Riveting political-reform countdown continues

Beijing officials seem to be daring Hong Kong opposition legislators to veto the 2016-17 political reform package. Where previous Chinese administrations showed obvious reluctance to allow Hong Kong even semi-democratic quasi-elections, the hardline Xi Jinping regime makes little secret of its total disdain for the whole idea.

For the sake of form, China’s leaders must say they want the city to adopt the guided and rigged excuse for universal suffrage authorized by their predecessors, under which the control-obsessed Communist Party would select two or three candidates and everyone gets a vote. But it is hard to avoid the impression that they would prefer the status quo, under which the Communist Party simply picks the city’s Chief Executive (via the Election Committee charade). Even a race between selected and trusted loyalists could get messy, and it would be hard to explain to the rest of the country why Hong Kong alone gets this (by one-party state standards) democratic structure.

If so, the ideal outcome for Beijing would be for the pro-democrat lawmakers to veto the package. This would especially be the case if a clear majority of Hong Kong people supported the package, with however much or little enthusiasm. The pan-dems would be the bad guys, guilty of preventing a ‘democratic step forward’ and wickedly defying popular opinion. Having dampened – not to say shredded – public Stan-endgameexpectations for representative government, and with the pan-dems always pretty easy to run rings around, China’s local officials probably feel they could finesse this outcome with little problem.

We are coming to the end of the second round of consultation on the package-that-can’t-be-changed, which will appear as a reform bill in the Legislative Council within the next couple of months. While most pan-dems are ignoring the process, the moderate Hong Kong 2020 group led by ex-Chief Secretary Anson Chan has come up with an elaborate proposal to allow candidates who don’t make it through the Communist Party’s filter to get on the ballot as second-tier popularly ‘recommended’ candidates. As a lifelong civil servant, maybe Dame Conscience finds this bureaucratically and structurally, even intellectually, elegant. It completely misses the point that the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t do outsiders and rivals. (Presumably, the framers of this idea expect to highlight Beijing’s rigidity rather than accomplish anything in terms of reform.)

Meanwhile, Hong Kong U’s pollster Robert Chung suggests a referendum: if two-thirds of voters support Beijing’s package, pro-dem lawmakers should vote it into law. This is hilariously mischievous, according perfectly with Beijing’s purported aims (including skewering the pan-dems) using the exact democratic principles and methods the Communists so greatly fear and loathe.

From the troublesome pollster, to the scarily foreign Vice-Chancellor, to the Occupy-founding Benny Tai, to the much-demonized Johannes Chan, to the pro-independence student publications and the anti-Mainlander student union, Hong Kong U is clearly a nest of CIA-backed running-dog rightist traitors and Western values. One law professor stands out: Albert Chen, who manages to pull off the difficult trick of being both a member of the National People’s Congress and a respected constitutional law specialist. (Hongkongers wishing to get onto national political bodies should consider Pinyinizing – Chen not Chan, Li not Lee. Seems to help.)

Chen has written a column in favour of the ‘Pocket it first’ approach to the reform package – that is, accepting it as better than nothing, maybe even in the cheerily optimistic hope that Beijing will loosen up, mellow out and tune in a bit more to the democracy vibe one day later on. It is mostly a pragmatic and realist argument, politely explaining the Chinese Communist Party’s paranoid inability to leave anything to chance, and suggesting that a competition between Beijing-picked stooges is more democratic than the current pick-one-stooge-centrally system. This is reasonable enough. The pro-Beijing bloc has held back some of the better possible arguments in favour of the package, especially about the way even guided democracy could give public opinion more influence at the expense of vested interests. Chen at least hints at this.

He attributes the pan-dems’ opposition to the package to pique rather than principle. Under this package, he says…

…pan-democrats are unlikely to be nominated as a candidate. Therefore, they are reluctant to see others (of “pro-establishment camp”) becoming candidates and receiving through universal suffrage greater public mandate and acceptability than the pan-democratic Councilors…

In other words, Democratic figures like Albert Ho and Emily Lau are not bravely and selflessly dedicated to achieving full universal suffrage as a means of improving governance and ultimately humanity, but are acting like kids sulking on the sidelines because the teacher’s pets have been given sweeties. What a cruel thing to say.

