Did the Hong Kong pro-democrats planning to resign from the legislature and treat the subsequent by-elections as a referendum expect Beijing, and thus local government officials and supporters, to take them this seriously?
Referendums may not take place in Hong Kong, we are assured, because the Basic Law does not allow for them. By this reckoning, public consultation exercises – like the one currently underway about the proposed election methods for 2012 – should not take place either. Indeed, as a South China Morning Post editorial pointed out, the Basic Law does not give us the right to breathe.
Still, has anyone seriously suggested that a genuine referendum could or should take place? I don’t recall any such thing, but that doesn’t stop Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam protesting at embarrassing length that the Government will not countenance a referendum, has never held a referendum, is not holding a referendum, and will not at any time in the future hold a referendum, ever, ever, ever. And nor, now you mention it, will it even so much as respond to any suggestion about a referendum. Thank God he doesn’t like the idea, otherwise he’d go on about it for ever.
Government supporters like the fictitious Mary Ma at the Standard meanwhile do their best to fight the dire referendum menace by pointing out that a referendum can’t happen in the Big Lychee because we’re not a country (as if cities don’t have referendums) or because they are unconstitutional (like breathing, see above).
All this whining, teeth-gnashing and bed-wetting – just because of an idea to force by-elections and, as a prank or gimmick, call them a ‘referendum’. It is a measure of Beijing’s horror of the principal of democracy that its officials go into hysterics, on around 5 or 6 on the Richter scale, at the very mention of the ‘r’ word, however misapplied, and insist that their local allies join in.
Where else have we seen this mouth-frothing over a word recently? Malaysia, where some Muslims have taken exception to the fact that Christians using the Malay language use the Malay word for God, ‘Allah’, which is one of many loan words from Arabic. (Sharp-eyed strollers through Hong Kong on a Sunday will notice that some Indonesians having a day off will be clutching a volume titled ‘Alkitab’, another Arabic loan to Malay, meaning ‘the book’; it is a Bible.)
They have managed to work themselves up into a state of heightened excitement and fury, in a way that Quakers, Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists and for that matter Buddhists and Zoroastrians for some reason generally do not, because they feel that only Muslims should use the word. This makes no sense; Arab Christians have called God ‘allah’ since before Islam was founded – what other word could they have used? Malay is not the only language to borrow words from Arabic. Will Malay extremists attack non-Muslim English-speakers for using ‘algebra’, ‘alcohol’, ‘sugar’ and ‘saffron’? Perhaps it depends how desperate they are to burn a church.
Some Pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong are arguing against contesting the five by-elections on the grounds that it would endorse the idea that the polls will somehow represent a referendum. In other words, if pro-democrats had declared the by-elections to be a ‘reflection’, ‘refreshment’ or ‘refutation’ it would be OK, but if they bestow them with the title ‘referendum’ it’s suddenly not OK, even though it is exactly the same process with exactly the same legal and constitutional effect.
This petrified, self-inflicted variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder is what the loyalists put themselves through when someone (playfully and utterly unconvincingly) pretends to hold a referendum. What happens if the real thing turns up?
Maybe they should have a referendum on banning people from calling things referendums when they’re not.