Insert appropriate Sun Tzu quote here

Following former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung’s change of understanding about whether the moderate pro-democrats’ proposal on 2012 electoral reform conforms with the Basic Law, Chief Executive Donald Tsang, former legislator Rita Fan and DAB boss Tam Yiu-chung have all come up with such grudging endorsements as ‘worth considering’ and ‘not bad’. Chief Secretary Henry Tang even calls it “courageous and forward-looking”.  One of Beijing’s men in the Big Lychee, Li Gang, now says it looks acceptable. As a panel in the South China Morning Post today shows, all six had in some way previously ruled out changes to the proposed package or directly rejected the pro-democrats’ suggestion:

This impressive bit of United Front formation dancing presages a pronouncement today or tomorrow; officially, the Hong Kong government is studying the idea.

To put things in perspective, the proposal is hardly “rich in democratic elements,” as Sir Bow-Tie claims or a “giant step forward in democratisation,” as legislator and former Security Secretary Regina Ip gushes. Instead of electing five new functional constituency representatives from among their number, the directly elected District Council members will nominate candidates for whom the whole electorate will be able to vote. Assuming officials are not dumb enough to try to blatantly rig the process to overly favour the pro-Beijing camp, the outcome will be pretty much the same as under the original proposal: five legislators from both camps, not tied to commercial interests, will occupy five new functional constituency seats in the Legislative Council, thus diluting the existing corporate representation. Letting everyone vote for the five is largely symbolic. (In theory, it could help the democrats a bit, since, following the 2007 elections, District Council members as a body are more pro-Beijing than the general electorate – it depends on the minutiae of the nomination system).

The real breakthrough is that, although the concession will be presented as a change of mind prompted by local officials and loyalists, it is in fact the Chinese Communist Party that has budged, and said ‘yes’ to an idea presumptuously and impertinently offered by Hong Kong elements hostile to it and claiming majority public support. This is why the pro-Beijing figures (and indeed others) were so confident in dismissing the plan. The only approximate precedent is the removal of failed Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, and then only after a lengthy, face-saving interval after the massive protest of 2003. To push the CCP into submission a second time is a tribute to the stubbornness – however tiresome it seems on occasion – of the pro-democrats as they swore to veto the original package.

The result of such obstinacy – a split in the pro-democracy camp – is overshadowing the CCP-climbdown story.  Purist pro-democrats oppose their moderate colleagues’ proposal because it gives greater legitimacy to the whole institution of functional constituencies and could be used as a precedent for keeping them permanently. And they are right: all the reading-between-the-lines strongly suggests that Hong Kong democracy is destined to be guided via carefully regulated nomination systems to limit, as necessary, the number of undesirables in public office and ensure ultimate CCP control. In a one-party state, that is the most you can expect. Beijing’s concession is to start down that road earlier than planned.

The more radical among the opposition may flatter themselves by imagining that dividing the pro-democrats is the main aim of this compromise. But they are simply not that important; at most, such a split is a bonus for Beijing, and Hong Kong officials, who must have pulled out all the stops in gaining this concession, probably used it as an argument.

The real question, being overlooked among the intra-democrat fisticuffs and name-calling, is why, after what must have been considerable internal wrangling, Beijing officials did the thing they abhor most, and bow to popular sentiment.

The only realistic answer is that, as with Yuan revaluation, it is in their own interests.  We can be certain that plenty of the people they more-or-less trust in Hong Kong have pleaded that the current structure isn’t working. The Chief Executive must have told them; what else could he say at his regular self-criticism sessions with his bosses?  We can be sure that the wretches being considered to succeed him make it clear that they dread the prospect of trying to run a government under this system. Younger pro-Beijing politicians in the DAB, burnishing their party’s electability year by year, want the legitimacy and chance for some power offered by a more representative system rigged in their favour. Only the dinosaur-tycoons arguably have an interest in the status quo, and it is interesting that the local administration has publicly cooled towards bankers and developers recently.

The evidence that freezing political development has failed is overwhelming. The siege of Legco (and subsequently the Liaison Office) by protestors early this year; the shelving of tax, health care and other reforms; the rising public acceptance of radicals like Long Hair and the young post-80s rebels; and all our other favourite examples of poor governance and, crucially, poor governability.  (Some micro-trends are disturbing local officials too, like the high drop-out rate of up-and-coming civil servants – future ministers – worn down by weekly diatribes at the hands of mouth-frothing Legco select committees.) The strategy of stalling reform since 2003 is actually threatening to weaken the CCP’s grip over Hong Kong.  Appearing to bend to the will of the people was a price the central authorities had to pay. We are now heading towards a more superficially representative government with something that looks more like a popular mandate – because it suits Beijing’s purposes.

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16 Responses to Insert appropriate Sun Tzu quote here

  1. ChrisPatten says:

    You never saw this much democracy under the British. Why was that? Oh yes, we British were just too good to give it them. Pass the port.

  2. Doctor Deception says:

    Okay, I’ll play with a war quote:

    “Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.”

    [ChrisP – are you MarcFaber in disguise?]

  3. Sun Tzu says:

    “What causes opponents to come of their own accord is the prospect of gain.”

  4. Sun Tzu says:

    “Draw them in with the prospect of gain, take them by confusion.”

  5. LordP says:

    Under Patten we had a dozen or so democratically elected functional constituencies, all replaced with small circle elections after 1997. And no unelected (appointed) district council members, again introduced after 1997. It was at more democratic then, at least relatively.

  6. Stephen says:

    So it looks like we have a deal ?

    Wonder what the next crisis will be – Wasn’t the Government supposed to be recommending the minimum wage level by the end of June ?

  7. Maugrim says:

    The sudden ‘reinterpretations’ of the Basic Law are galling and only reinforces Audrey Eu’s point about a lack of a clear road map. One thing’s for certain, Beijing will wait until there are a few more DAB supporters around and will create an election system where the odds are narrowed in Beijing’s favour. As to how HK’ers react to this will be interesting. The populace whilst pragmatic are certainly not stupid.

  8. Longtimenosee says:

    MarcFarber/ChrisPatten, as I have said before…

    How much democracy would HK have if the Brits never came? None, thats what.
    We would just be another piece of the Chinese coastline, with all that brings…The death penalty, censorship, political persecution, opaque legal system lacking justice…

    You are blind blind blind

  9. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Nothing wrong with the death penalty, properly implemented.

  10. Kea says:

    Jaw. Hitting. Floor. Doesn’t Beijing want the constitutional reforms to fail? Some part of me expects them to pull a bait-and-switch at the last minute. We think we’re going to make some tiny bit of progress, (which though insignificant, is still shocking)…and then WHAM! There’ll be another Interpretation of the Basic Law from the Standing Committee of the NPC to the effect of “Ha ha! Just kidding! Also, the Basic Law says you all have to wear purple hats on Tuesdays. Suckas.”

  11. ChrisPatten says:

    The Chinese do not bomb and invade, topple governments and support Israel. That’s enough great democratic society thank you. I prefer the Chinese to the Brits and the Americans and so does most of the world, I’d like to know what China would be like if it were run like Europe and how many famines and wars we would have in the first twenty years. Pass the whisky decanter please.

  12. Peter Call says:

    I have to side with ChrisPatten here. I feel like a lot of the blog posts here are condescending as hell when it comes to Chinese administration of Hong Kong. Compared to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and other colonial and semi colonial regions, Hong Kong is doing splendidly well.

    With all of that wonderful democracy that the Americans have, you would have thought they would solve issues like high crime rates, prevent pointless wars, and stop putting people in jail because they wanted to smoke a harmless plant. On top of that Americans get to enjoy the privilege of high taxes and virtually no social services.

    What I love the most is that despite all of the universal suffrage in the US, the US is still blindly supportive of Israel which has more lobbying power than all the functional constituencies in Hong Kong combined. Israel can continue to violate international law, as they have every American lawmaker by the balls. Hell Israel can even bomb an American ship and kill Americans and the US does nothing about it. That is totally shameless.

    I’ll take Hong Kong and it’s low crime rate any day over the equivalent back in the US.

  13. Mike Rowse says:

    Suppose……we had full 1-man 1-vote democracy in Hong Kong (and I am all in favour of it).

    How different would our city be, for the man in the street ?

    Personally, I have served the colonial Brits and the “we luv the motherland” post-97 HK administration with equal enthusiasm and fake admiration, and I did pretty well out of it.

    Would I be even better off I we had democracy ?
    Does anyone care ?
    Do I care ?

    By the way, I am still available for cushy jobs, directorships, committee memberships, jobs that Ronald Arculli has turned down, judge-of-Miss-Hongkong-pageant thing, panels chaired by Vagina Yip, anything that pays a buck etc.

  14. Honest Abe says:

    While Peter Call’s passion is admirable, it is typical of people who have either seldom or never been to either America or Israel. I’m willing to bet my Rolex watch that he’s never visited Israel or any place else in the Middle East, and his trips to the US, if any, have been confined to NYC, SF and/or similar.

  15. N8Ma says:

    1995 was the zenith of Hong Kong’s democracy–the composition of the district councils and LegCo was at its most representative that year. There was a big climbdown as the CCP dismantled the “through-train” and no subsequent Chinese administration has restored HK’s legislature to the level of broad representation that was in place in 1995. This is a historical fact.

    Americans pay lower taxes than individuals in other OECD countries–across the board, from VAT to salaries tax, Americans pay lower taxes. Here’s a nice spreadhseet:,3425,en_2649_34533_1942475_1_1_1_1,00.html

    It’s funny to hear the same kind of facile, knee-jerk, borderline jingoistic response to HK’s lack of representative democracy that I normally hear from right-wingers in the US who love Cheney and Palin. “I’ll take my crimeless HK over the US’s love of fried food and reality TV and guns anyday!” So smug–as if there are no imbeciles in Hong Kong, and at any rate this kind of response merely deflects attention away from attempts to “heighten the contraction” of a supposedly 1st-world city’s control by an authoritarian, one-party (and 3rd world) country.

    I wonder if Peter Call can provide a Cantonese translation of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be An American” for us?

  16. Kea says:

    Seriously, it’s like a formula with you people.

    “The USA does A, B or C Bad Thing. Therefore, entire concept of democratic government is Bad, because US = Bad = Democracy. Other democratic countries in the world that do not do A, B or C Bad Things are irrelevant. China does complete opposite of whatever the US does, therefore Authoritarian Government is Good because China has an Authoritarian Government. China is awesome because it does not suffer from Problems A, B or C, completely ignoring that it suffers from Problems X, Y, Z instead, which are just as bad, or worse. Also, Authoritarian Government is Always Good because China has done N, P, Q good things, ergo, they must have been because of authoritarianism and no other reason. Authoritarian countries that are unmitigated disaster zones are irrelevant to this ‘debate’. They do not exist.”

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