POLITICAL CHANGES CLOUD THE FUTURE
By Chris Yeung
Hong Kong cycling gold medalist Wong Kam-po was both disappointed and puzzled when he made a last-minute appeal for support from city lawmakers on behalf of the government’s planned bid to host the 2023 Asian Games. He had expected pro-democracy parties to oppose the bid—not worth the high cost, in their view—but he thought parties that backed the government would go along with the plan.
They didn’t. At a public hearing held by a Legislative Council (Legco) panel in late November, Wong said, “I have assumed from the beginning…that the League of Social Democrats (LSD) and the Democratic Party (DP) will oppose it. [But] the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) has turned out to be the first to say no. It’s very strange and sad.”
The Asian Games cycling champion was referring to swift action by the DAB, widely considered the major pro-establishment party, to publicly oppose the bid just days after the government began a 10-week public consultation period in October. Soon after, the democratic parties joined in opposition as predicted, citing the estimated HK$54 billion (US$7 billion) cost as a major reason for disapproval.
Although public opinion remained divided as the consultation period ended, the Hong Kong Executive Council (cabinet) chaired by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen decided to go ahead anyway and will ask Legco to finance the bid. Yet the DAB didn’t back down. Vice Chairman Ip Kwok-him said his party will take public opinion into account before deciding how to vote on the funding bill. In an early test, the DAB joined the pan-democratic parties to oppose the Asian Games plan in a non-binding vote of a key Legco committee.
The DAB Changes Tactics
The marked change of tactics—putting public opinion above political loyalty to the Tsang administration—suggests a profound change in the city’s political scene following the passage of an election reform resolution last summer, which will set for rules for voting in 2012. It became law only because the Democrat Party held direct talks with officials representing Beijing and crafted a compromise which many other pro-democrats opposed and which, in fact, caused several Democrats to quit the party. That passage, in important ways, heralds possible changes in the city’s political scene and raises questions about the future.
The questions include:
Will the Democratic Party remain the flagship of pan-democratic forces which often oppose the government? Or will it join—at least partially—the political establishment? Future DP positions will significantly impact other pan-democrats and broader political alignments within Hong Kong.
Second, will the DAB revise its strategy, or least the image it projects, of being the most loyal of establishment forces and instead try to lure voters from the center of the political spectrum—now that the Democratic Party seems to be moving towards a moderate role?
Third, will the election reform package, known as the “district council model,” become the catalyst for change and, if so, how?
Fourth, what will passage of that bill mean to Donald Tsang and his administration during its final two years in office?
Last but not least, what new game plan, if any, does Beijing have for Hong Kong as the city takes a small but important step in 2012 toward a presumed universal suffrage voting system, perhaps in 2017 for chief executive and in 2020 for all Legco seats?
There is no doubt that the role of the Democratic Party has been crucial – and controversial – in the electoral reform saga. Holding the most seats in Legco, the party’s support for the government blueprint, revised by the deal it hammered out with Beijing, ensured its passage. Negotiations over the controversial terms marked the first time the Democrats, whose core leaders are still banned from visiting China, sat down and talked with Beijing officials.
The Democrats’ switch to a “negotiated democracy” approach has caused much speculation among political analysts and within overall pan-democratic ranks about whether it will now move closer to the establishment side. One leading pro-democracy figure, Legco member Alan Leong Kah-kit, wrote in November that it caused pan-democrats to split into three streams. His Civic Party, he insisted, still adheres to a “rational line.” The Democratic Party, Leong said, has switched to an “establishment line,” while the smaller LSD has grown more radical.
Worried about losing some long-time supporters, the Democrats were quick to restate their role as an opposition force immediately after the reform blueprint was passed. But this did not prevent a split. Andrew Cheng Kar-foo, a founding member and legislator, quit the party because he rejected the electoral package’s terms. About 16 members from the reformist faction, also disappointed by their party’s stance, in October formed a new political group based in local district constituencies and call themselves NeoDemocrats. Hours before the Democratic Party held an annual general meeting on December 18, the NeoDemocrats and 14 other members of the reformist faction resigned en masse.
