Posted: Sept. 14, 2015
All things considered, Beijing has taken the rejection of its August 31, 2014 political reform directive rather well. Polemical temper tantrums have singled out individual targets like the Occupy Central leaders, student activists, and accomplices who were, after all, responsible for the popular momentum that led all pro-democracy legislators to veto the 8.31 directive. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council voted down, on June 18, the Hong Kong government’s electoral reform bill that had been designed to Beijing’s 8.31 specifications. But for the legislators themselves, Beijing is trying a different tack. Lunches, dinners, and invites to Beijing … all sweetness and light … albeit only for a select few.
Guest lists make it look like the old familiar united-front strategy of courting friends and isolating enemies. But along the way, Beijing has introduced a new idea. Publicists are calling it the search for a “loyal opposition” 【忠誠反對派】.
Sounds tempting. Might it mean Beijing is finally beginning to understand and accept the reasons for pan-democrats’ June 18 veto? That might mean some real changes in the 8.31 mainland-style party-controlled electoral design for universal suffrage elections here. Still too soon to know for sure. This new line of argument has only just begun. But from the first few hints, Beijing’s definitions have not changed. Yet. Words may be different but reasoning is still based on the original 8.31 logic.
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY’S “SECRET” LUNCH
Except for the participants, no one else knew about it until it was over. On August 26, five party leaders including Chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing 【劉慧卿】had lunch in Hong Kong with Feng Wei 【馮巍】, deputy director of the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. The five included two veterans and three younger leaders. No, they did not cut any secret deals, said Lau at a press briefing the next day.
The meeting was not announced in advance, not even to other party members, because the host wanted it that way. Had the inevitable controversies arisen beforehand, explained Lau, the meeting would never have taken place (Ming Pao, Aug. 28). But she also didn’t reveal much of anything that was actually discussed except for the usual generalities about having shared views on various issues including especially on the need to maintain channels of communication between democrats and Beijing.
The controversial backstory on everyone’s mind was the 2010 closed-door meetings when Democratic Party leaders, including Lau, negotiated a compromise deal for a relatively minor electoral reform measure. Her party has yet to live down that “capitulationist” decision. Only now, whatever the controversies, there is more-or-less general agreement among Hong Kong democrats that direct dialoguing with Beijing is essential if Beijing is ever to grasp what it is they actually want. Except that even what they want is not entirely clear because, as usual, democrats themselves are sending out mixed messages to Beijing … which is what Beijing is now doing its best to exploit.
Not long after the secret lunch, one of the Democratic Party’s founding members, Tik Chi-yuen 【狄志遠】, made the formal announcement he had been promising for weeks: he was resigning from the party due to irreconcilable differences (SCMP, Sept. 9). He had been against pan-democrats’ vow to veto Beijing’s 8.31 design and now wants to set up a think tank in order to pursue the “dream of democracy” in his own moderate way.
He hopes for more exchanges with Beijing and plans to collaborate with another likeminded Democratic Party founding member, Nelson Wong Sing-chi 【黃成智】. Wong had also disagreed with the vow to veto. So much so that he tried to go it alone and mobilize opinion in favor of the government’s reform bill (April 17 post). Wong was expelled from the party in July, for having broken discipline ahead of the June 18 Legislative Council vote.
The two of them are now thinking out loud about contesting seats during the coming election cycle, with the aim of strengthening moderate voices in Hong Kong’s councils. Should they succeed, it would only take four more Legislative Council seats to overturn the veto after the September 2016 Legco election.
These old-time party founders say they resent the new post-Occupy trend they see everywhere, including within the Democratic Party itself. The focus is on youth and the younger generation is held responsible for the “radical” drift moderates deplore … as though their generation had been so stunningly successful in its achievements.
A FLASHY NEW THIRD WAY
Nothing secret about Ronny Tong Ka-wah 【湯家驊】, lately of the Civic Party, now convener of his own new think tank called Path to Democracy 【民主思路】. He never goes anywhere without the press pack in tow. They like him because he’s always ready with quotable quotes. He says he is searching for a “third way” … between Beijing and Hong Kong democrats … to promote dialogue and democracy.
