Posted: Jan. 20, 2017
It’s just as well that democrats mustered some of their old fighting spirit for the New Year’s Day protest march because they’re going to need that and a lot more besides (Jan. 4 post). The array of challenges calls to mind an old editorial line from long ago and far away: “there is chaos everywhere; the situation is excellent.”
In Hong Kong here and now, after the Occupy protest in 2014 and the electoral rewards of 2015-16, only gloom and doom lurks on the 2017 horizon. Pro-establishment adversaries are pushing back with a vengeance, Hong Kong’s patriotic vigilantes are on the rise again, book publishers are steering clear of all politically “sensitive” titles, and the oath-taking saga is taking a special toll.
Hong Kong judges are refusing to accept all arguments against Beijing’s November interpretation of Hong Kong Basic Law Article 104. Consequently, as many as six representatives elected last September are set to be disqualified and expelled from the Legislative Council if the government’s legal maneuvers succeed.
Looking ahead, because the drive for an elected Chief Executive has so far failed, democrats must prepare for another Chief Executive who will be of Beijing’s choosing selected in the old unreformed way.
But the campaign continues. So do the ideals and so do the advocates, and the next sequence has already been set in motion. It will feature the ideal of civic nomination and the undefeatable Benny Tai.
At the heart of the whole controversy over political reform in 2014 and all that has followed since … from the Occupy protest movement, to new calls for independence, and on to the current oath-taking saga … was a simple popular demand. The controversy was about Hong Kong’s long-standing desire for universal suffrage … to elect its Chief Executive and Legislative Council … and Beijing’s long-standing promise to honor that demand.
Over the years as one thing led to another, Beijing decided that such a Chief Executive election must precede a universal suffrage legislative election. Otherwise the legislature would be seen to have more legitimacy than the executive, which would never do. Finally, Beijing set a target date to begin the sequence: 2017, for the 2017-2022 Chief Executive term, to precede the 2020-2024 Legislative Council term.
In all likelihood, those promises will never be realized … at least not in the way Hong Kong envisaged … or unless Beijing leaders experience an awakening of their own. This is because Beijing and Hong Kong are speaking two different … Western and mainland … political languages when they talk about “universal suffrage.”
That was why pro-democracy legislators mustered their strength and used it to veto the only design Beijing would allow for what it called a universal suffrage election, scheduled to take place in March this year. Interested Hong Kong citizens had volunteered many ideas and designs during the open public consultation period set aside for the purpose in early 2014. But Beijing rejected them all.
The main reason for Beijing’s displeasure was that, in one form or another, most of Hong Kong’s ideas called for some sort of public participation in the nominating process. Hong Kongers envisaged introductory nominating procedures as the first step in a two-part exercise that would culminate in a universal suffrage election. If the public can’t have a say in deciding who the candidates are, what’s the point in calling it a universal suffrage democratic election? Serving as rubber stamps for candidates chosen by others is not what voting should be about, and so on.
The public consultation proposals ranged all the way from direct American-style primary elections to the mildest possible form of public recommendation. Beijing had made it clear early on that its convoluted Functional Constituency-based Nominating Committee should continue to exist. So the mildest public proposals bent over backward to accommodate … by suggesting that publically recommended candidates could, not must or even should, be considered by the committee. But still Beijing said no deal.
Beijing said no to everything but its own proposal mandated in the famous decision announced on August 31, 2014. There could be no civic nomination, nor any public approximation thereof. The Nominating Committee would nominate, Beijing would approve or not, and ordinary voters would have the option of approving or not.
What Beijing was mandating in that 8.31 decision was a mainland-style party-vetted election in perpetuity. Hence the September 2014 protests and the September 28 onset of the 79-day Occupy-Umbrella street blockades.
Later, just ahead of the final Hong Kong vote to veto Beijing’s design in June 2015, its officials finally admitted that 8.31 was what they meant and all they meant ever to allow in the name of universal suffrage Chief Executive election.
THE OFFICIAL GAME PLAN
So now the time has come to select a new Chief Executive for the 2017-2022 term and it will be done in the old way. The 1,200-member Nominating Committee has just had its mandate renewed via the old small-circle Functional Constituencies in a contest that was held last December 11.
The committee’s design, mandated by Beijing and written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution, is such that pro-democracy partisans are competitive in only one of the four major Nominating Committee sectors. They did their best and emerged with between 325-7 seats depending on the calculation (Dec.14, 2016 post).
