Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hong Kong Democracy: The Slow Motion Train Wreck

If someone has not been closely following the issue of how Hong Kong will elect its next Chief Executive (CE), then the posturing between “Occupy Central” and Pro-Beijing loyalists is hard to understand. Today, we are about to hear from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress what the rules of the 2017 CE election will be. The outlines have been leaked, and it seems they will be very conservative, by which pundits mean it will support control by the rich and Beijing. This will result in protests, and it is likely that the pan-democrats in the Legislative Council will block the reforms, and thus will prevent Hong Kong from have “universal suffrage.” Many who have not followed the issue closely will wonder why pro-democrats are getting arrested in Central and blocking universal suffrage. For us in Hong Kong, we see this as a slow moving train wreck: we can see the collision coming, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

In general, it is good for democratic reforms to evolve gradually. And that is what the central government keeps saying as it justifies its conservative approach. The problem is, the pan-democrats do not trust Beijing to allow an evolution towards real democracy. When officials claim elections are “Western” or even a Western plot to undermine China, they indicate they do not have any intention of allowing real “universal suffrage”.

Officials keep promising reforms in the future, but at a certain point, people start to view this as merely a stalling tactic.  “Hong Kong's 2017 election is not the end of reform, hints NPC's Zhang Dejiang” (SCMP 22 July 2014) shows the Pro-Beijing forces trying to do the same thing: promise more democracy in the future, in return for limited reforms now. In general, this is a good idea; progress needs to be made step by step, and reform is a long-term process.

The problem is that the Democrats feel burned by the last round. When it was agreed in 2010 that there would be “Universal Suffrage” in 2017, no one anticipated that the threshold for nominations would be raised from 1/8 of Nomination Committee members to one half. Nor did they anticipate that there would be a cap on the number of candidates (it is going to be 2 or 3). As many have noted, this makes the Nominations Committee act like an Election Committee. The problem in the 2012 election, after all, was that both the pro-establishment candidates, Henry Tang and C.Y. Leung, were both considered poor candidates. Tang was nicknamed “the pig” (implying his lack of intellect) and Leung “the wolf” (supposedly because“wolf” in Cantonese is close to the pronunciation of his surname, and because he is considered cunning). The fact is that the 2012 election was a competitive election, with three candidates and considerable uncertainty, except that everyone knew that the third candidate, Albert Ho of the Democratic Party, did not have a chance of getting elected. The Election Committee of 1200 persons included all top elected politicians but was mostly elites selected by Beijing. Though it was good that the Democrats participated, they had no chance of winning. The problem was that the choice was between two poor choices (some said three poor choices).

Now, though Beijing will allow "one person one vote" to elect the CE, they have decided to make it more difficult to get nominated. This will make it impossible for any pro-democratic politician to be elected. The rich of Hong Kong and Beijing both fear a truly democratic CE, who might use populist policies to address Hong Kong's extreme wealth gap. Beijing increasingly views all democrats in Hong Kong as enemies of the state.  People like Peter Wong, a National People's Congress delegate from Hong Kong, tries to make objections to this high threshold seem illegitimate by saying "The electoral arrangement will be seen as unfair if it is designed to help certain candidates run." This is a red herring; it is the conservatives who are making it unfair by excluding certain candidates.

The crux of the matter is what is meant by "a high degree of autonomy." In Hong Kong, many people feel that Hong Kong should be able to elect its own CE, like cities around the world elect their mayors. But Beijing is concerned that the "mayor" might even try to declare independence. This sounds far fetched (only a lunatic fringe talks about HK independence) but Beijing leaders expect to be in complete control, and it is the job of leaders to worry about such scenarios. Instead of trying to find some compromise, both sides have hardened their positions, with many pro-democracy activists insisting on the right of "civic nomination" (i.e. nominating candidates for CE bypassing the Nominations Committee) and Beijing not changing the Nominations Committee, raising the threshold for getting nominated, and limiting the number of nominees who can run. I sometimes wonder if a compromise was actually ever possible.

It is possible that the very conservative approach to be announced by Beijing, and promoted by Hong Kong's rich like Peter Wong, will so inflame the situation that many people who were weary of "Occupy Central" will now be more supportive of the civil disobedience movement. Some in the government realize this, so this week there has been a concerted effort to blame Occupy Central for the conservative electoral rules, saying that the threat of civil disobedience caused the central government to lose trust in Hong Kong and directly led to conservative rules.

One final point. I find it surprising that so many people in the pro-establishment camp have railed against Occupy Central. Why do they find it so worrisome and offensive? The Alliance for Peace and Democracy (which is the name for the anti-Occupy Central group) launched a petition campaign and a march and most pro-establishment figures spoke in favor of it, and CY Leung himself even signed the petition. Much of the movement is well funded and orchestrated; there are many stories of employees being told to sign petitions or lose their jobs. I can only assume the Occupy movement has somehow hit a raw nerve. From one point of view, when the Occupy Central protesters lie down on the street, they can just be arrested and taken away. It will cause some disruption, but it is not the end of the world. The pro-establishment camp has organized all sorts of trade groups, even the Big 4 accounting firms, to speak out against Occupy Central (employees responded a few days later with an anonymous ad in the Apple Daily saying, with a mild vulgarity, “Hey boss, your statement doesn’t represent us."

Why the panic? What I see is pro-democracy activists feeling frustrated after years of deferring their hopes. People say there should be dialog, but at some point, if enough people believe the other side is not discussing in good faith, dialog breaks down and people will take more radical steps. Fortunately, Occupy Central is led by three idealist pacifists, and they have no intention of using violence. The police can also non-violently remove them. With the breakdown in trust and communication, many people will feel civil disobedience is their only choice. Because while it is true that democracy has to come gradually, it is also true that it rarely is won without a struggle.

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