After the 'referendum', the quest for dignity
As a referendum, the Legislative Council by-elections left a lot to be desired with their 17.1 per cent turnout - or about 580,000 voters. In the aftermath, both sides offered predictable interpretations of the event.
The administration and the pro-Beijing united front emphasised the low turnout, and hence the failure, of the 'de facto referendum'.
The turning point was Beijing's ordering the pro-establishment parties not to take part. According to Allen Lee Peng-fei, a former Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress, the central government's liaison office rang up former Liberal Party leader James Tien Pei-chun, and the Liberals immediately announced they would not participate. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong tried to persuade Beijing to let it have a go, which delayed its boycott declaration.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration gave its decision not to vote late on Friday night. That destroyed the executive branch's neutrality in organising legislative elections, compromising the spirit of the rule of law.
Even if the administration thought a legal loophole was being exploited in the resignations and re-elections of lawmakers, it still had to follow the law - organise the elections, carry out the usual publicity work to encourage people to vote, and so forth. Closing the loopholes could come later.
Voter turnout for Legco elections averages 46-55 per cent, less for by-elections. A further drop could be expected this time because of the boycotts - so a 24 per cent turnout might have been likely. It seems divisions in the pro-democracy movement led to the lower rate.
That was not satisfactory for a de facto referendum. But as a protest campaign, mobilising more than half a million people to say 'no' to the administration's political reform proposals was quite an achievement, given the efforts to discredit the vote. The next round of the contest will be the Legco vote on the political reform bill.
The pro-democracy movement's challenge now is to demonstrate a consensus on its fundamental position and baseline. Internal controversies will reduce its appeal, paving the way for victory by the pro-Beijing united front.
It remains uncertain whether Beijing intends to exploit any dialogue with moderate democrats to divide the pro-democracy movement, or to achieve a breakthrough in the democratisation process.
Premier Wen Jiabao recently acknowledged that the structural contradictions in Hong Kong involve political contradictions, which include progress towards democracy and political polarisation.
The pro-Beijing united-front strategy, no matter how sophisticated, cannot resolve the contradictions or eliminate the dissatisfaction and distrust within the community.
Wen wants the Chinese people to live with more dignity; the only approach is to let them enjoy the basic political rights they deserve.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong