December 22, 2005

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Hong Kong's democratic reforms halted

As expected Donald Tsang's constitutional reforms were voted down in Legco. While a bitter Chief Secretary Rafael Hui had a go, the key question is what will The Don do now? He's off to Beijing next week for instructions and there are two very different paths. The first is to simply say that he tried, he offered and it was rejected and so the status quo will remain until there is a broader consensus on how to move forward. He'll bury the idea in various committees and commissions and the democrats tactical victory will end up being a strategic defeat. The second is The Don decides to engage the democrats and try again on a new package.

The first is the more likely path. The Don came out and said there will be no new proposals on the 2007/8 elections. No doubt The Don worked hard to convince Beijing of the merits of the now defeated package, and Beijing aren't going to cave in to the demands of 24 legislators in Hong Kong. The boys in Beijing will emphasise their support for The Don, especially as we now have Anson Chan as the unofficial leader of the opposition.

The democrats will enjoy the headlines and kudos for the next few days. In the actual vote they played a smart political game and ran rings around the government and pro-Beijing forces. But what have they achieved? They've rejected a positive step forward towards universal suffrage for the longer term goal of a timetable. They have reduced the chances of eliminating appointed district councillors; they have rejected a chance to expand the electoral college that elects the Chief Executive in 2007; they've rejected an expansion in the Legco for 2008 that would likely benefit them and remove the functional constituency veto. Perversely, the democrats have voted to stymie democratic reform and played into Beijing's hands. Beijing and The Don can now say they offered progress and were rejected. Beijing has won thanks to the democrats. This game makes for odd bedfellows.

In short, they've gone for a double or nothing strategy, but with nothing looking the more likely outcome. It highlights the short-termism that pervades the democrats in Hong Kong. It is all well and good to be a purist and hope for an instant transition to full democracy. But politics is the art of the possible and as such it involves compromise and messy reality, not high ideology. The lack of courage and leadership from the democrats is as lamentable as it was predictable.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong is the loser.

Update (14:15) Daisann McLane reports on an extraordinary night for Hong Kong politics in Slate. She yet again mentions "her friend Hemlock". But will she go to jail to protect her sources? And what's with calling locals "Hong Kongese"? For the curious, Hemlock mentioned her back in March (Tuesday, 8th March) and she him in her piece on Long Hair. Hemlock's more switched on than we thought.

Elsewhere, Gateway Pundit gets it completely wrong and shows what happens when you buy into an issue based on glib media reports. Make sure you read the comments from Conrad. God I miss his blogging.

(19:10) LfC looks at local media reaction and wonders if they are all reporting on the same thing?

posted by Simon on 12.22.05 at 09:15 AM in the Hong Kong democracy/politics category.


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Simon, I sympathize with all of your arguments because they all make sense. However, hear out this counter-argument. In a broader sense, the weight of all authority and power is in the hands of China, and through the leaders in Beijing, Donald Tsang. They have the ultimate right to change all the rules of the road.

The only source of power and authority on the side of the democrats is people power and mass demonstrations, as a way of demonstrating (literally) that they have the will of a substantial number of people on their side. If 100,000 turned out in support of the democratic cause, and against the too-slow reform process advocated by Donald Tsang, not only were they empowered by this rally, but it also places on them a positive obligation not to betray the cause of the rally and the people that turned out in their support.

In that sense, I sympathize with the decisions made by the democrats entirely.

posted by: HK Dave on 12.22.05 at 10:02 AM [permalink]

Dave, I hear you but disagree. Firstly if you look at the polls in the SCMP a few days ago, it's not clear that 100,000 people represent a majority opinion. While I accept the march made democrats feel they need to hold the line against the reforms, I'm arguing there was a case here for the democratic leadership to accept the package, with provisos and improvements such as elimination of appointed district councillors and even a timetable towards a timetable. If the democrats had gone to The Don and said we will vote for if you do some of these things, instead of being implaccably opposed and ideological, it would have advanced the cause far more than yesterday's vote. Better a "too slow" process than none at all. And I fear that none at all is what we're left with.

We are disagreeing over the ability of the democrats to lead their people rather than follow, in Sir Gordon Wu's words, "mob" rule.

posted by: Simon on 12.22.05 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

I think though that the goalposts (in terms of the reform package) are totally arbitrary, and the democrats realize that China can move them at any time. It is perhaps a risky gambit, yes, to think that the government will eventually be forced to come up with a new proposal.

I think what we also disagree on is that this will indeed be the best offer that the Don (as China's mouthpiece) provides Hong Kong. China has proven more flexible in the past on certain issues,and while they are not used to negotiating with subordinate politicians, I am sure there will be a better offer tabled in the next 12 months.

But yesterday's vote serves as a reminder to China of why they are allowing some gradual political liberalization in Hong Kong in the first place - the status quo is unacceptable. While you are right that something is better than nothing, it is also good to bear in mind how laughably short of full democracy by 07/08, which is what the Basic Law allows, these proposals are. For a place as rich as Hong Kong, having half of the legislative vote explicitly determined by rich tycoons is a disgrace.

The vote yesterday, in my view, is simply part of a drawn-out negotiated process with China over how many years in terms of a 'fudge factor' the CCP needs to add to the 07/08 timeframe for their own comfort level.

posted by: HK Dave on 12.22.05 at 03:49 PM [permalink]

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