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Mind or muscle in
Hong Kong's electoral battle?

After a Legco blunder by the pro-Beijing camp, HK has no roadmap - flawed or not - to universal suffrage. Stalemate, yes, but there is optimism over the city's newfound political awareness and the involvement of the younger generation.

Hong Kong, August 2015

Which way forward for Hong Kong democracy? A Legco bungle kills a China-friendly bill with no clear roadmap towards universal suffrage

Which way forward for Hong Kong democracy? A Legco bungle kills a China-friendly bill with no clear roadmap towards universal suffrage. Local kung-fu icon Bruce Lee (above).

ENOUGH is enough, is the grumpy message coming from the Hong Kong government that has failed to get the legislature to back its highly controversial plans for electoral reform and declares that reform is now off the table as it will solely focus on economic and social issues.

Like many of the declarations that flow from the mouths of government officials this one is not only misleading but willfully ignorant. That much should be clear to the Hong Kong elite that spends its days enthralled by China’s rulers who are, at least in theory, Marxists. A central tenet of Marxism is the belief that everything flows from politics (and class struggle but, hey ho, this is not discussed in polite society anymore) and that political change is what drives social and economic change. Non-Marxists have also accepted this notion and made it part of mainstream political thought.

Thus the idea that politics can take a back seat while forging ahead with change on the economic and social fronts is rather flawed. Politics, after all, is the process of allocating resources, determining where the power lies to do this and, at least in theory, is the mechanism for reflecting the popular will. Therefore it hard to see how Hong Kong’s dysfunctional system of government can remain unchanged while expecting improvements in the business of government.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines

Legislators have no powers to introduce laws without the government’s consent but they do have the power to block legislation. It therefore takes little genius to work out why this system is almost purpose built for stalemate

The heart of this disfunctionality is a system that allows half of Hong Kong’s legislature to be elected by universal suffrage while filling up the other half with a rag bag of rotten boroughs and a smattering of professional representatives chosen by their peers. Legislators have no powers to introduce laws without the government’s consent but they do have the power to block both legislation and spending proposals from the administration. It therefore takes little genius to work out why this system is almost purpose built for stalemate.

At the apex of the governmental system is a chief executive (a business-sounding title that was somehow deemed appropriate to replace the old colonial title of Governor). He (there have been no females in this post) is chosen by a 1,200 strong committee most of whose members are selected by a process that ensures they are as friendly as possible to the government in Beijing.

The failed reforms were designed to give this committee the powers of veto for candidates standing in an election for the chief executive that would, for the first time, employ universal suffrage.

Unsurprisingly Hong Kong’s democrats opposed this reform and the government’s supporters in the legislature proved to be so maladroit as to bungle their tactics when it came to voting on the measure.

The background to the reform proposals is growing pro-democrat agitation that led to a massive occupation of streets in the centre of town at the end of 2014. The suspicion lingers that the government, under orders from Beijing, sought to thwart this movement by introducing what looked like democratic reform but was in practice a measure to preserve the status quo. The plan was to lure the democrats into opposing this reform and then develop a narrative to the effect that only in Hong Kong do you find democrats opposing democracy.

Although this narrative is indeed being used, its message has been severely undermined by the staggering incompetence of the anti-democrat forces in the legislature who made such a mess of things in the chamber and organized a walk out that gave the democrats a decisive majority for voting down the constitutional changes.

This messy debacle is passing into history and we are seeing much hand wringing and wailing about time wasting accompanied by talk of a developing stalemate. It comes from people who have little understanding of how history works, where progress is rarely made in a neat linear fashion and setbacks turn out to be strengths.

At the risk of being accused of excessive optimism in a situation that looks rather dire let me suggest why there is cause for optimism. First, while it is quite correct to say that the political reform process has polarized society, it is equally true to say that it has brought many people into the process of debate and shared concern about Hong Kong’s future. The long tradition of political apathy and fatalism that characterised Hong Kong society has been broken. It has been replaced by a type of activism that has moved beyond a focus on family interests, which typify the concerns of a largely immigrant society.

Secondly and crucially, the change in mood and circumstances has excited the interest and participation of the younger generation. The glib idea that the young are only involved in their own selfish interests can no longer be sustained.

Thirdly, people in Hong Kong are now arguably better versed in the options for an improved form of governance than is the case in most other societies. This lays the ground for a rather adult debate about the future.

Fourthly, the anomalous situation of a society given liberties and rights that are denied to the bulk of the Chinese population, has, in some ways, been clarified. Having granted the people of Hong Kong a separate mini-constitution that guarantees quite a high degree of autonomy, the government in Beijing and its willing followers in Hong Kong have been working to undermine this autonomy and to create new facts on the ground to bring what is known as the Special Administrative Region into line with the rest of the country.

Were there a scintilla of doubt that attempts to diminish autonomy would be resisted, that doubt has been laid to rest. Beijing can no longer pretend that the people of Hong Kong will easily relinquish their liberty. Like all bullies, the leaders of dictatorships offer grudgingly respect to those who stand up to them.

Stepping back from the current situation of bitterness and paralysis we can therefore contemplate the seeds of something better. The crucial factor is the radical change in the younger generation who, as the cliché has it, are the future.

But this is a longer term process that will first need to overcome the current messy state of affairs. Not a day passes without some new talk of plots, reprisals, crackdowns and goodness knows what else. It goes beyond talk because Hong Kong’s democratic forces are braced for official acts of revenge on many fronts. Prosecutions of activists are likely to mount and prison time for opposition figures are a distinct possibility.

In the public sector, particularly in the universities, pro-democracy academics are being hounded, denied both jobs and promotion. In the media, largely controlled by pro-government tycoons, dissident voices are being squeezed out and, elsewhere, petty acts of retaliation are being taken against people known to be associated with the democratic movement.

The Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong has given up all pretence of being a mere liaison centre and shown itself to be an active participant, arguably the most important participant, in the political debate

To say that this is inevitable is not to excuse it but recognizes how things work. Eventually the retaliation will go too far and there will be a backlash, how it will happen is not clear but Hong Kong has travelled too far down the road of politicization to prevent the people from being entirely cowed.

In the democratic camp signs of exhaustion are evident and, as always in politics, there are splits and factions which detract from the main purpose of the movement. These distractions are also plaguing the pro-government camp and so they may cancel each other out. However the reality is that these are side shows. When it comes to crucial moments both sides have shown an ability to coalesce.

Things look bad for the democrats because, like all opposition groups, they have the harder task of changing the status quo and they face better financed and better organized opponents who enjoy state backing for their activities. Yet the pro-government camp is also hardly in a good place. The Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, a deeply unpopular figure, even among his supposed supporters, nominally leads the pro-government camp. This is problematic enough and made worse because this camp is populated by many opportunistic office seekers and others whose primary interests are purely personal. This makes them unreliable allies and fair weather friends. On top of this is the problem of calibre because so many of the leading pro-government personalities are second rate and lacking in any kind of dynamism.

This all makes for a confusing and often dismal political scene but politics is often like this. There is a good deal to be cynical about and a good deal that is frankly soporific. However it is not always so. In the background but hardly hidden are developments on the Chinese Mainland where Xi Jinping, the Communist Party’s leader, is moving with unexpected speed and precision to tighten his grip on power. Inevitably this involves a harsh crackdown on dissent. The consequences for Hong Kong are profound because the local leadership spends its days looking over the shoulder to see what’s happening in Beijing and trying to devise ways of pleasing the Northern masters.

When the mood music from the North changes so does the atmosphere in Hong Kong.

The Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong has given up all pretence of being a mere liaison centre and shown itself to be an active participant, arguably the most important participant, in the political debate. Anti-democrat politicians spend much of their time bustling over to this office for direction. Media companies now have individuals whose main responsibility is to keep in touch with the office and act on its instructions. And government officials sit in their offices nervously awaiting summons from this quarter. As if to emphasise the nature of the relationship, the Central Government’s representatives rarely deign to go to the Hong Kong government offices, they insist that the supplicants from the local government visit them in their place of work.

Therefore the new mood in the mainland and the activities of the Central Government’s officers on the spot combine to eliminate the much discussed possibilities of a compromise aimed at finding a way out of the impasse. Instead there is a hardline stance emanating from Beijing and the expectation that if the democrats cannot be coerced into acquiescence they need to be forced in that direction. This is a chilling thought.

However history has something to say about dictatorships, namely that they are never as strong, nor as durable as they appear. They quickly traverse the space between wielding total power and wielding none at all.

No sensible person is putting a timescale on the demise of the Communist dictatorship in China but there is an awareness of its inherent fragility. Should that fragility become more pronounced all bets are off for what will happen in Hong Kong. At one extreme there is the chilling prospect of total chaos and very bad things seeping across the border. At the other end of the spectrum is the prospect of relaxed central control leading to a blossoming in China’s regions, which would enjoy greater autonomy. The likelihood however is something in between and far more confusing.

Speculation on these matters is not very productive, especially as Hong Kong has only a limited ability to shape its own destiny. Its status as one of the most prosperous centres in Asia is almost entirely derived from being situated on the edge of Asia’s largest nation which needed an entrepôt to conduct its business with the rest of the world and was able to provide services and knowhow that were absent in a nation suffering the worst ravages of a revolutionary government.

China can now do many of these things for itself and Hong Kong’s ‘usefulness’ is diminishing yet persists, and there is still scope for an autonomous Hong Kong to flourish. Politics will determine how this will pan out. If the people of the former British colony passively await developments without asserting their right to shape their own future, they are most likely to be crushed by the bulldozer of history. However recent developments make that less likely and those who bet on Hong Kong passivity are likely to be losers.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong based journalist, writer and businessman. He is the presenter of a weekly current affairs television programme – The Pulse – broadcast in HK and is a commentator with newspapers and a number of international radio and TV stations. Vines was the Deputy Business Editor of The Observer and has worked for the The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and the New York-based Daily Deal. He is the author of a number of books including Hong Kong: China’s New Colony and a study of the Asian financial crisis called The Years of Living Dangerously. His latest book, Market Panic was republished in 2008. Stephen Vines was the founding Chief Editor of Eastern Express, a mould-breaking daily newspaper published in Hong Kong. He was also a founder and publisher of the satirical Spike magazine.

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Bowen C. Chow (19 October, 2015) – Hong Kong
Whatever the motives of the Chinese Government in pushing for the Aug 31 package, it could cause fatal blows to democratic development here as strait-jacketed democracy will be legitimized as the norm. And some in the pan-democratic camp will succumb to the temptation, further eroding the movement. I agree with Steve's points that the traditional political apathy and fatalism of HK society has been broken; the younger generations are drawn in, and Hongkongers are finally more able to engage in adult debate about forms of improved governance. These changes have come actually naturally,since before 1997, people could rely on the colonizers to provide good governance. But when the colonizers are gone, Hongkongers will have to take it upon themselves to protect and maintain their ways of life
Delaney (14 October, 2015) – Hong Kong
The pro-Beijing Legco walkout made a huge mess of things and was even amusing to watch at the time though it did not help Hong Kong's cause. I agree with Mr Vines that there is always room for optimism despite China's impenetrable and dire pronouncements.
N Snyderman (14 October, 2015) – China
An excellent backgrounder on Hong Kong's dilemma regarding universal suffrage. Well written and clear.

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