It is unlikely that many people went through the Hong Kong government’s report on the public consultation exercise on 2016-17 political reforms. If my own 0.03-second perusal of the documents is anything to go by, it largely comprised identical statements from hundreds of United Front groups like the Federation of Hong Kong Shenzhen Associations. A South China Morning Post study (which they wisely dumped on academics) confirms that it’s a mass of ‘orchestrated bloc submissions favouring a conservative stance’.
Only the naïve would expect it any other way. Most Hong Kong government consultation exercises are designed in some way to reach the bureaucrats’ preferred conclusion. Those on political reform have to conform to the wishes of the sovereign power, and have a long record, dating back to the 1980s, of ‘finding’ that the population is far less enthusiastic about democracy than public opinion polls indicate.
Former Chief Secretary Anson Chan’s pro-democracy group has just commissioned a poll, showing that people want a low nomination threshold and object to screening for Chief Executive candidates in 2017. Dame Conscience’s survey also finds that the majority of Hongkongers would want their elected lawmakers to veto a proposed political reform that doesn’t meet these requirements.
By chance, Beijing’s local Liaison Office has been holding discussions with pan-democrats, and telling them that the Central Government has not yet finalized its proposals for reform, and could therefore still be persuaded to be flexible on details. But ‘details’ here means ‘symbolic or ornamental stuff that does not change anything in practice’.
In theory, they could give way on the anticipated conservative requirement of a 50% nomination threshold for candidates and accept a one-eighth threshold – if it makes the pro-dems happy. Just be aware that the size and composition of the Nomination Committee will have to be adjusted accordingly, so only a one-eighth bloc of ‘votes’ controlled by Beijing can put names onto the ballot, while a lesser bloc of pro-dems stands by uselessly.
The idea that the Communist Party will not screen candidates is absurd and reflects a complete lack of understanding of the nature of a one-party state. Yes, we all know that they can trust the Hong Kong people not to elect a traitor. But they don’t do ‘trust’. (Xi, Li and the other half dozen Politburo members almost certainly don’t even trust each other.) Such a regime divides the world into two categories: things they control, and enemies.
Thus, internally, the Party must ultimately control everything including the legislature, the courts, the army, the police, the media, the currency, interest rates, religion, charities, provincial/county/city administrations, Special Administrative Regions and so on. If it isn’t directly controlled (like foreign or private companies or Hong Kong SAR judges) it can be, thanks to laws that mean whatever we say they mean, courts or Standing Committees that do whatever we tell them, and ultimately firepower. Or it’s an enemy (like the Falun Gong or Nobel-winning essayists) to be crushed. None of that separation of powers, checks-and-balances stuff. Overseas, of course, it’s basically wall-to-wall enemies.
The pan-dems will decry the rigging of the 2017 ballot as no better than the 1997-2012 system, or the Mainland, or North Korea, or whatever. This isn’t true. Beijing wouldn’t be putting itself and the rest of us through this tortuous process if it didn’t see its guided version of universal suffrage as a Big Scary Brave Step into the unknown. In terms of Western or international norms, it may be ‘fake’, but to a Leninist totalitarian structure, letting the masses decide, in a way that can’t be controlled, among three candidates is downright freaky.
Whatever happens, there can be only two options:
1. The status quo, in which Beijing decides the ‘winner’, a pro-democrat can get on the ballot and pretend to be a candidate, and a 1,200-strong Election Committee will pretend to elect Beijing’s choice; or
2. Fake/guided/freaky democracy, in which Beijing decides two or three candidates, a 1,200-strong Nomination Committee will pretend to choose them for the ballot, and the electorate gets to genuinely choose one in a contested race.
The question is whether option 2 holds any hope of an improvement in governance over option 1. In forming your answer, you may wish to consider that option 1 is currently producing unresponsive administrations of possibly unsurpassable crappiness.
Other possible courses of action are simply not there, however much tactical sense it might make for pro-dems to insist otherwise, unless you include the end of one-party rule in the equation.
Anson Chan’s poll finding – that people want lawmakers to veto anything but full democracy – contradicts another recent survey suggesting people will accept the fake version as better than nothing. Pro-dems who find this offensive and unacceptable are no doubt right to dismiss the poll for being commissioned by pro-establishment stooges and carried out by a crummy quasi-university. But it is likely that a lot depends on how you word the question. It is also likely that while people feel one way in their hearts, their brains tell them something else. While of little relevance to Hong Kong, opinion polls on next month’s referendum on Scottish independence come to mind. Many respondents in Scotland clearly gain some emotional satisfaction from saying they will vote to leave the UK; common sense says they’re not stupid enough to actually do it.
The British can actually place bets on the outcome. If the Jockey Club were so flexible, I would put money on the following. After Beijing issues its proposal, the pro-democracy camp makes its last stand in the form of Occupy Central. The dust settles, and the stark choice between options 1 and 2 is all that’s left. Seeing nothing to be gained from vetoing the reform, public opinion will come down in favour of it, if grudgingly. Unless an ill-judged and venomous United Front propaganda campaign provokes a backlash of the sort that rescued Occupy Central from obscurity, enough pro-dem lawmakers take the hint and the package passes. Prozac prescriptions leap.