The democrats' entirely understandable frustration over government foot dragging on introducing universal suffrage has led some of them into a disastrous trap. It will give the enemies of democracy much cause for celebration as they are handed new ways to thwart progress on constitutional reform.
The democrats hope to create a de facto referendum on the reform issue with their plan to stage strategic resignations from the legislature aimed at forcing the chief executive to quit if he failed - as he would - to bring forward plans for introducing universal suffrage.
In so doing, the democrats are helping a hapless government extract itself from what can be confidently predicted to be widespread anger when it trickles out a minimal plan. This plan will confine universal suffrage to the pending 2012 election for the chief executive and then put in place barriers to its implementation by insisting on all manner of restrictions on who can be nominated.
The government's proposals, due to be announced at the end of the year, could have been guaranteed to bring out demonstrators onto the streets in large numbers and would clearly have stimulated all manner of other protests. However, the anti-democrats' prayers for ways of diffusing these protests have been answered by the very people at the forefront of the struggle for democracy.
The government has been handed a marvellous opportunity to confuse the discussion over reform with much self-righteous posturing about the money that would be wasted on unnecessary elections. It will further rejoice in the possibility that, once the elections were under way, all sorts of other issues would rise to the fore, regardless of the democrats' plans. And when, as stage two of the plan envisages, the democrats quit further elections in protest, the field would be open for the enemies of democracy to fill posts that were occupied by hard-working legislators genuinely committed to making Hong Kong a better place.
The argument of those favouring resignation is that they have come to the end of the road with traditional forms of protest and that something, anything, more dramatic needs to be tried. This is a classic case of frustration leading to reckless action, with a lack of attention being paid to the consequences.
First, let us consider the wholly improbable possibility that by-elections would spark the resignation of a chief executive who never had a popular mandate in the first place. Instead, he has the blessing of Beijing and what is likely to be even greater support from the many appointees, rotten-borough representatives in the Legislative Council and other anti-democrats who will insist that he stays and fights from a newly enhanced position in a Legco shorn of opposition elements.
Second, surely by now everyone knows that the overwhelming majority of the Hong Kong public favours universal suffrage. How will a referendum, that is in fact not a referendum, somehow enhance this information? Indeed, if the by-elections turn out to favour anti-democratic candidates who have cleverly campaigned on other issues, might it not be argued that the majority in favour of reform has disappeared?
Politics should be about principles but it is also very much about tactics, and the current plan for resignations shows an almost wilful disregard for the history of past campaigns. One cardinal tactical principle is that you do not retreat from a position of strength. In this case, the democrats are volunteering to squander the hard-fought campaigns that brought so many of their number into elected office. It is also plain daft to pick a battle on grounds so unfavourable. While some battles need to be fought on territory picked by opponents, only the very foolhardy choose a battleground that so favours the enemy. Yet this idea achieves precisely this dubious result.
There is still time for the democrats to rethink this crazy plan and force opponents to put on hold their celebrations. Mass pressure can, and does, work in Hong Kong. That is why plans for oppressive anti-subversion laws were shelved. It is strange that the democrats refuse to learn the lessons of victory but seem intent on studying the textbooks for defeat. There is no shame in a rethink, especially when the alternatives are so dire.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur