Gain theories

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 April, 2010, 12:00am

The Hong Kong government's announcement of its new constitutional reform package last week will trigger a new flood of public opinion polls. In this 'war of the polls', each new survey will claim to represent the views of the people. Unfortunately, that will do little for the vote - expected before the end of the legislative year - that will determine whether we will move closer to our democratic aspirations or face yet another impasse.

The stakes are high. We need someone to come up with algorithms - or methods for solving problems - for some classic game theories being played out between Beijing and the political moderates in Hong Kong's pan-democratic camp. Three particular game theories are involved in this complex mix - Ultimatum Game, Prisoner's Dilemma and Tit for Tat.

It all began in Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's first term in office. The failed 2005 constitutional reform package was the result of the ultimate Ultimatum Game - devised by theorists to study how two players interact in deciding how to divide a sum of money given to them. The first player proposes a method of division and the second player can accept or reject it. If the second player accepts, the sum is split accordingly and both players walk away having gained. But if the second player rejects the proposal, both walk away with nothing. This is what happened in 2005: Beijing proposed and the pan-democrats rejected.

The problem with playing the Ultimatum Game is that it is only played once, while constitutional reform is not a single event - since the Basic Law calls for gradual and progressive development. Let's assume Beijing was trying to play 'nice' in 2007, when the National People's Congress Standing Committee ruled that Hong Kong could use universal suffrage to elect its chief executive in 2017 and the legislature in 2020. After all, it could have postponed it to 2047. In game theory, 'nice' can mean a 'Tit for Tat' approach - co-operating in the hope that the opponent will co-operate as well.

But before a new offer was even put on the table, one group broke off in an extreme manner, with the resignation of five pan-democrat lawmakers leading to next month's by-elections. That tactic may have created an equivalent retaliation from Beijing, revealed in the reform package the government released last week. When the chief secretary said the package was the 'best we can put forward', we knew it was Beijing's 'Tit' response to the referendum 'Tat'.

This leaves the moderates in the pan-democratic camp facing a curious twist of game theory known as the Prisoner's Dilemma, in which two 'prisoners' are asked to trust, or betray, each other. Now the moderates' dilemma comes down to whether or not to trust. They did not believe in the 'referendum' strategy. Now they must decide whether continuing to seek dialogue will create room for negotiation.

The pro-'referendum' faction somehow insists this is all a zero-sum game. But real life is not zero sum, and this is not a 'fun and games' exercise. What is at stake is Hong Kong's democratic - or arrested - development. Unless intermediate election arrangements are made, universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020 may not be 'beyond any doubt', as Standing Committee deputy secretary-general Qiao Xiaoyang assured us.

There must be trust, at least, in Beijing's willingness to work out some sort of deal. It knows that failure to do so will lead to a lose-lose-lose situation. Not moving forward would inflame negative sentiments towards Beijing, damage Beijing's relationship with Hongkongers and cripple the Hong Kong government. At stake are Beijing's 'harmony' and our democracy.

Here we are, on the final stretch: whether we will gain our universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020 - or at some later time - comes down to the vote on the reform package. Our best prospects lie with co-operative efforts. Those game theorist algorithms are desperately needed now, so that the government can get the final negotiations rolling before it is too late.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA