A clever diversion to take the heat off the real debate?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am

The political show of the century, as the debate between Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Audrey Eu Yuet-mee has been dubbed, made three things clear.

The chief executive wasn't trying to change Eu's mind when he invited her to spar with him. Indeed, it would be fair to say that it was never his intention; and he certainly didn't hide the fact.

Instead, he picked the Civic Party leader precisely for her inability to be swayed. After it, it would have been politically impossible for her to do an about-turn, since she was the one who took the League of Social Democrats' 'de facto referendum' ball and ran with it. Tsang wanted to present his own case: Hong Kong's political reality.

Did he 'win'? Let us indulge ourselves in the notion that the debate - and, in essence, the issue of the debate, Hong Kong's democratic development - was nothing but a soccer match, like any of the ones we are currently watching at the World Cup in South Africa.

In this case, no, he didn't 'win'. Eu's performance was absolutely deserving of a standing ovation. Her plea to hold out rather than give it up for the wrong guy was as slick as those new soccer balls that some of the World Cup teams have been complaining about. And so if we view the debate as simply a game, Eu was so good, she should, rightfully, get the trophy. Her fans camped out in Chater Garden would be the first to concur.

But if we look past the theatrics and the substance of what was discussed - and more tellingly, the issues both evaded - then we get a very different story.

Tsang tried to explain, without explicitly saying it, that this was the best plan for which he was able to get Beijing's blessing. When pressed on why he didn't propose a better reform package, he fell short of saying: 'Because it would not have been endorsed.'

We may not like hearing it, but in Hong Kong's 'one country, two systems' political reality, it takes three to tango.

Similarly, when pressed on the 17 per cent voter turnout rate in the by-elections, Eu evaded the question - and she did so beautifully. The reality is that when she ran with it, some people - a portion of the 17 per cent - believed that it would get us somewhere. And when it didn't, there was no going back. Any U-turn for Eu would have meant political suicide.

Tsang should have pressed his opponent harder on the question of how she would go about abolishing the functional constituencies - and get Beijing's blessing, as well as the 40 votes needed for support from the current legislature.

The reality is that Beijing has the final say; the question was never whether we wanted to invite the central government to the party. The reality may be hard to swallow for some but life tells us that those who work with and around the central government - as opposed to resisting it and hoping that, one day, it will go away - will gain more ground. So the longer we 'hold out', the longer we will struggle.

Middle-of-the-road arrangements will give us the leverage and reason to bargain for more for 2017 and 2020. Whether the next legislature can do that will depend on how our next batch of lawmakers and the next chief executive get themselves into a seat at the negotiating table with Beijing.

Tsang does not have a crystal ball to tell us who will lead the next administration, or who our next 70 lawmakers will be and their likely game plan.

I'm beginning to believe that the main purpose of the debate was to facilitate the 11th-hour talks between the moderate democrats and the central government. And it seems that this is a safer bet, judging by the significant implication of the U-turn by former secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie - now vice-chairwoman of the Basic Law Committee - who said on Thursday that the democrats' alternative was 'worth supporting'.

By taking the limelight and attention away from the negotiations, the debate may just be serving a larger purpose. (History shows that the important discussions are almost always carried out behind closed doors with a lot of unusual players acting as messengers between the parties.)

Articulation is not our chief executive's strongest suit and the connection between the democrats and Beijing may be the 'apples of gold' Tsang once wrote about.

Skirting around the non-negotiable issues to facilitate real negotiations - if that is the case - may secure Tsang a nice spot in Hong Kong's history of political strategy.

If Tsang, Beijing and the moderate democrats can pull it off, Hong Kong will not only make progress but will begin to see a new relationship with the central government - one that makes the city's leaders seem less like backseat drivers.

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