with her past, she led the Tung Chee-hwa administration’s 2003 attempt to push through national security legislation as mandated by the Basic Law’s Article 23. Leung Chun-ying was also a leading member of Tung’s administration at that time. The legislation had to be shelved after pro-business Liberal Party legislators withdrew their support for the bill. But in the wake of last year’s Umbrella/Occupy movement, loyalists have revived demands to reintroduce the legislation that would criminalize such “seditious” dissent and the alleged “secessionist” intentions that inspired it.
Hence, should Leung Chun-ying’s second term be secured by a popular vote, the move that pan-dems fear most is his re-introduction of that very same Article 23 legislation … and bearing in mind the ease with which it could be passed. Unlike the political reform bill, Article 23 needs only a simple Legco majority to become law.
Actually, if the main aim is to be rid of Leung Chung-ying, Nelson Wong should stick with the current Election Committee. Leung received only 689 votes from its 1,200 members in 2012 and he has serious detractors in all corners of that congregation … detractors who would like nothing better than the chance to vote him out of office.