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.