While Chen focuses on reasons to accept the package, he doesn’t mention what might happen if it gets vetoed. Will Beijing, glad the whole argument is over, relax and allow Hong Kong a bit more space with less intrusive micro-managing by heavy-handed cadres? Or will China’s policymakers see maintenance of the status quo as an opportunity to further tighten their grip on the city? Will public morale and resistance weaken and decline? Or will the Umbrella, nativist and newer and angrier movements rise up and demand serious change? And then what will Beijing do? Not many pro-dems are thinking about this either.


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9 Responses to Riveting political-reform countdown continues

  1. Scotty Dotty says:

    No surprise to see Robert Chung proposing a referendum on 2017 reforms (or indeed anything). He knows it’s never going to happen but it is still a chance to underline the gathering of opinions. “Referendums! The ultimate survey!”

    Good on him, I say.

    At least he’s trying to help. And not a bad career move – this sort of thinking will surely get energised as 2017 approaches. If Beijing is so determined to deny Hong Kongers a (meaningful) decision it’s inevitable the electorate will seek ways to make their (true) opinion heard. Spoiling ballot papers on the day is surely inevitable and so are city-wide referendums.

  2. Stephen says:

    It really is time for Dame Conscience to retire to Sandbanks ! You’re absolutely on the money “Hardline Xi Jinping regime makes little secret of its total disdain for the whole idea” So forget it and veto it.

    It will make no difference whether they pick them or select them we will get the same. It does however leave CY and Carrie looking ridiculous and importantly never being able to bluster that they have a mandate, sometime after 2017. Let’s revisit this with Alex and Joshua in 20 years’ time.

  3. PCC says:

    I support the passing of the so-called reform package because I believe the resulting electoral system will provide a great deal of scope for pro-democracy mischief making — much more than either the CCP or their opponents realize.

  4. PD says:

    Nicely reasoned piece with all the customary insight. But…

    One of your basic (unspoken) premises is that Peking are in control, or at least believe they are. Only then does it make sense to indulge in clever-clever arguments based on speculation, avoiding the obvious, as to what their “real” intentions might be.

    Another fundamental problem is in assuming that the proposed “reform” is better than the previous system. In actual fact it is at best swings and roundabouts, at worst a crude three-card trick.

    The basic fact is that a Democrat was allowed to stand for the CE selection process in the past; under the new system nobody who would be even halfway electable in any country in the world is even allowed to get past the first hurdle.

    The known unknown, the joker in the pack, is public opinion, as expressed in particular by the massive protest marches and the Occupy movement. The public mood is one seething with frustration and resentment, with a healthy dose of bolshie bloody-mindedness.

    Given that in the past Beijing has shown 0% comprehension of what makes Hong Kong tick, I wouldn’t give them a snowball’s chance in hell at reading current public opinion on matters involving HK-China relations.

    Their infantile attempts to manipulate something they can’t understand are likely to backfire quite badly.

  5. inspired says:

    One does get the sense that the Xi Jinping regime is trying to first relegate the family heirloom fruitcake of ‘One Country Two Systems’ to a dusty shelf somewhere and then when it’s been pretty much forgotten just throwing it in the bin…

  6. Joe Blow says:

    As soon as Carrie Lam retires from active politics the UK should bar her from ever entering the country again.

  7. gweiloeye says:

    And in the mean time the PLA sits back with finger on the trigger and gets ready for the next revolution as they start getting picked off on ‘corruption’ charges by ‘Xi thought’.
    This could get interesting … or dangerous?

  8. Laguna Lurker says:

    I believe that those who knew me in the mid-1990s (Hemmers?) will recall my oft-quoted* observation that “handing over Hong Kong to the Chinese Communist Party will be like giving the keys to a Lamborghini to someone who’s only ever driven a buffalo cart”.

    *I frequently quote myself. Oh look, I’ve just done it again.

  9. Albert Chen is rather missing the point when he argues that we should pocket the ten cents in small change that Beijing is offering us. The reason the pan-dems should stand firm on vetoing it is exactly because the winning candidate will be able, as he says, to claim a certain degree of “greater public mandate and acceptability”, however spurious. The obvious plan is that they will then use this to sideline the troublingly democratic LegCo and rule by fiat – some members of the pro-CCP camp have already suggested that a “popularly elected” (as distinct from popular) CE should be given more power to override the Council. The pan-dems are far from perfect, but in the current balance of things they are all that stands between us and a quasi-dictatorship masquerading as a democratic step forward.

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