Hong Kong’s veteran pro-democrat, Martin Lee, produces his proposal for a nomination system for Chief Executive candidates in 2017. It could be a parody of the pro-dems’ preference for abstract structures rather than the practicalities of real life. Indeed, his complex model is unworkable: in an attempt to square the pro-dems’ principled idealism with Beijing’s Leninist need for control, it pretty much allows for the possibility that no ballot would ever be agreed.
The pro-Beijing DAB meanwhile come up with a ruthlessly cynical Communist-style suggestion in the form of ‘collective’ nomination: all candidates on the ballot must be endorsed by the majority of the (packed, of course) Nominating Committee. Needless to say, they are conveying this idea on behalf of the Chinese government. Rather than having a rigged Election Committee as seen since 1996, we will have a rigged nomination process; Beijing will discreetly disseminate a list of (say) three candidates, and these are the ones that will be rubber-stamped onto the ballot. This proposal probably allows room for a little symbolic ‘concession’ later, but this is basically the bottom line.
The gap between the two sides is unbridgeable because no-one will be honest about the reality of Hong Kong’s status within the PRC. Although the city has a high degree of autonomy over its internal affairs, it cannot be beyond the ultimate control of the one-party system. If Beijing cannot rig the election, it must rig the selection of candidates. Rather than state this openly, Chinese officials and pro-Beijing forces insist that the limits are set by the Basic Law (with some asides about national security); the lawyerly pro-dems take this at face value and quibble accordingly.
What we need is some lateral thinking.
HK University’s Professor Richard Wong delivers some in his latest essay on political development (which should probably be read along with the previous one). Rather than fixate on what Beijing forbids Hong Kong, he focuses on the wonders of what could be possible. Cue fanfare:
“Hong Kong has an exceptional opportunity to choose how to develop its democracy to fit its role as an international economic city…” It could lead to “a new working model of democracy in the modern world,” hitherto stuck with political structures “inherited from the pre- or early industrial era.”
Wong – an economist – turns the debate on its head. Rather than try to replicate a little USA or UK or Switzerland or whatever democracy, he looks at the big picture and asks what sort of representative government best suits a 21st Century business-oriented city-state. Rather than dwell on the Chief Executive poll, he highlights the scope for reforming the broader concept of representation, notably in the legislature. Most daringly of all, rather than look for ways to eliminate (economic) functional constituencies in favour of geographical ones, he proposes a massive enhancement of them.
Not, of course, as they are currently constituted – small-circle, gerrymandered rotten boroughs dominated by a small selection of producer interests. He foresees every elector having a vote in a constituency related to the ‘work’ side of their life. While the geographical constituency representatives would fuss about neighbourhood issues, the functional ones would see things on a Hong Kong-wide scale. The interests of the majority as consumers would come first, and relations with the executive branch would be smoother.
He doesn’t mention the role of today’s functional constituencies in providing Beijing with its ultimate Leninist control – via the ‘split voting’ veto – in the Legislative Council. In theory, his model could be compatible with that: a rubber-stamp nomination system would keep ‘unacceptable’ candidates off the ballots.
There is just a week left of this five-month consultation on constitutional reform. The title, lest we forget, was Let’s Talk and Achieve Universal Suffrage. A more accurate one would have been Let’s Listen and Accept a Rigged-but-don’t-call-it-that Nomination System as Better than Nothing. The unavoidable truth is that Beijing can only allow a ‘universal suffrage’ election if it can screen candidates, while the pro-dems say they will not accept screening. Or at least, not too much. The pro-democrats have inevitably splintered, with members even of the same faction producing conflicting proposals. Some have virtually said that as long as one of them can just be on the ballot, that will be OK – no need for them to actually win. Against this incoherence have been the DAB, sitting obediently in their straitjackets, following the script prepared for them, and even mocking all of us by claiming that their proposal for ‘collective’ nomination is based on public opinion polls.
One side in this game of ‘chicken’ cannot lose, and its opponent cannot win – Legislative Council veto, Occupy Central, pat on head from Vice-President Joe Biden notwithstanding. It’s a question of which moderate pan-dems crumble first.