Faced with two sets of elections in the near future—for the 18 district councils in 2011 and the Legco in 2012—the Democrats seem unlikely to depart significantly from their basic position as an opposition force for that would risk losing their steady, long-time supporters. But the departure of the young reformist members will deepen the mainstream faction’s sense of crisis and enhance its sense of vigilance about not getting too close to the establishment, or be seen as doing so. Yet members know well that most Hong Kong people want dialogue, not perennial confrontation, with Beijing on crucial issues like universal suffrage. This will be a serious dilemma for the party leaders.
Leadership Changes, Delayed Talks
But 2012 will bring leadership changes to the governments of both Hong Kong and China, and this could well make substantive talks about Hong Kong’s arrangements for elections after 2012 almost impossible until those changes occur. Although relations frozen by 1989’s Tiananmen Square crackdown are slowly thawing, with both Beijing and the Democrats having shown a willingness to deal with each other, however slowly and gradually, there is not much chance of major political breakthroughs during the next two years. For example, Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan in December has merely repeated his hope that a formal channel of communication between Beijing and the pan-democrats can be set up no later than 2012.
One reason is a deep-rooted and lingering popular distrust of dealing with the Communists. Thus the Democratic Party’s decision to hold serious talks with Beijing cadres sharply divided the pan-democratic camp and its supporters. However, recent opinion polls show the Democrats’ popularity rating has risen slightly, matching public support for the electoral compromise they made possible; most people apparently favor an end to confrontation. This year’s district council elections will be the first real test of whether the DP’s revised approach towards Beijing can pay off at the polls.
Though some political analysts see the Democratic Party’s action as a classic united front success for Beijing, the DP’s strategy has caused jitters within Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp. Always worried about possible conspiracy, the pro-Beijing hard-liners have warned their allies against letting themselves be “cheated” by the Democrats. They fear their supporters may shift allegiance to the Democrats now that they are mending fences with China.
If anything, the DAB’s firm opposition to the Asian Games bid illustrates this anxiety about a changing political landscape. When it comes to an issue on which there is no clear Beijing policy, the DAB now appears bent on siding with the majority of people—even if that means opposing the Hong Kong government. Even after the central government said it would support a Hong Kong bid for the games, DAB leaders repeated their opposition.
Contentious Issues Ahead
The Asian Games tussle is but one example of things to come as political parties look forward to the scheduled 2011 and 2012 elections. Though many details about out how to implement the new electoral blueprint will cause fierce debate when Legco drafts a final bill, its passage is expected. Contentious issues include who is eligible to run for five new Legco seats that will represent district council constituencies; how many nominating votes a would-be candidate needs from the current 405 elected district council members (10 or 15?) and whether there should be one territory-wide constituency for these new seats, or five separate ones. Under the framework electoral resolution passed by Legco in June, nearly all Hong Kong voters can cast ballots for these five new seats. (Excluded will be the 200,000 voters from special interest groups who select 30 legislators in what are called functional constituencies.) Another five new seats will be chosen by popular vote in existing geographical constituencies, meaning that 40 of an expanded Legco’s 70 members will in effect be chosen by democratic means.
According to an election bill introduced in mid-December, which is expected to be passed into law in the legislative session that ends in mid-July, the five new seats representing the district councils will be chosen by a proportional representation system in a single constituency of some 3.2 million voters covering all of Hong Kong. As a result, the five winners could well get hundreds of thousands of votes apiece, something not possible in smaller geographical constituencies, causing some analysts to call them “super-legislators”. And some predict these winners – with a much stronger elected mandate - could pose a political challenge to the next chief executive, who will be chosen by majority vote of only 1,200 members of an election committee, many of them carefully vetted by the Beijing and Hong Kong governments.
Not surprisingly, the guessing game has begun about who might become “super-legislators.” Although major parties like the DAB and DP have an advantage because they are strong in the districts, popular political figures—notably minister-turned-legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and some prominent business leaders—could emerge as strong contenders in a territory-wide poll.
The more radical LSD has announced its intention to boycott these elections, but all other major political parties are formulating their strategies for seeking the new seats. This contest could well aggravate an earlier split between the Democrats and the Civic Party that was later worsened when they opposed each other on the electoral reform proposal. On the other hand, it might also compel them to join forces in a Hong Kong-wide election to avoid a situation in which they might both lose.