Tong was one of only three pan-democrats invited to join the 287-member Hong Kong contingent in Beijing on September 3. They were there for the big military parade held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. The other two democrats were Tik Chi-yuen and Dr. Joseph Lee Kok-long 【李國麟】. Lee is a Legislative Councilor representing one of the medical consistencies. A conservative with democratic leanings, he also has many constituents who instructed him to vote against the government’s reform bill on June 18, which he did.
Ronny Tong made many statements before, during, and after his Beijing trip. He said, among other things, that his resignation from the Civic Party in June marked what he regarded as his greatest failure in politics (Hong Kong Free Press, Sept. 3). He was one of the party’s founding members but it had failed to realize his original dream of bridging the political divide between Hong Kong and Beijing. He quit because he was unable to influence the party’s direction. It had moved beyond his original goals and he did not want to move with it.
While in Beijing he met Feng Wei and Feng’s superior Wang Guangya 【王光亞】, head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Afterward, Tong explained how his ambition had revived. He said he hoped to improve relations between Beijing and Hong Kong pan-democrats within one or two years (South China Morning Press, Sept. 6).
BUT A LOYAL OPPOSITION?
No sooner had the Democratic Party’s secret lunch been revealed than loyalist script-writers introduced their new idea for capitalizing on the third-force wave of moderate dissent. They said it could provide just what Beijing is looking for here: a loyal opposition. Nelson Wong Sing-chi responded without hesitation, reportedly saying he would be happy to join such a movement (China Daily, Sept. 11).
But what exactly had Lau Siu-kai 【劉兆佳】meant when he elaborated on the idea during a radio interview marking the first anniversary of the 8.31 directive? Lau was a sociology professor at the Chinese University before joining the new post-1997 administration as its chief pollster. Now retired, he helps promote Beijing’s political views through a state-sponsored think tank for Hong Kong and Macau studies.
Commenting on the lunch, Prof. Lau said Beijing is now trying to lead pan-democrats toward cooperation and hopes this will produce a “loyal opposition.” Beijing had decided to tap the Democratic Party first because of its past moderation and in order to counter its latest radical post-Occupy youth-oriented tendencies (Sept. 1: Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao, Standard, SCMP).
Beijing officials may not think much of elections but this was a political master stroke. Divide-and-rule for sure … to win those four additional Legco seats and carry the day for Beijing’s 8.31 electoral reform directive after all. At the same time, of course, Beijing has handed pan-dems another means of strengthening their argument and explaining to a still uncertain public about the difference between mainland-style elections and the kind democrats want.
Emily Lau responded immediately to the challenge. No 2010-style waffle now. Loyal opponents, she said, are those who operate in systems where opposition parties know that if they fail to form a government after one election, they can wait to win another day. If Beijing officials expect us to serve as “flower vase” window dressing … like their own so-called democratic parties that exist in name only … then Beijing should think again (Apple, Sept. 1).
The Civic Party’s Kenneth Chan Ka-lok 【陳家洛】contributed a long scholarly note on loyal oppositions (Ming Pao, May 31). This elicited in turn a clearer definition of what Beijing means and Prof. Lau was trying to convey. So far, nothing has changed. Beijing is only trying to adapt another Western concept for local use. Like “universal suffrage,” “loyal opposition” means one thing in Beijing and something very different elsewhere.
The clearest explanation came from writer Zhou Bajun 【周八駿】elaborating on Prof. Lau’s message. To be loyal means “loyal to the state.” But for Beijing that means working within the political system as Beijing defines it. Pan-dems must accept the current political structure and Beijing’s right to dictate its evolution, said Prof. Lau.
Explained Zhou: to become a loyal opposition, moderate democrats “must make it public that they acknowledge the constitutional authority of the central government.” All those who vetoed the reform bill on June 18 in effect rejected the authority of the central government’s 8.31 directive on the evolution of Hong Kong’s political structure (China Daily, Sept. 9; also, Ta Kung Pao, Sept. 10).
Ronny Tong has his work cut out for him if he aims to bridge this gap in one or two years.
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on September 14, 2015