Posted: April 24, 2015
Last summer, the Hong Kong government came up with the “pocket it first,” slogan to try and sell Beijing’s strict plan for political reform. It’s a popular local term implying that, as in property disputes, if pro-democracy claimants would only agree to take a preliminary offer they could continue to bargain for a better deal later.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor 【林鄭月娥】heads the government’s political reform task force and she made the slogan her campaign theme in anticipation of Beijing’s restrictive design for Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive election. It’s the first that will attempt to realize the democracy camp’s 30-year quest for … and Beijing’s decades’ old promise to allow … universal suffrage elections here. Beijing’s framework was formally announced on August 31, to be known thereafter as the 8.31 decision and giving Carrie Lam’s campaign theme an increasingly hollow ring.
Now her slogan has backfired completely because it also fell to her to admit that Beijing’s 8.31 framework does not contain the prospect of a future better deal, as the Chinese saying implies【袋住先】. In this case it means once and for all. Democracy partisans have a favorite rejoinder: “pocket it forever”【袋一世】.
The formal Hong Kong government report on its second consultation exercise and the proposed legislation, soon to be tabled in the Legislative Council, was announced on April 22.*
Lam’s new slogan is “2017: Make It Happen!” In presenting the final draft to the Legislative Council last Wednesday she had to admit that with the 2017 Chief Executive (CE) election, assuming it is conducted according to Beijing’s 8.31 formula and the Hong Kong government’s election design based thereon, the Basic Law’s mandate for a universal suffrage CE election will have been realized. There is no constitutional obligation to reform the CE election method further and she said there would be no formal promise, written or otherwise, in that respect. No definitions about anything either.
Lam was nevertheless loath to admit that “pocket it first,” really meant “pocket it forever.” If there is a need, and it would have to be proven, then changes could be introduced. But any future initiatives would be up to the discretion of future Chief Executives who might not be too eager to launch new political reform projects after the uproar this one is causing (Ming Pao Daily April 23, South China Morning Post, online, print April 22, 23). She has nothing to offer but the same vague official promises that have been used to disarm democracy campaigners since Basic Law debates began and the law was being drafted in the 1980s.
These had already been introduced in preliminary briefings (April 17 post). There are no surprises. The proposed reform bill that the Legislative Council must vote on sometime before its summer recess will be based on the same four-sector committee with its 38 subsectors that was initially designed by Basic Law drafters and spelled out in its Annex I. The four sectors and 38 subsectors are listed in Annex VI of the government’s just released document on the second consultation.* Committee members are elected by eligible voters in the respective special-interest sub-sectors, which correspond to the Functional Constituencies that also elect half the members of Hong Kong’s 70-seat Legislative Council.
In the course of Hong Kong’s current political reform cycle, the public has finally learned … not formally but in the course of various arguments … that from the start it was always the Basic Law’s intent to use this committee … and only this committee … not just to endorse Beijing’s choice for Chief Executives before the promise of universal suffrage was realized. The same committee was always intended to nominate Beijing’s choice of candidates afterward as well!
Maybe if the public had known this all along, pro-democracy partisans would not have wasted the past year and more campaigning for some form of “civic nomination” whereby the general public could also participate in the nomination exercise.
According to the government’s formal proposal, prospective candidates must collect 120 endorsement signatures from among the 1,200 committee members in order to pass the first “gate.” Each committee member will be able to recommend only one person and each person can collect only 240 endorsement signatures. This would produce between five and 10 preliminary candidates.
Selecting the final candidates from among this pool of hopefuls will be done by the 1,200 committee members via secret ballot. They must vote for at least two of the hopefuls but can additionally vote for as many others as they like. To qualify for a place on the public ballot, however, candidates must receive the votes of at least half the 1,200 members of the committee. Once the public does finally get involved, the ultimate winner will be the candidate who receives the most votes regardless of how many or how few.
So the public has actually been put through an elaborate political charade during the past year and more that the official consultations have been underway. Not surprising that anger erupted into the Occupy Central movement once Beijing finally made known its intentions in the form of that 8.31 decision last summer. In effect, the public was lured into a grand guessing game for which only Beijing and local loyalists knew the answers.
