Pro-democrat legislators seem united: they will all vote against the reform package for the 2016-17 elections. Constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority, so the 27 pan-dems wield a veto in the 70-seat assembly. We have protests, more public consultation and a lot more debate and ranting to come. Occupy Central has the potential to either inspire or alienate the community. And there is space for basically symbolic, last-minute concessions in a reform bill. But let’s fast-forward six months and assume nothing has changed. Will the pan-dem lawmakers stick together and us their veto, or will a handful crack under what will be severe pressure?
We can guess from the anal way Chinese officials have micromanaged 2016-20 voting reform since 2007 that they want and expect it to fix a problem. Their local patriotic minions will naturally do as they’re told. To the extent that the hardline Xi Jinping administration could be prepared to abandon the whole exercise just to show who’s boss, there will be cooler heads in the local bureaucracy and elsewhere desperate to get the new system in place as better than nothing. Although they don’t attract headlines, there are bound to be some non-establishment moderates in academia and elsewhere who grudgingly see the proposal as an improvement on the status quo (conversely, some members of the tycoon caste would love to see a pro-dem veto).
So the task for the establishment will be to pile up public pressure on a few ‘sensible’ pro-dems. Officials will seek to portray diehard opponents as extremists and enemies of Hongkongers’ famed pragmatism and common sense. First among the arguments they will use is a threat: “The only alternative to the proposed reform package is the status quo.”
This raises the prospect of continued and possibly heightened deterioration of Hong Kong in terms of governance, inequity and internal strife. Who will public opinion hold responsible for condemning the city to such a fate and doing such a thing to our children?
In some ways the ‘status quo equals doom’ argument is duplicitous. The status quo means Beijing continues to choose the individual it wants as Chief Executive. China can, if it wishes, appoint someone who is reasonably capable and trusted by the populace – and does not put tycoons before the population or screw things up. But obviously, the subtext of the ‘status quo’ threat is ‘more of the same’. The pro-dems will have to state how Hong Kong people can realistically benefit from keeping the status quo, or what they will lose from accepting the semi-reform.
So far, they seem to struggle to produce a convincing answer.
To get bogged down in the details of Beijing’s plans is to swallow the fantasy that this is not about one-party rule. For example, the pro-dems complain that candidates will need a much higher level of support from the nominating committee – half the body rather than just one eighth. But there is no parallel. Democrat Albert Ho could get on the ballot in 2012 because the winner of the ‘election’ was decided beforehand by Beijing; under the 2017 proposal, the whole electorate will decide the winner. You can insist that, since Albert doesn’t stand a chance either way, the 2017 proposal is not better. But how is it worse? Similarly, fussing about the cap on the number of candidates is missing the point: Beijing is selecting people it can live with, so an untrustworthy pro-dem won’t be on a ballot of even a dozen candidates.
The pro-dems are possibly better off looking at the big picture. One argument is that if we accept this quasi-democracy, we will be stuck with it for good. Only rejection might shock Beijing into seeing sense. But will this convince public opinion any more than it will convince Xi Jinping? Appeals to principle are certainly impressive. Bowing to totalitarianism is morally wrong; rejection of the proposal will be a blow to the Communist regime. The overseas press will love it. But will local people – the ones who aren’t in Scholarism – see it as noble or naïve? They’re the ones that need to be convinced.
The government will produce other arguments. One is that public opinion polls will inevitably influence the nomination process: Beijing won’t put Rita Fan or Regina Ip or similar ogres on the ballot, because it knows we all hate them. Another is that by rejecting reform of the Chief Executive election in 2017, the pan-dems will be depriving us of the right to reform the Legislative Council for 2020 (which Beijing has decreed must come subsequently). A third argument, which might focus some pan-dem lawmakers’ minds, is that voters will punish them in 2016 for vetoing the package. That presumes that the pro-dems are, or will be, out of step with the community as a whole. How confident are they about carrying broad public opinion?
If it comes to that, how confident are the government? Simple solution if our officials are sure: hold a referendum and put the pro-democrats in their place.