Politics in flux

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 July, 2010, 12:00am

Crammed into an action-packed half-year of protests and by-elections were two important episodes that stood out because of their transformational potential: a rapprochement between Beijing and the Democratic Party, and the rise of a new amorphous political movement led by a younger generation. These turning points have created elements of unpredictability in Hong Kong politics.

Beijing and the Democratic Party began unofficial talks in private in March through intermediaries. The Democrats - as the leading member of the Alliance for Universal Suffrage, a group of moderate pan-democrats - had called for direct talks with Beijing to explore whether a compromise on the government's electoral package was possible. After the by-elections that were cast as a referendum on universal suffrage, which moderate democrats did not join, Beijing signalled it was ready for a face-to-face exchange.

On May 24, Li Gang, the deputy director of the central government's liaison office, met Democrats Albert Ho Chun-yan, Cheung Man-kwong and Emily Lau Wai-hing at its office. Under the intense media glare, both sides were under pressure to set aside long-standing mutual suspicions for real dialogue.

Events moved quickly after that breakthrough. At some stage early last month, Beijing must have decided that it could, or had to, do a deal with the Democrats in order to capture moderate democrats' votes. It accepted the party's proposal that the district councils in effect form a nominating committee to select candidates to stand for direct election to the five new district council functional seats for 2012.

On June 17, the Basic Law Committee's vice-chairwoman Elsie Leung Oi-sie signalled that Beijing had had a change of heart about the democrats' proposal. The pro-government camp was surprised by the turn of events but fell into line once Beijing had made up its mind. On June 21, the Executive Council endorsed it, and two days later the debate on the electoral package began with pro-democracy activists - many of them young - protesting outside the legislative chambers. By the weekend, the package was passed with a comfortable margin.

After the vote, the pro-democracy camp finally split into two factions - moderate and radical - a development that had been brewing for some time. Sharp words were exchanged both inside and outside the chambers. One Democrat resigned, and others may follow. If Beijing had set out to divide and rule, it has succeeded. But the sharp differences within the camp in fact reflect those among Hongkongers about how to deal with Beijing. There is no easy answer.

What is clear is the growing discontent with functional elections. It has spurred a group of young and independent activists, who are distrustful of politicians and the elites, to start a movement to seek the elimination of these seats.

These political interest groups are the result of deep political and socio-economic divisions within the community. Conflicts will appear in many areas of policy - such as land interest, property development, rural affairs, nature conservation, the environment, a minimum wage, competition, social welfare and good governance - because these issues can potentially expose the lack of fairness among the 'haves' and the 'have nots'.

The conflicts will pit the economic and political elites against a generation of socially conscious citizens who are comfortable with more aggressive forms of advocacy and action, although they don't all approve of the rough tactics of the League of Social Democrats.

Politicians and officials will come in for even more frequent ridicule, and politics will be less predictable. The new political landscape will be just as uncomfortable for those who are getting ready to jockey for the chief executive job in 2012. After all, the details for the electoral package still have to be worked out for the next election and there will be much to argue about.

Hong Kong will keep Beijing busy in the months to come.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange