Posted:  July 8, 2015

 

So pan-democrats’ vow to veto Beijing’s electoral reform design actually held.  Many bets to the contrary were lost and probably Beijing miscalculated as well.  Almost to the very end, conventional wisdom and past experience predicted that the pro-democracy legislative caucus would never be able to hold the line.  Pressures to break ranks were intense (June 18 post).  So are the risks.

Calculated in the cold light of day, pro-democracy Legislative Councilors …  27 in all plus one independent …  did an uncharacteristically audacious thing when they voted on June 18 to defeat the government’s electoral reform bill for the 2017 Chief Executive election.  They defied Beijing’s August 31, 2014 ultimatum on its design and defied moderate instincts from across the political spectrum, both local and international, that counseled compromise in the face of Beijing’s sovereign political authority.  Ultimately, they even defied public opinion among Hong Kongers themselves who succumbed to those same instincts and turned against the veto by a fairly large margin in the days just before the June 18 vote. The main tracking poll, conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program, ended with 47% in favor of approving Beijing’s restrictive format and 38% against (http://hkupop.hku.hk/).

Much history lies behind those contradictory results, a history that explains both the determination to hold the line against a mainland-designed electoral reform package and the failure of the general public to respond in kind.   Pan-dems’ determination and the public’s failure to reciprocate is a perfect reflection of the democracy movement’s mixed progress to date.  It also indicates the work yet to be done if democratic aspirations are ever to be realized here.

Everyone has been learning the hard way …  by trial and error.  It’s clear now that pan-dems (and many others as well) misunderstood Hong Kong’s new post-colonial Basic Law constitution.  They just assumed its promise of “universal suffrage” meant Western-style free-choice elections.  But Beijing also misunderstood.  It initially accepted conventional colonial wisdom about Hong Kongers being a strange type of people devoid of all interest in politics.  Beijing consequently underestimated the demand for “real” elections.  Beijing also compounded those mistakes by surrounding itself exclusively with “safe” members of Hong Kong’s conservative pro-business and pro-Beijing elites. 

Both sides then learned more in 2010 when Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan 【何俊仁】, negotiating for all pan-dems, agreed to compromise on a relatively minor Legislative Council (Legco) reform measure.  His compromise provoked a rebellion within his own ranks … accentuating the division between pro-democracy radicals (so-called) and moderates.  His compromise also cost his party many votes in the subsequent 2012 Legco election as the “radicals” set out to teach him a lesson.

Now at least everyone has a clearer understanding.  Beijing knows it has a full-blown democracy movement on its hands and pan-dems are under no illusions as to what Beijing means by “universal suffrage” (or at least what it doesn’t mean).  

The next big step for pro-democracy partisans, assuming they remain determined, is to convey for wider public consumption what they have learned by trial and error but have so far failed to articulate clearly even among all their own adherents:  Beijing is already presiding over a mainland-based “universal suffrage” regime. 

The plans for Hong Kong in 2010 and in 2017 (there was an aborted 2005 reform plan as well) were all based on the same mainland-style principles and designs.  These guarantee “safe” results via communist party-vetted candidates, indirect elections, and party-managed procedures all up and down the line from the basic level upwards throughout the country.

Too many moderates even among pan-dems themselves, much less the wider voting public, are still thinking in terms of a gradual step-by-step evolution toward something like Western free-style democracy.  But Beijing already has its own model so if Hong Kong doesn’t want a similar mainland-style party-managed electoral system, then many more Hong Kongers need to be clear about the institutional underpinnings that will make all the difference. 

As it is, the general public does not know what is at stake because the details are not being explained in that light.  This lapse is being reinforced from two directions:  both from within by moderate pan-dems themselves, and from the hardline administration of paramount leader Xi Jinping.

RONNY TONG UPSTAGES ALBERT HO

Ronny Tong Ka-wah 【湯家驊】epitomizes the dangers from within … perhaps.  Since he has yet to articulate the long-term institutional and political implications of the various options he has championed, it’s not clear whether he worries about them or not.  Maybe he just doesn’t think they’re important enough to bother about trying to explain.  

But he does know about self-promotion and how to stage a tearful press conference for maximum effect.  This he did on June 22, when he announced his long-threatened decision to quit the Civic Party.  Tong was one of its founding members, in 2006, but he has continued to fulminate since the 2010 reform controversy about what he sees as the party’s radical drift.  He says he wanted the party to become a moderate bridge builder between Beijing and Hong Kong and he can no longer live with its strong adversarial stand on many issues (Ming Pao, June 23, 24).

He did keep his promise to vote with the party against the government’s electoral reform bill on June 18.  But he did so with ill-concealed bad grace blaming his fellow democrats as much as Beijing for the failure to reach an accommodation.  He alone among pro-democracy legislators refused to endorse last year’s Occupy street blockade protest against Beijing’s restrictive August 31, 2014 reform decision.  He also scoffed at the focus on public opinion ahead of the June 18 vote …  as though what the public thinks about universal suffrage reform is of no consequence.  Tong comes across as being more like an old-style turn-of-the-(last)-century Chinese intellectual reformer than a modern-day democratic politician.  But there are many like him. 

He recently formed his own group, a think-tank with several other like-minded moderate academics and professionals.  They call it Path of Democracy 【民主思路】and plan to do pertinent research aimed at mending the rift between radical and moderate political perspectives.  Hong Kong, he says, must learn to accomodate the central government, must learn the value of giving and taking, of compromise, and so on (Letter to Hong Kong, RTHK, radio 3, June 28).

Nevertheless, Ronny Tong still has political ambitions and is planning to turn them against fellow pan-democrats to the limited extent he can. In a surprise move, he also resigned from his Legislative Council seat saying that since he had been elected as a Civic Party member and was no more, he owed it to his constituents to stand down. Except that by doing so he is precipitating a by-election that seemed calculated to preempt Albert Ho’s plan to do the same thing albeit for a different purpose.

Perhaps because of the disruptions his 2010 compromise caused, Albert Ho became a staunch supporter of the veto vote.  He declared some months ago that he aimed to resign his Legco seat in protest against the government’s bill.  His idea was to precipitate a by-election campaign that would focus specifically on the electoral reform issue. 

Ronny Tong has now taken that idea and turned it to his own designs.  He will be promoting a moderate young Civic Party protégé to contest the by-election and inherit the seat …  assuming some irritated radical doesn’t decide to contest to try and teach Ronny Tong a lesson.  That would cede the seat to a pro-estblishment candidate as has happened many times before in the factional contests among pan-dems.  Candidate coordination among them is too often honored only in the breach.Tong is also thinking about sponsoring like-minded moderate candidates to run in the 2016 Legislative Council election.  Albert Ho meanwhile has abandoned his plan to resign in protest against Beijing’s restrictive reform demands.

So it looks like business as usual.  Of the two big uncertainties that need to be resolved if Hong Kong’s quest for something other than a mainland-style election system has any chance of succeeding, one is already on shaky ground. 

A unified pan-democratic camp would banish the wasteful habit of factional infighting, the better to convince Beijing …  the other big uncertainty …   that a unitary form of party-managed political rule is not a good fit for Hong Kong (June 18 post).   Not surprising then that Beijing, for now, sees no way but its way on the road ahead.

BEIJING’S RESPONSE

The line that was repeated constantly by officials ahead of the June 18 vote will become the loyalist theme song for all the campaigns to come.  Make no mistake, said Zhang Xiaoming 【張曉明】, Beijing’s top representative here.  We have kept our part of the bargain … it’s the democrats who are responsible for depriving Hong Kongers of the precious right to elect their Chief Executive by universal suffrage.  Zhang said the 28 Legislative Councilors who voted against the government’s bill would be forever blamed.  But there was a silver lining.  The two-year debate had helped inform the public about the limits of Hong Kong’s autonomy and about the central government’s overriding authority (Wen Wei Po, China Daily, June 30).  He left it to others to spell out yet again what that means.  

Andrew Fung Wai-kwong 【馮煒光】was at one time a Democratic Party moderate, but shocked everyone a few years ago when he did a 180-degree turn.  As information coordinator for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Fung is now a constant in-your-face reminder of what accommodation means.  It is Beijing, he wrote, that has the ultimate authority, the right to appoint Chief Executives and all principal officials (letter, South China Morning Post, June 30).  In other words, since according to the Basic Law Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is appointed by Beijing, and since that right is not just formal but substantive, so the popular universal suffrage vote cannot proceed on its own as an autonomous exercise.

Not all the University of Hong Kong’s law school professors are politically suspect pro-democracy sympathizers.  Albert Chen Hung-yee 【陳弘毅】is one of the others and is known for his precise humorless renditions of Basic Law chapter and verse.  

Responding to the students’ argument that Beijing had exceeded its authority by spelling out in such detail how the 2017 Chief Executive election must be conducted (in the August 31, 2014 decision), Chen said in effect  that Beijing was elaborating the rules to its own advantage as needed.  He said it ‘has become a constitutional convention’ for the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to say more rather than less and to issue conditions for election methods.

He also said it was wrong for pan-dems to sacrifice the rights of millions of voters since he thinks those voters are not too concerned about how the candidates are nominated.  He criticized pan-democrats for not accepting that people like them, who he says work against the central government, cannot be nominated for Chief Executive.  He also criticized them for not wanting a pro-establishment candidate to win via universal suffrage and thereby to receive a popular mandate.  

There is no such thing as a false popular mandate or fake legitimacy, he was quoted as saying, because a vote is a vote however the nomination is obtained.  He also said he hoped the by-election Ronny Tong’s resignation necessitated would be a good test of the public’s mood.  If a moderate or pro-establishment candidate wins the seat, Chen thinks it would signal a shift among voters … in a constituency where pan-democrats have long enjoyed the advantage (China Daily, June 30).   As for Ronny Tong, he has yet to begin explaining how his candidate can accomodate ideas such as these.

hkfocus2017@gmail.com           

 

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