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 expectations 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.