The Hong Kong government, possibly sensing the presence of death in some form, “deeply regrets” the decision of five pro-democracy legislators to resign in order to trigger by-elections that they intend to present as a de-facto referendum on universal suffrage. Among other things, officials loudly mourn the loss of the HK$150 million it will cost to organize the polls.
Could this be the same government that spends HK$67 billion on a 16-mile rail link? More to the point, could this be the same government that in 2007 deliberately held the high-profile, Anson-vs-Regina Hong Kong Island by-election two weeks after the District Council polls, rather than on the same day – presumably spending an extra HK$30 million – in an attempt to minimize the opposition vote in the latter? Yes it could.
If the panicky cadres from Beijing who increasingly micro-manage local affairs had kept their mouths shut, a series of by-elections would have been held and the pro-establishment camp could even have picked up one or two seats. The radical League of Social Democrats’ Albert Chan, for example, won his New Territories West seat in 2008 with just 8.1% of the vote and might have struggled to match the pro-Beijing camp’s hard-core base of, say, 20%, which will turn out to vote at the drop of a lunchbox.
But the very game of make-believe – pretending by-elections can be a referendum – sent the Beijing officials into a fury. Like any form of democracy, a referendum is incompatible with one-party rule: you can have one, or you can have the other, and that’s it. Logically, if a referendum takes place, it is because the Chinese Communist Party is no longer in power. Calling a by-election a referendum as a gimmick wasn’t funny or cute; it was a symbolic challenge to CCP rule. Declaring it to be a plebiscite on an issue already overruled in an interpretation of the Basic Law made it doubly so.
So Beijing has pressured the pro-Beijing parties not to contest the by-elections, though the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment etc of Hong Kong would probably like to. They can justify boycotting the polls on various grounds. The fact that the pro-democrats’ demands have already been ruled out in the Basic Law interpretation makes the quasi-referendum constitutionally illegitimate (despite being perfectly legal). It is a farce. A waste of money.
Typically, the pro-democrats handed their detractors another excuse on a plate by urging a citizens’ ‘uprising’, supposedly conjuring up images of disemboweled officials dangling from meat hooks and street lights. That sealed it for the Liberal Party; at least it sounds better than “Beijing won’t let us run.”
The elections are a few months off. The pro-democrats could still tear themselves away from their self-indulgent obsession with reaching the Holy Grail of Democracy and turn the by-elections into a vote on overpriced infrastructure, greedy property tycoons, polluted air and here-and-now bad governance in general. Make a carnival of it and get, say, 40% of the voters to turn up, and Chief Executive Donald Tsang will be in Zhongnanhai having the biggest spanking of his life within hours. But it would be out of character. More likely, the five will be faced with the humiliation of re-winning their seats against a clutch of nonentities and attention seekers on an 18% turnout amid public indifference. In which case, they would have been better off joining the boycott.