The Hong Kong government releases its public consultation document on constitutional reform. As always, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam is serving as cheerleader. The ‘line to take’ she is spouting is that this is going to be a long, difficult process, with everyone having to discuss, compromise, narrow differences step by step, forge consensus bit by bit and overcome all kinds of tortuous, make-believe barriers to achieve some sort of popular but guided election of the Chief Executive in 2017. (So as not to get us too excited, the document also addresses the 2016 Legislative Council election.)
After senior Beijing official Li Fei visited town a couple of weeks ago, the word went round that this consultation exercise would largely be about how a more democratic system could meet the requirements of the Basic Law. The document makes clear that this means Hong Kong people must accept that many theoretically possible options are in fact ruled out, and they must come to accept it by thinking it through for themselves, so at no point does Big Bad Beijing have to openly spell anything out. Thus the document pedantically outlines the background to each aspect of electoral reform, and then laboriously asks questions, to which the Hong Kong public must – like Finnish school kids working out the laws of nature through exploring and discovering for themselves – arrive, sooner or later, at the pre-determined answer.
So, for example…
Government: “Being part of the one-party state, Communist-run People’s Republic of China, how can Hong Kong have a universal-suffrage election process that ensures a CIA-backed/Taiwan-independence/Free-Tibet splittist traitor does not get elected Chief Executive?”
Pro-democrats: “Under one-country-two-systems, anyone should be allowed to run for election, and we can trust the voters not to choose someone who opposes Beijing because Hong Kong people aren’t that stupid,”
Government: “…is the wrong answer. You are the weakest link.”
Pro-Beijing loyalist: “The national interest requires a system that can keep unacceptable candidates off the ballot, like a nomination committee that’s stacked with members loyal to Beijing but includes some token opponents for appearances’ sake.”
Government: “…is the correct answer. You win the big fluffy teddy bear.”
Needless to say, the questions lapse into outright mendacity, like “What will happen if (gasp!) Beijing refuses to appoint the winner of the CE election?” (Correct answer, of course: “Why, that would be chaos, so we must make sure that no such outcome can possibly happen in the first place.”)
As if to camouflage this silliness, the consultation document includes some philosophical questions that are probably not there just to reverse-endorse a decision already made. For example: “Should the winner of the CE election need to win over 50% of the poll, say through some sort of second-round run-off vote?” (Correct answer: “Well, yeah, probably – whatever.”)
Obviously, the document poses all these leading questions obliquely. Thus it alludes to the dilemma about keeping CIA plotters out of power by discussing the composition of the nomination committee: should members be drawn from the existing carefully chosen, mostly loyal ‘sectors’, or should we use different, carefully chosen, mostly loyal ones?
Through awkwardness or plain obtuseness, pro-democrats will be prone to taking such questions at face value, getting bogged down in arguments about sub-sectors and percentages, and whining about open nomination. This will help the government and Beijing present the consultation process as primarily a bitter struggle among local forces (such as conservative business interests versus social democrats), when the exercise is essentially about China’s leaders – who have far more pressing things to do closer to home – trying to keep a lid on a troublesome and untrustworthy city.
All the previous political reform ‘consultations’ were designed to ensure no real change. This one is different. The pre-arranged outcome is a popular vote in 2017 between candidates trusted by Beijing. To the Communist Party, accustomed to pure top-down authority, this in itself is a major concession, granted only with reluctance, and probably out of desperation and frustration. This goes back several years, but the swift failure of CY Leung to assert control as CE must have been the last straw; the blame for that lies in large part with the Big Lychee’s tycoon caste, which could end up the biggest loser in the forthcoming re-distribution of local political influence onto a broader base.
Ironically, the fate of the whole exercise lies with a handful of moderate, constructive, flexible, sensible – and all or mostly directly elected – pro-democrat lawmakers who, assuming they exist, will have the ability to veto, or not veto, the bill the administration eventually submits to the Legislative Council. They will need spines; anyone who can answer the question of where will they get them deserves more than a teddy bear.