Page C3 of the South China Morning Post. The apparently warm, charming, friendly and plain-decent nature of the nice man in the photo is perhaps accentuated by the savage glance he is getting from the venomous little TV reporter at his side, who is clearly about to spring up and chew his face off. He is Liu Xinkui, ‘legal chief’ of the Chinese government’s Hong Kong Liaison Office, emerging from a breakfast with legislators at which no-one changes their or anyone else’s mind about political reform.
The adjacent headlines suggest that Beijing has already decided the outcome of the city’s ongoing public consultation on the issue, and that the consequent democratic system will be meaningless as voters will not have a genuine choice of candidates. Three stories below cover Hong Kong students joining the anti-Mainlandization movement in Taiwan, a pro-Beijing lawmaker comparing planned pro-democracy protests to terrorism, and a local comedian provoking Mainland ire for backing the demonstrators in Taipei.
It is possible to start seeing things coming together. That the result of the consultation is pre-determined is a given. That the inevitable rigged system for nominating candidates for Chief Executive makes universal suffrage pointless (a la Iran, Professor Larry Diamond says) is probably true – but not definitely or totally. It depends on two things.
First: how this game of chicken between Beijing and the pro-democrats works out. Beijing knows something has to give (and we can only imagine how the nightmarish vision of Hong Kong and Taiwan pro-autonomy forces linking arms affects officials’ calculations). The central government will have some sort of symbolic concession up its sleeve to offer moderate pro-dems. With realists among the pro-dems accepting that fully open ‘public’ nomination is a no-no, they could still let a package scrape through the Legislative Council, if only on the grounds that it’s better than nothing – or if Beijing finds a way to pit public opinion against them.
Second (if it gets that far): how subtle and sophisticated Beijing officials are when it comes to picking the (let’s say three) candidates to be rubber-stamped by the nominating committee. As paranoid control-freaks, they would be tempted to draw up a ballot comprising two inadequate nonentities and one trusted, presentable and upstanding figure we think we can more or less live with. In other words, 1996 again, except everyone can vote. The danger of overdoing the stage-management is that much of the electorate might boycott the process, leaving the winner with no more legitimacy than the tragic Tung Chee-hwa on a bad day. On the other hand, they could be smart, and more relaxed, and find a couple of halfway-decent contenders to fight it out in a genuine competition for votes. (You almost feel sorry for the Chinese officials having to juggle all this: as well as worrying about the maintenance of one-party Communist rule, and no doubt the country’s international image, they will have to bear in mind that half of Guangdong Province will watch the Hong Kong election on TV.)
A few weeks ago, local pro-Beijing figures – used to playing by Hong Kong rules – were openly raising the possibility that this whole exercise will fail, and we’ll be stuck with the status quo. They have suddenly shut up or backtracked on this. As the headline says, Beijing has decided.