Posted:  June 18, 2015


Everyone was waiting for a last-minute climb-down, but in the end no one lost their nerve.  Beijing refused to budge on its restrictive August 31, 2014 (8.31) electoral reform design.   It spelled out the way Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage Chief Executive election, scheduled for 2017, would have to be conducted.  Refusing to budge as well were Hong Kong’s pro-democracy legislators who had repeatedly pledged to veto any design based on Beijing’s unreformed 8.31 decision. 

The Hong Kong government’s election reform bill, which adhered closely to that decision, needed a two-thirds majority in the 70-seat Legislative Council to pass.  With 28 legislators voting against and a majority of their pro-government colleagues not present in the chamber due to a botched walk-out call,  the bill went down to defeat.  All 27 pro-democracy legislators voted against.  Only one pro-establishment legislator joined them.   It was a surprisingly fast and uncomplicated ending for so convoluted and tumultuous a two-year controversy.  The government tabled its Chief Executive election reform bill only yesterday, on June 17.    Debate was expected to drag on for three days but legislators had ended it by mid-day on July 18.  

Ironically, public opinion swung sharply in favor of the government’s bill just before the vote.  The most reliable three universities tracking poll, being conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program, recorded 47% in favor of the bill versus 38% against  (  Those lobbying to defeat the bill had obviously done a good job of holding their legislators to account.  But opponents did not do all they could have done to sharpen their arguments for the sake of those members of the general public “waiting to be convinced” …  meaning those who did not like the government’s electoral reform proposal  but could see no other option but to accept it.


The reason everyone was expecting a climb-down was because it had happened before …  and because all the powers that be were trying so hard to make it happen again right up until the very end.   Especially, memories of the past 2010 experience loomed large.  In 2010, just like now, pro-democracy activists had wrung pledges from all like-minded (called pan-dems for short) legislators to hold the line on a minor electoral reform bill.  It concerned the addition of 10 more seats to make a total of 70 in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.  But then Beijing gave a bit at the very last minute and Democratic Party leaders agreed.  They had been entrusted by a coalition of pan-dem parties to speak for all but the 2010 deal was cut at the last minute without anyone ever explaining the implications or provenance of the indirect mainland-style electoral model the government’s 2010 proposal was based on. 

Had that vow to veto held, accompanied by the explanations needed to back it up, Beijing would have learned an early lesson on the limits of its ability to impose mainland-style party-managed electoral designs here.  But neither Beijing nor the Hong Kong government needed to take that lesson from the 2010 experience because it was never clearly articulated in that way.  Hence Beijing carried on as before and issued its restrictive August 31, 2014 ultimatum.

It was this ultimatum that sparked the Umbrella/Occupy protest movement last fall and kept major city streets here blockaded for 79 days.  But the Hong Kong government then proceeded as though Occupy had never occurred.  The government also ignored all the proposals (except those from loyalist and conservative parties) that emerged during year-long community consultation exercises in 2013-14.  Accordingly, voters would only have been able to tick the boxes beside one of two or three names approved by Beijing and endorsed by the conservative 1,200 member designed-for-purpose Hong Kong Nominating Committee.  The result would have been a mainland-style managed election designed to provide popular approval and legitimacy for communist party-designated candidates.

Only this time, in the wake of Occupy and thanks to all those consultation exercises that seemed to go on forever, far more concerned citizens understood the implications.   Activists, strengthened by the emergence of a more politically alert younger generation, held their aging legislators’ feet to the fire by making them repeat in public many times their vow to veto the government’s plan for a “fake” universal suffrage election.   And this time, Beijing had no concessions to grant, for reasons of its own that were only articulated two weeks ago at the very end of the campaign.  With nothing more to offer beyond Beijing’s official hard line, loyalists and allies nevertheless tried every means possible to probe pan-dem defenses and weaken resolve.  Some means were humorous, others definitely not.

One such effort concerned pay-to-play favors for pan-dems in need.  Since most of them do need, it seemed a ploy worth trying.  One rumor in late March preceded a break in the Democratic Party’s defense line by one of its leading members.  The Democratic Party was a natural target because it has so many moderate members, the remains of numerous “Young Turk” defections that began in the early 2000s.  Many of these moderates made no secret of their disagreement with party legislators’ vow to veto the election reform bill.

But later even “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung claimed to have been approached by a middle-man who allegedly promised him he would never have to worry about money again, if only he would break his vow.  Foolish idea, scoffed one loyalist.  Everyone knows Long Hair is such a bandit he would take the money and vote against the bill anyway.

More creative was the June 12 Reuters report citing “senior Chinese officials”  both in Beijing and Hong Kong who were quietly confident they could turn the handful of pan-dem legislators needed to pass the reform bill.   A “source close to China’s leaders” reportedly said implementing Beijing’s electoral reform plan for Hong Kong was important because it could then be used as a model for eventual changes in China as well.  ‘If the Hong Kong experiment were successful, (similar) elections would be held on the mainland one day.’   

 Everyone had been trying to guess what concessions Beijing might plausibly make to induce a 2010-type climb-down by a handful of moderate legislators.  But some in Beijing were thinking different thoughts entirely … with the idea of trying to lure pan-dems by evoking the memory of their first lost love. That 1990s dream was for Hong Kong to stand as a beacon and serve as a model for the democratic transformation of all China  …  the dream that lives on in the June Fourth candlelight vigil’s controversial “end one-party dictatorship” slogan.

And then there was the bomb plot … dramatically orchestrated  by the Police Organized Crime and Triad bureau and announced just in time to make the evening news on June 15 …  two days before the electoral reform bill was due  to be debated in the Legislative Council.  That made it impossible to determine, before the vote, who might have masterminded the plot and who might be claiming to be associated with something called the National Independence Party.

Long Hair’s League of Social Democrats red rose logo was prominently displayed among the items laid out on the evidence table for TV camera crews to film.  He promptly denied any association.  Triad society members were involved in some of the few violent incidents that occurred during Occupy last year.  But since most organized crime types have cross-border connections, it will probably never be known (except inside the police department) what sort of provocateurs might have been involved.  What the authorities here also know, however, is that the one thing best calculated to turn public opinion against activists of any kind is the threat of violence they might pose.  So much effort for so little reward.  In the end, all the schemes came to nothing.


For them the veto is really a watershed moment because of what they have finally been able to do by standing united against so important an ultimatum from Beijing … and also because of what can happen during the coming election cycle.  For them it’s make-or-break time and they probably won’t have many more chances to revive their declining fortunes in an environment where all the powers that be … economic and political … are ranged against them.

If the vow to veto had been broken, it probably would have meant the end for Hong Kong’s democracy movement.  The same kind of increased factionalism that occurred after the 2010 episode would have intensified.  New more radical groups formed post 2010 to punish the one-time standard-bearer Democratic Party …  leaving it further weakened by more infighting.   Any kind of a coherent movement would have been even more difficult to sustain now, in the wake of a climb-down over 8.31.

But only the most basic precondition for coherence has been achieved.  Now they all have to fulfill that promise by bringing their fractious acts together and cooperating enough to hold the line again … this time for the 2016 Legislative Council election.  They will also have to do that in the face of almost certain defeats and disappointments during the District Councils election a few months from now. 

This prospect looms because pro-Beijing forces … led by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and its many conservative allies … now hold majorities on all 18 of Hong Kong’s District Councils. There is little hope of pan-dems making much of an impact at that level where voter loyalty has been built on the social services that the well-funded DAB and friends are providing.  Pan-dems lack the resources to succeed at the neighborhood level where they initially had little interest in competing and have now lost all hope of doing so on anything like an equal footing with their loyalist/conservative adversaries.

But that will still leave the Legislative Council elections a year from now when loyalists and conservatives will invoke vows of their own.  They have already said they aim to throw all their considerable resources into winning the four additional seats that would allow them to pass all political reform proposals without having to worry about their pro-democracy opponents. 

If on the other hand, pan-dems can learn to do what they have never succeeded in accomplishing before … by treating the DAB rather than one another as their chief election rivals  …  then they might just hold onto those four seats and perhaps even win a few more.  They could then proceed to revive the coherence of their movement on the basis of those electoral victories.  Otherwise, pan-dems will be further reduced to an inconsequential force carping and play acting from the sidelines.


Beijing needed that victory, but if it had been bought at the cost of breaking pan-dems’ will to resist, there would have been little joy and not much reward in terms of the stability and legitimacy needed to improve Hong Kong’s governance.  For pan-dems it may be make-or-break time.  But for Beijing it’s now back to the drawing boards as decision-makers find themselves in a place they obviously did not anticipate …  uncharted territory. 

