Thursday, September 04, 2014

What is "Universal Suffrage"?

A good sign of the surprise and disappointment at China's NPC Standing Committee decision on Hong Kong's election for the Chief Executive is the tone of coverage in the SCMP. The paper has become much more conservative in recent years, but both articles and commentary reflect the shock and pessimism that most people (I know) feel at Beijing's decision. Even The Economist had predicted Beijing would issue some vague guidelines, to avoid creating a confrontation. Instead, they have placed severe restrictions on who can run, requiring over half of the Nominating Committee to endorse a candidate, and only allowing 2 or 3 candidates to run.

At the root of the problem is the definition of "universal suffrage." Some say that giving everyone "one person one vote" is a big step. After all, there are no such elections in China. On the other hand, as Emily Lau put it, Hong Kong is not North Korea. We all know of many countries where they hold "elections" which are not really elections at all, because the choices have been so circumscribed that the decision is essentially pre-ordained. On the third hand, even in Iran (2009) and Burma (1988), such tightly controlled elections can lead to surprises. On the fourth hand, in neither of these cases did the people's voice triumph.
It is clear that Beijing's fear of a "color revolution" and its need to be in total control won out over the view that a more democratic way of selecting the Chief Executive will lead to more accountability, a stronger mandate to rule, and better government. From this point of view, Hong Kong Pan-Democrats should veto the proposed election format. Margaret Ng has an excellent NY Times Op-Ed piece that expresses this view.

But now Beijing is trying very hard to peel away the democrats' resolve. Tung Chee-wah gave a press conference for the first time since he stepped down as Chief Executive, urging Hong Kong to accept the proposals as a "step forward." And in today's SCMP, an anonymous source claims that Beijing's conservative decision reflected the views of conservative cadres who thought the 2007 decision to allow Hong Kong to have "universal suffrage" had been a mistake. "The source also told the South China Morning Post yesterday that many cadres would be pleased to see Hong Kong lawmakers veto reforms for the 2017 chief executive election."

We can call this the "Brer Rabbit" argument. In an old story of Brer Rabbit story (see here), the rabbit is caught by Brer Fox and says, "I don’t care what you do with me, Brer Fox. Just don’t fling me in that briar patch over there. Roast me, Brer Fox, but don’t fling me in in that briar patch." Of course, the fox does through the rabbit into the briar patch, but since the rabbit grew up in the briar patch, he was not cut by its thorns but escaped unhurt. Similarly, Beijing is "letting it be known" that some cadres would want LegCo to veto the proposals, so Hong Kong would not have universal suffrage.  The democrats should therefore, the argument goes, accept the proposal to spite these conservative cadres.

One fact that has not been commented upon is that with the Nominating Committee still composed of the 1200 predominantly pro-Beijing representatives of tycoons and professions, it is unlikely that any election would actually have more than one candidate anyway. How will more than one candidate get over 50% of the nominations, even if multiple nominations are allowed? Most members of the Nominating Committee will have a clear opinion of who they think will be the best CE candidate. And the candidate will urge them to nominate only one person. Nomination Committee members will not submit a second nomination unless a) they are somehow related or beholden to two candidates and cannot chose only one without offending the other, or b) a second candidate is so weak or unpopular, that nominating him or her does not risk that this person will actually be elected, or c) Beijing tells them nominate a second candidate to make the election look like a real election (in which case this would be related to point b), because this would only happen if it was fairly clear who would win the final election).

The issue in the end hinges on what one understands to be "universal suffrage." Is the act of voting most important? Or does there have to be real choice before the vote is meaningful? Beijing is trying to focus on the "process" of voting. The Pan-Democrats insist that there has to be real choice. Beijing could have avoided a color revolution in Hong Kong by allowing elections that offered choice but were stacked in their favor. Instead, they have gone for total control and a fairly meaningless version of "universal suffrage" that ironically may cause unrest like in "color revolutions" because the election does not let voters let off steam. But Beijing may be right in its calculation. Even Anson Chan is so dispirited that she is quoted in the SCMP as recommending that her family members emigrate.

One other dispiriting aspect of the whole saga is the rapid erosion of "one country two systems." Many in Hong Kong like to think of the city as part of China but not really. Many say they don't want Hong Kong to be "just another Chinese city." So it is striking that it has been a series of Mainland officials like Li Fei who have been doing all the talking about the CE election reforms. CY Leung and Carrie Lam just sit there, in the audience. I'm sure they are happy not to have to act as mouthpieces for Beijing. And this makes clear where these decisions are coming from. But it also makes clear where the power is. When Beijing officials complain of a lack of "dialog", one can only wonder what they mean, because from Hong Kong's position, it seems like Beijing does all the talking and Hong Kong is just supposed to listen. Many will say that that this is not surprising, now that Hong Kong is part of China (certainly that is what they are saying in Taiwan). But it is not what Hongkongers expected by "universal suffrage" and "one country two systems."

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