The final selection will be held on March 26. To win a candidate must secure at least 601 committee votes. Formal nomination entails the collection of 150 signatures from committee members. Democrats thus won enough representation on the committee to make their presence felt if they choose to exercise it and try to play the king-maker game.
But Beijing naturally had other ideas and was already arranging to secure its desired result. The current hardline anti-democrat Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, suddenly announced on December 9 that he would not seek a second term after months of indicating that he would.
It should be assumed, although it has not been acknowledged, that Beijing helped him come to this decision. That would be in the interest of trying to cool political temperatures here while Beijing did its part by using the Basic Law and the Hong Kong courts to clamp down on “separatists.”
Within hours of Leung’s December announcement, his loyal deputy, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor stepped forward to say she was interested in succeeding him, after months of saying she wasn’t. She is a successful career civil servant dating back to colonial days and would be Hong Kong’s first female leader.
There were several trips back and forth to Beijing for both of them, ostensibly for other reasons, and so the succession for the 2017-2022 term has been arranged. When she made it official and announced her intentions a month later, the rush to receive her from the conservative powers that be left little doubt that she was intended as the chosen one.
Initially, conservative visitors would return from Beijing with word that officials there wanted the 2017 exercise to seem like a real competition. That word was brought back by Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee in support of her long-standing ambition. It had first been heard coming from her acolytes while she was leading the government’s campaign to push through the Article 23 national security legislation in 2003.
Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing had already declared himself a candidate and seemed a possibility with some liberal ideas.
And Financial Secretary, John Tsang Chun-wah, had spent the past several months trying to develop a “localist” image in pursuit of his evident interest in the job. His undeclared aim was apparently to tap into Hong Kong’s new post-Occupy concerns and stand as a contrast to the current occupant of Government House.
But once Carrie Lam had officially declared, loyalists rallied round. The pro-establishment and pro-Beijing press … South China Morning Post, Ming Pao, Hong Kong Economic Journal, Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao, etc., etc. … played their part with full-page spreads on her past, present, and likely future.
Current Chief Executive Leung praised her effusively, but didn’t do the same for the others. Former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa gave her a bear hug in public, but not the others. And veteran loyalist Elsie Leung said four candidates were too many. Some should drop out.
John Tsang was reportedly encouraged in so many words to do so but finally made up his mind and yesterday announced his decision to contest. Phone calls were reportedly made. One went to Michael Tien, ally of Regina Ip who fought back tears over the slights she was suddenly receiving from the very people she had been cultivating to support her candidacy.
Pro-democracy partisans, for their part, had been upstaged and squeezed out entirely. Democratic committee members didn’t much like the look of any of these choices.
So much so that “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung said he was thinking about adding his name to the candidates’ list. His motive: to prevent committee members from trying to play king-maker when none of the likely candidates are worthy because none have the courage to pursue a democratic agenda in the face of Beijing’s opposition.
CIVIC NOMINATION BY ANY OTHER NAME …
So why not let the public have a say after all? It’s to be called the Chief Executive Election Civil Referendum 2017 【2017 特首選舉民間全民投票】.
Announced last Sunday, January 15, the do-it-ourselves exercise is being organized by a coalition of groups called Citizens United in Action 【公民聯合行動】 Formed last year to promote strategic voting ahead of the September Legislative Council election, the leading spokesman is Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting of Occupy fame.
It’s been done before, in 2012, when democrats even organized their own primary election with two candidates: the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho and Frederick Fung of the Alliance for Democracy and Public Livelihood. The idea then was the same as now: to give the public some experience and encourage public participation in electing the city’s leader. Only then they thought they were helping to prepare for the promised 2017 Chief Executive universal suffrage election. Now it’s just to try and preserve the memory.
In 2012, the democrats’ primary was followed by a referendum that included Albert Ho and the two official candidates: Leung Chun-ying and Henry Tang. Over 200,000 people participated either online or at street-corner collection boxes. Ironically, Leung was then popular enough to win the public’s endorsement, barely … although over half of those participating actually cast blank protest votes (March 29, 2012 post).
The online operation then was set up with the help of Robert Chung’s Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong and he will be doing the honors again.
According to the details announced so far, the exercise is planned as a two-part affair. It will serve the functions first of a primary to nominate candidates, followed by a final round to designate the public’s preferred choice for Chief Executive.
