The only insight you usually find on the South China Morning Post’s op-ed page is the big blue word at the top. Many of the columns are fence-sitting and hand-wringing masquerading as moderation. Of the rest, some seem designed to fill a quota of blatant or half-veiled pro-government/Beijing propaganda, while the more independent voices tend to be repetitive and clichéd as well as strident. Incisive and original analysis and thought rarely get a look-in.
Today, something stimulating slips through. Hong Kong U law professor Simon Young points out what most of us have probably sensed – that the Chinese government and its local proxy have pretty much abandoned any hope of implementing the proposed 2016-17 political reform. He argues that they would now silently prefer the pro-democrats to veto the package. That way, the pro-dems can take the blame (and rot), while Beijing can keep the existing no-pretense, pure-and-simple rigged structure and continue tightening its grip.
Given this, the professor says, it makes sense for the pro-dems to reconsider their plan to veto the reform. Instead, they should demand negotiations with the Hong Kong government over achievable tweaks to slightly liberalize the current proposed package. Such minor symbolic changes (a less-unrepresentative Nomination Committee, etc) would strike public opinion as reasonable; by rejecting them, the national/Hong Kong authorities would be revealing their preference not to have any reform.
This argument relies on the assumption that Hong Kong now has nothing to lose by accepting the broad concept of guided and rigged ‘universal suffrage’ unveiled in late 2013. The professor could bolster his theory by placing it in the national context. A Xi Jinping iron-fist clampdown is taking place across the whole of China. Any improvement to the culture and climate of Hong Kong’s political system – say by formalizing some role for public opinion – could therefore help protect the interests of the city’s people. (The ‘guided democracy’ concept for Hong Kong dates from the wishy-washy Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao regime.)
As a clever and cunning ruse to persuade pro-dems not to veto, this would be a brilliant bit of government propaganda. But, being clever and cunning, it’s obviously not that. And the professor is surely right in feeling that the authorities don’t even want the reforms to go through. It’s not a game of chicken now.
Perhaps it depends on two things.
First, what happens if the pro-dems stick to their plan and veto the package? All the signs are that governability will continue to deteriorate and more unrest will take place. The more militant Trotskyist-style dems may look forward to a true workers’ revolution, but others will be uneasy. Maybe Beijing will see the error of its ways and ease off, letting Hong Kong be itself and happy and free. More likely, the moderate pro-dems might think, Xi’s officials will use a second CY Leung term to continue diminishing press freedoms and rule of law. Ultimately, Beijing has tanks, and the world doesn’t care.
Second, how much difference to representativeness and accountability would the guided election system really make? This is unknowable. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (and others) hinted at one stage that debates and the use of polling would give public opinion some real clout in forcing candidates to focus on people’s wishes (interestingly, she seems to be downplaying this argument in favour of the package, which was the nearest the government had to a good one).
(Guesses at what happens in Hong Kong under more direct Beijing rule also need to factor in the possible introduction of popular economic and social policy – anti-tycoon, pro-welfare – to sweeten the medicine of tighter restrictions on the press and the judiciary.)
I declare the weekend open with the initial thought that it may not make as much difference as he thinks, but the professor could well have a point.