As the threat of a veto grew more real, official Beijing didn’t know what else to do except repeat the old slogans that by Beijing’s own actions were being deprived of the original meanings they were supposed to convey.  The most striking indications of the pressure this is creating for Beijing officials was their first-ever resort to straight-talking about plans for Hong Kong’s political future … and then the awkward rush to back pedal afterward.

Through all the years since the 1980s when planning began for Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, Beijing stuck to the bland assertions and undefined promises that were written into Hong Kong’s new Basic Law constitution. These had been reduced to a few catchy slogans about one-country, two-systems, high degree of autonomy, 50 years without change, eventual universal suffrage elections, and so on …  all conveniently left open to diverse interpretations.  Not surprising then that pan-dems carried on with conventional Western assumptions and definitions.  

For their part, Beijing officials seem to have assumed, without ever saying so in public, that they would be able to impose their definitions of mainland-style autonomy and mainland-style party-managed elections as and when needed.  But those definitions are needed now and a significant number of Hong Kongers are obviously not ready   … just as they weren’t ready in 2003 over national security legislation or in 2012 over compulsory patriotic political studies for all students.

What to do with such resistance when a forceful crackdown is not possible?   So in the face of Hong Kong’s threat to veto a major central government decree, Beijing officials found themselves finally, trying to explain just what sort of universal suffrage elections they have in mind for Hong Kong.

Beijing officials have developed the habit of traveling to the nearby border city of Shenzhen to say what they have to say to Hong Kong.  It’s an easy commute from here and Hong Kong representatives were invited to final lobbying sessions.  The sudden switch to straight talking occurred there … first at a seminar for Hong Kong District Councilors and others on May 20, and then at a meeting with Legislative Councilors on May 31.

At the May 20 seminar, the speaker was Zhang Rongshun 【張榮順】, vice-chairman of the Basic Law Committee of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.   According to the China Daily account, Zhang explained that “Beijing intended to use the universal suffrage to resolve Hong Kong’s problems.  Some issues have remained unresolved for the past 18 years.”  Consequently, a negative political culture had developed fueled by ongoing internal disputes that were making it impossible to achieve anything.  The central government could not allow such an environment to continue, said Zhang, which was why Beijing would not compromise by withdrawing or revising its 8.31 decision (CD, May 21; also Ming Pao Daily, May 22).

Speaking in Shenzhen to Hong Kong Legislative Councilors on May 31, the Basic Law Committee’s chairman, Li Fei 【李飛】 was even more straightforward … saying what no Beijing official had ever acknowledged throughout all the long universal suffrage debate.  The 8.31 decision, he explained, would regulate not only the 2017 Chief Executive election but future elections as well.  This revelation was not part of his prepared remarks but came apparently as an elaboration afterward and led news stories here for days afterward.

The 8.31 decision is clear, he reportedly explained.  It is not limited only to the year 2017 but begins in 2017 and will include any Chief Executive universal suffrage election thereafter.  All will be conducted according to the 8.31 decision.  Its effect will not be limited to one election only.  Its effect will be long term.  This is a very important decision issued by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.  As long as it is not implemented, the necessity of revising it does not exist (Ming Pao Daily, June 3; Wen Wei Po, June 1).

No sooner had the impact of this statement been registered than Hong Kong government officials scrambled into damage-control mode (Ming Pao, June 3).  Their Beijing counterparts must have calculated that a real crisis was at hand so they needed to lay it on the line in order to induce compliance … as Beijing officials are accustomed to doing.  But if so, the sudden lapse into candor backfired, reinforcing pan-dem legislators’ determination to veto … no other choice now, they said.

Since then, officials in Beijing and here have tried their best to dial back on Li Fei’s assertion that the 8.31 decision’s party-managed electoral format sets the precedent for all Hong Kong Chief Executive elections to come.  They have been saying that of course there could be revisions in the future, but they were talking the same old promises without definitions and minus Li Fei’s candor.  

Of course, Beijing has the power and the option to put an end to it.  But in all likelihood, the protections provided by Hong Kong’s one-country, two-systems arrangement will carry on for a while longer.  So everyone will have the time and opportunity to learn by doing and work toward solutions.  But a real solution will depend on two big hypotheticals:  IF pan-dems can get their act together and rebuild the electoral strength of their movement; and IF Beijing can bring itself to accept that the communist party’s one-size-fits-all form of unitary rule is not a very good fit for Hong Kong.


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