Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On Compromise: Democracy and Hong Kong

It is striking how difficult it has been to come to a compromise in the debate over the proposal for electing the Hong Kong Chief Executive . From one point of view, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SCNPC) refused to compromise with pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong when it announced a very restrictive format on 31 August 2014. Even pro-establishment figures admitted that the format is restrictive and not what Hong Kong had hoped for, but they recommend that HK “pocket it” first—implying a better mechanism is achievable down the road (but inadvertently admitting the package is not satisfactory). But one could also go further back and note that the pan-democrats painted themselves in a corner by demanding “civil nominations” when the Basic Law clearly calls for CE candidates to be nominated by a Nominating Committee. Instead of compromising and seeking to change the makeup of the Nominating Committee (which is the same 1200 people who made up the Electoral Committee in 2012, a committee made up mostly of pro-establishment figures), which could have been broadened and made more democratic, pan-democrats sought a much more open nominating system.

The problem with the Nominating Committee is that, with the restriction that only 2-3 candidates can be nominated, and a high threshold of 50 percent support for nomination, it basically decides the election before it is put to the public. The 19th century New York City Democratic Party machine leader Boss Tweed is famous for having said, “I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” So while the pan-dems’ objections are understandable, the push for “full universal suffrage” was always going to be difficult. Many argue that it made Beijing less willing to compromise.

There is no evidence, however, that Beijing would ever have compromised. C.Y. Leung even said as much, when he admitted to the NY Times and WSJ that real democracy would mean that the CE would have to listen to poor people. It is interesting that he did not understand how this elitist and anti-democratic argument would sound, both abroad and back in HK.  He made clear something we have long known, that neither the oligarchs who run Hong Kong nor the Party in Beijing are willing to allow full democracy in Hong Kong.

The best hope was for some compromise. As I’ve mentioned above, the pan-democrats pushed too hard for civil nomination, and the SCNPC pushed too hard in the other direction. Moderate democrats like Ronny Tong who had offered compromises were literally in tears on August 31, 2014, when the proposed framework was announced. Their attempts at compromise had been ignored.

Now pro-establishment politicians want the pan-democrats to be more pragmatic and realistic. But the members of the Democratic Party who compromised back in 2010 on the 2012 election with the promise that they would have “universal suffrage” in 2017 feel betrayed. This proposed system is not what they had envisioned when they agreed to “universal suffrage.” Having been criticized by the more radical elements of the pan-democratic movement, they now feel stabbed in the back by Beijing. The radicals can say, “See, you were wrong to compromise.”

Pro-establishment figures have repeatedly claimed that pan-democrats need to be more pragmatic, that they need to compromise (see here and here). They say opponents need to accept Bejing, and balance idealism and pragmatism. This is true, but it seems to ignores that Leung and Beijing have no intention of allowing free elections.

Is compromise possible in the future? Beijing officials have ruled out any compromise now, but the government has had a campaign to “pocket now” the proposed reforms and revise them in the future. But Beijing officials have refused to consider any future revisions. Thus, the government’s own campaign recognizes the proposals are not ideal, and by refusing to make any compromises now or promises for changes in the future, it makes them seem uncompromising. They also insist that the same framework will imposed for the 2022 elections.

This is all very sad for Hong Kong. Beijing and pro-establishment figures refuse to compromise for fear of looking weak, and pro-democracy leaders fear attacks from the radical fringe if they seek compromise. The 31 August decision made compromise impossible. Elections could produce a more legitimate CE and can change the politics of a place because candidates have to make promises to the public to get elected. On the other hand, if the elections are “North Korean style”, then they would not have this positive effect. We will never know whether a compromise would have been possible. But we do know that Hong Kong will continue with a deadlocked legislature and an unpopular and weak Chief Executive, whether C.Y. Leung runs for reelection or not. The weakness comes from the institutions, not the personalities, and failure to compromise means we will continue muddling along.

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