Irresistible force meets immovable object. Beijing makes clear the limits to political reform in Hong Kong, saying that public consultation on universal suffrage in 2017 depends upon broad public agreement that an individual who confronts the Chinese government cannot be elected Chief Executive. Meanwhile, the Occupy Central movement sets out its grand step-by-step strategy to achieve a fully democratic poll with no screening-out of candidates deemed hostile to Communist Party rule.
OK – irresistible force meets easily-tossed-aside object.
The last time Beijing was this assertive and unambiguous in defining the parameters was in the wake of the 2003 mini-revolt, when a peremptory Basic Law ‘interpretation’ ruled out meaningful moves towards democracy for the 2007-08 elections. The aim then, as now, was to nip in the bud any unrealistic hopes. The Occupy Central movement can be credited for convincing Beijing to come clean and spell it out, rather than go on muttering coded hints in the hope that we will come to understand the message about semi-democracy via some sort of subliminal osmosis.
In short: sit down in the streets of Central for a few days if you want, but it’ll make no difference. With one pronouncement from Qiao Xiaoyang, there’s nothing much to fight for. The experience of Article 23 and National Education has shown Beijing that the best form of defence against Hong Kong’s habit of pushing back is swift and early attack.
While predictable, it’s a shame, because Occupy Central has a moral simplicity and purity about it that could have been a stirring sight. The South China Morning Post gives a page to academic Benny Tai’s vision of a four-step process drawing on the principles of deliberative democracy, civil disobedience and self-sacrifice. To the extent that it goes ahead, the overseas media will love it. Whether it gets serious local support depends on how Beijing acts following its clear, no-nonsense edict on what will and will not happen in 2017.
If Chinese officials treat the Occupy Central movement with benign neglect, much of Hong Kong public opinion will tend to do the same. But if they turn up the vitriolic rhetoric, the local mood will swing more strongly behind the pro-democracy underdog.
What would make Beijing lose its cool, and thus harm its chances of getting most of the city to accept the ‘no confrontational candidates’ rule with little fuss? How about this…
Tai suggests that the discussions [among the public] take place in schools across the city and that participants vote electronically for their preferred proposals.
“The key point of the movement is about developing a democratic culture of rational discussion and consensus building by the people themselves,” Tai said…
A citywide ballot of preferred proposals, either in the form of a civil referendum or a by-election triggered by the resignation of a lawmaker, would then take place by April or May next year to obtain “the citizens’ authorisation” – the penultimate step in the plan.
Former Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan … has already indicated that he is willing to resign to trigger such a referendum if it can help the movement.
These phrases and concepts are almost designed to turn the calmest and most amiable Beijing official into a mouth-frothing ranter. Through Communist Party eyes, only the state, not the public, has the right to decide on a people’s consensus; for activists to hold a referendum is to usurp the sovereign power; and citizens do not authorize anything except via the institutions controlled ultimately by the one-party state. What to Benny Tai seems a reasonable and trendy approach to civic activism could be interpreted by hardcore Beijing ideologues as an attempt to wrest control of Hong Kong. (If you need a clue about who would be behind such a thing, note that deliberative democracy is basically an American concept, and Benny Tai shows little interest in, say, Confucius.) This will be yet another illustration of the cultural divide between Beijing and its awkward Special Administrative Region.
Beijing has announced its bottom line, and that’s fixed. But there’s an easy way to go about it, and there’s a hard way, and that will largely depend on whether Chinese officials can bite their tongues in the face of Occupy Central’s (mainly inadvertent) provocation. The coming 12-18 months will be an interesting test of the Chinese Communist Party’s sense of humour. (And everyone else’s, as the Hong Kong government’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs officials revert to mind-numbing, zombie-like ‘tape recorder’ gibberish.)
All concerned have a four-day Easter weekend – which I take pleasure in declaring open – to consider the best course of action.