Because final terms of the 2012 election bill are not yet drafted, it is difficult to predict what campaign strategies the two leading pan-democratic parties might choose. But their damaged relationship isn’t likely to mend anytime soon. Despite persistent calls for pan-democrats to form a grand coalition, such a united front looks unlikely before 2017 when the chief executive could be elected by universal suffrage. Until then, the pan-democratic camp will remain fragmented and fraught with discord on various political and policy issues. Only when electoral arrangements for post-2012 voting and a universal suffrage election of the chief executive are on the agenda will they have incentive enough to consider joining forces.
No Gains for Beijing’s Friends
Meantime, a sense of bitterness among the establishment parties became clear when it emerged that the Beijing-Democrats compromise did not bring the pro-government side any benefits. The DAB, for example, hasn’t gained in public opinion surveys since the electoral reform was approved. Following a major setback in the 2008 Legco elections, the pro-business Liberal Party was already sometimes ridiculed as being “half-dead”. Suffering from the exodus of four core leaders in recent times, the Liberals’ future grew even more uncertain when Michael Tien Puk-sun, a wealthy businessman who was tipped to become a party leader, quit in November. The next month he became a vice chairman of Regina Ip’s just-launched New People’s Party, which she will chair. This party, which has about 70 founding members, will follow a center-right line in social, economic and political policies, and will target middle class voters. Meantime, former Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun (Michael’s brother), who resigned after the party’s 2008 electoral defeat, was given its newly-created title of honorary chairman. His former deputy, Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, who also left the Liberals in 2008, will run for the post of vice chairman. Their political comeback is seen as a desperate move by the Liberals to survive the next two sets of elections. However, given their depleted strength, the party seems unlikely to regain its former place in the political landscape. The question Beijing and the local business sector must face is how business interests can be represented in future Legislative Councils when all seats are returned by universal suffrage.
Because an earlier and somewhat similar effort at electoral reform failed in 2005, to the dismay of both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, Beijing should feel relieved by passage of the 2012 version. Presumably, it agreed to modest concessions—under pressure from pan-democrats and others who want improved governance—to avoid a second failure. Otherwise, its chosen chief executive, Donald Tsang, might well have faced public pressure to stand down in mid-term, just as his predecessor was forced to do over a different issue. Intentionally or inadvertently, Beijing’s surprise green-light to the package has divided the pan-democratic camp, with the Democrats portrayed as politicians with whom Beijing can do business and most others, such as the Civic Party and the LSD, considered the die-hard opposition.
Even one long-time pro-Beijing figure has said privately that he remains baffled by Beijing’s decision because the Democrat-initiated reform includes direct election for five additional Legco seats, something Beijing normally doesn’t favor. The political ramifications of the emergence of five “super-legislators” could also be profound. The political gains of the reform bill compromise, nevertheless, are clear. The Tsang administration has regained some lost popularity and the pan-democratic camp is in disarray, at least temporarily. Given a choice, however, Beijing would prefer an even more fragmented pan-democratic camp it could ignore completely, allowing more room for its own political maneuvering as both the central and Hong Kong governments acquire new leaders. It remains to be seen whether Beijing’s blessing of the 2012 electoral reforms signifies a major change of tactics, if not strategy, towards Hong Kong. The style and policies of Vice President Xi Jinping, who will succeed President Hu Jintao in 2012, and Wang Guangya, a career diplomat who recently took over the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, are still anybody’s guess.
It is clear, however, Beijing is not prepared to begin talks anytime soon about post-2012 electoral reforms or a specific roadmap to universal suffrage. Top on its Hong Kong agenda during the next two years are a string of five elections. They include voting in 2011 for district councils and selecting the 1,200-member committee that will choose the next chief executive; and in 2012 selecting local delegates to the National People’s Congress in Beijing, choosing a new Hong Kong chief executive and filling all 70 seats of the Legislative Council.
On its face, passage of electoral reform in 2010 has not brought seismic change to Hong Kong’s political landscape. The political divide between pro-establishment and pan-democratic forces remains sharp and clear. The Tsang administration still faces recurring troubles in governance. Meantime, Beijing is continuing the proactive, more visible political approach it adopted following the 500,000-strong protest rally which shook its complacency on July 1, 2003.
Change, however, is in the air.
Chris Yeung is News Director of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. The article does not reflect the views of that organization.