The news this morning comprises a long parade of people saying, alternately, “Hong Kong must abide by the Basic Law, which does not provide for referendums,” and “Under our system anything not expressly prohibited is permitted.” A fascinating debate in which both sides are pretending that we’re about to have a referendum, even though both know that we’re not.
The confusion arises from Beijing’s hasty and slightly hysterical reaction when the five pro-democracy legislators resigned and thus triggered the five by-elections that they fancifully declared to be a poll on the single proposition of universal suffrage. Since the Big Lychee’s pro-Beijing camp cannot adopt a public position at odds with that of the central authorities, they have to join in and loudly denounce as unconstitutional referendums that aren’t going to happen, even while our local leaders go about organizing the perfectly legal by-elections that will.
The local leadership of Chief Executive Donald Tsang and his senior officials are the most prominent victims of this illogicality. Not only must they organize the five by-elections for May while reciting the mantra that the Basic Law doesn’t allow for referendums, they must try to conform with Beijing’s order that loyalists boycott the exercise, which in their case means not voting. Yet abstaining on polling day presents its own problems.
After encouraging people for years to take part in, and therefore legitimize, our rigged election system, it would look odd for Sir Bow-Tie and his colleagues to implicitly urge us all to stay away. It would raise concerns that civil servants of all levels, who are sworn to implement government policy, could be pressurized into not voting or penalized if they exercise their right to do so. Most of all, how many of us will be tempted to go along to the polling station if Donald indicates that he would prefer us not to?
The chances are that they will wriggle out of it by saying it is a matter of individual judgement and of course you can’t vote if you don’t support any of the candidates. It would be convenient if only the name of the resigned lawmaker appears on each ballot, thus winning by default with no contest, but this won’t happen. First, the League of Social Democrats have vowed, if necessary, to run against themselves by putting a second candidate forward to ensure that the actual voting – this is on Planet Referendum, remember – takes place. Beijing does not have a monopoly of irrationality. Second, as in every Legislative Council election, you can be sure that in every constituency some spotty, inadequate truck driver, socialite, or fanatic will get him or herself nominated as candidates. Several, probably.
Most likely outcome: everything will backfire against everyone, with the net result that nothing noticeable actually happens.