Both the main pro-Beijing political party and the Federation of Trade Unions submitted their reform proposals along with everyone else last spring. But loyalists said they were trying to hew as closely as possible to what they knew Beijing wanted … and their proposals were pretty much a perfect match (2014: Wen Wei Po, April 23, 29; Ming Pao, Apr. 23; SCMP, May 6). At the time, democracy campaigners said if that was really what Beijing wanted, then it would be no deal and they would veto any such proposal.
What no one said was that what Beijing wanted would be the only election framework allowed and that everyone else was wasting their time agitating for anything else. Hong Kong, in other words, was sold a bill of goods that didn’t exist. With the benefit of this hindsight, “pocket it first” appears as a cynical marketing slogan intended to exploit the deception.
LET THE PUBLIC DECIDE
The 27 pro-democracy legislators who vowed to veto the proposal if it corresponds to Beijing’s 8.31 decision are so far holding firm (Mar. 13 post). Even the tenaciously moderate Ronny Tong said the government’s formal proposal is “hopeless” and must be voted down. He sat glumly in the Legislative Council chamber while others in his caucus walked out in protest last Wednesday when the government’s final plan was being presented. Tong disapproves of such radical gestures and refuses to join them. But the government’s final verdict was too much even for him because it had completely ignored all the moderate suggestions that he and others like him had also submitted in good faith last year. Despite their best intentions, they too did not realize that Beijing’s option was meant to be the only option.
The next question, then, is where to go from here. Possible scenarios are proliferating … like those explored by the Democratic Party’s moderate Nelson Wong (Apr. 17 post). Analysts are trying to anticipate what is the worst outcome and the best that might result if the veto holds, and if it doesn’t. Nothing like agreement yet.
Meanwhile, and much to Ronny Tong’s distaste, the battle for public opinion is heating up … since everyone but him seems to understand that since the issue is about democratic elections the public really should be allowed to have a say … one way or the other. His op-ed piece in today’s South China Morning Post (Apr. 24) contained some dour comments in that regard.
To counter the government and loyalist-sponsored polls, three reliable academic opinion monitors are joining forces to run a tracking poll … beginning now and ending on the eve of the Legislative Council vote, whenever that is. Results will be announced on Tuesdays and only one question will be asked: “do you support the political reform proposal for the 2017 chief executive election as mapped out by the government?” The three pollsters are: Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program (POP), the Chinese University’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey, and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Centre for Social Policy Studies.
As of now, the scenario that has the most possibilities seems to be the veto. This will create a huge uproar but in the process, everyone will be forced to focus more directly than they have so far on where the demand for universal suffrage is taking Hong Kong. If, as seems likely, Beijing is intent on using the exercise to put Hong Kong on course for a mainland-style people’s congress future, then the public should know now … and not have to wait until the end of some other far off consultation exercise to learn the truth of Beijing’s intentions.
Anticipating a veto, pro-Beijing forces … the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) … are already preparing for the next, 2016, Legislative Council elections. Their goal is to add to their supply of Legislative Council seats and with only four more, they will be able to re-introduce the government’s reform bill, pass it with the necessary two-thirds majority, and hold the 2017 Chief Executive election on time, in accordance with Beijing’s 8.31 mandate.
But bearing in mind loyalists’ plans, already widely discussed and no longer just among themselves, pan-democrats will finally realize that they are fighting for their political lives. That would be not just for their individual small groups and parties, but for the one project larger than themselves that has kept them all going since the 1980s.
Under those conditions they might just stop competing for advantage with each other, and design a strategic election plan that will keep loyalists from out maneuvering them as has happened in almost every election since 1998. The first post-handover election was held in 1998 and it was essentially the last … except maybe the 2003/4 District Councils and Legco elections … where pro-democracy candidates ran to win and not just for the experience or to accumulate a few more votes for their individual groups and parties.
Theoretically, that would be the best possible solution: contest the 2016 Legco election on the issue electoral reform and let the voters decide. Pan-democrats have spent most of the past year campaigning for civic nomination … to give the public a role in the nominating process. The 2016 election could become a form of civic nomination by other means.
* 2017: Make It Happen! Method for Selecting the Chief Executive by Universal Suffrage: Consultation Report and Proposals, April 2015 (www.2017.gov.hk ).