Initially, anyone who meets certain basic eligibility requirements need only collect the signatures of 100 Hong Kong citizens over the age of 18. Applications must be submitted by the end of January to the HKU Public Opinion Program.
Once vetted for accuracy along with the 100 signatures, the hopefuls will be designated as participants in the civil referendum and qualified to enter the primary or nomination stage 【民間提名】.
All Hong Kong registered voters can designate their choices, via smartphone app or website between February 7-22. Anyone receiving 37,790 votes (which is 1 percent of all Hong Kong registered voters) will qualify as a bonafide referendum candidate.
The actual referendum 【民間投票】is scheduled for March 10-19. Official candidates, such as Carrie Lam and Regina Ip who have formally declared their candidacy will be included on the nomination list … evidently whether they like it or not.
Voters will not only be allowed to vote for a candidate but will also have the option of voting negatively, against a candidate, or submitting a blank ballot. The winner, with the greatest number of net votes … positives minus negatives … will be announced on the evening of March 19, ahead of the “real” Election Committee selection on March 26.
Set-up costs will be standard for a HKU POP exercise, meaning over a million HK dollars, to be raised by crowd funding (Ming Pao, SCMP, Jan. 16).
THE MAN LEADING THE REFERENDUM CAMPAGIN
He’s also the man loyalists love to hate. They’ve thrown everything they can at him … tried every way possible to discredit him, his ideas, his colleagues, sources of funding, the University of Hong Kong law school, its dean, HKU’s promotion and disciplinary procedures … all to no avail.
Ever the happy civil disobedience warrior, Benny Tai soldiers on and is now back in the spotlight as lead spokesman for the latest mock election venture. He also likes to introduce his bright ideas just ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, when people have some extra time to socialize and make plans for the year ahead.
After recovering from the initial shock of watching his carefully crafted Occupy idea explode into a mass movement on September 28, 2014, he has learned to joke about the way his ideas always seem to turn out differently than he expected.
He had worked at organizing Occupy for the better part of two years beginning in early 2013. It was supposed to be a peaceful three-day event confined to the downtown business district. His people and the police even staged a rehersal event in July 2014 to show just how well prepared they all were.
Then there was his 2016 ThunderGo plan. It was supposed to teach candidates and voters the value of strategic voting ahead of last September’s Legislative Council election. It did. But no one paid much attention until the very end when he became king-maker for a day with his smartphone signals based on final polling.
These were evidently what was responsible for the last-minute swing on Election Day toward some of the younger candidates … the swing that also cost a few veteran democrats their seats (Sept. 8, 2016 post).
He said he felt sorry for their loss and pro-Beijing partisans fumed. What he did is no different than playing the exit polls, they said … a forbidden practice here that loyalists have long been accused of perfecting. They nevertheless demanded that election authorities exercise strict vigilance (China Daily, Dec. 30, 2016).
He then helped coordinate candidates and mobilize voters for the Chief Executive Election Committee election last month and was himself elected to fill a committee seat (Dec. 14 post).
Meanwhile, the oath-taking saga had developed leading to the disqualification of now former legislators-elect Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching. Benny Tai joined the defense effort especially for the four additional Legislative Councilors the government also hopes to disqualify. He and they featured in this year’s New Year’s Day protest march (Jan. 4 post).
He’s now among those calling on the government to withdraw its judicial review cases against the four. He is also suggesting that the Chief Executive candidates’ willingness to drop the four cases should be a consideration for democratic election committee members before they cast their votes on March 26.
Predictably, loyalists are up in arms again. They’ve launched a campaign of their own to try and have him disqualified as an Election Committee member. They say he is “perverting the course of justice.”
In any event, whether or not that formal charge sticks, they say he is compromising the integrity of the courts and of the election process by calling on candidates to declare … in advance of the election and before the court has had a chance to rule … their willingness to drop judicial review cases on so serious a matter as oaths taken imprecisely (Wen Wei Po, Dec. 20, 2016, SCMP, Dec. 22, China Daily, Jan. 3).
It follows that he himself should not be allowed to cast his vote for any Chief Executive candidate … especially after launching his new plan for a referendum that will “deceive” the public and “wreck the Chief Executive election” (Ta Kung Pao, Jan. 16).
But loyalists also know that Benny Tai is a law professor and understands how to evade capture. He has eluded their grasp many times before and probably their latest attempt will be no more successful than any of the others.
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on January 20, 2017.