Compromise by CY Leung could avert Occupy Central threat

Mike Rowse says shift to middle by CY might wrong-foot pan-democrats

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 11:40am

The proposed Occupy Central demonstration is over a year away and many things are scheduled to happen before it kicks off. But already it constitutes a clear and present danger both for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the pan-democrats, although the latter seem not to recognise the fact yet.

First a quick recap. Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, of the University of Hong Kong, has called for 10,000 people to blockade Central District in July next year to put pressure on the administration - and, by extension, Beijing - to move ahead with universal suffrage. The constituent parties of the pan-democratic movement are one by one coming out in support of the idea.

First to face the music will be the chief executive. Whether he reverts to the traditional practice of delivering the policy address in October this year or stays with the January date to be closer to the 2014 budget, he will have to give an outline of his thinking on reform of the system for electing the Legislative Council in 2016.

Such a timetable will allow for a thorough public debate in 2014, and for the necessary legislation to be enacted in 2015.

Partly overlapping with this process will be a need for the government to also set out its thinking - no later than 2015 - on how to elect the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017. Those arrangements will also have to be approved by Legco as presently constituted.

It would be expecting too much to ask the newly elected legislature in 2016 to rush through the necessary amendments in the first few weeks of its term.

In his election manifesto, Leung promised to reform the functional constituency election arrangements for 2016. That is certainly a necessary step but, by itself, it is insufficient. There must also be a modest but decisive shift in the balance between directly elected seats and functional constituencies, in favour of the former.

If there is not, then I fear the numbers occupying Central will swell to at least 10 times the target, if not more. Hong Kong will come to a standstill.

Public anger at the timidity of the proposals for Legco will render irrelevant whatever is proposed for the chief executive election in 2017, which will have its own sticking points anyway.

But let us look at another scenario, the one where Leung explains to Beijing that what he promised in his manifesto about the 2016 Legco election is not enough and he is going to have to go a bit further if he is to keep a lid on local sentiments. By moving to occupy the middle ground on Legco, he is more likely to win broad support from the public and also gain a fairer hearing for his proposals for the 2017 chief executive election. That will, in turn, put the onus on the pan-democrats to respond in a measured way to the whole package.

For there is another game in play here. Whatever screening mechanism is put in place for the chief executive election - and there is bound to be one - it is not going to prevent a candidate acceptable to the democratic camp getting on the ballot. The question is whether that candidate can beat the pro-establishment favourite.

The Hong Kong electorate has shown that it is very sophisticated and knowledgeable, and well able to pursue its best interests.

There is no way voters are going to elect someone unpatriotic who simply obstructs everything. Or who overreacts to a reasonable reform package by bringing the central business district to a halt.

How ironic it would be to win the fight for a democratic election, and then to lose the contest itself. In other words, the chief executive election will be a race for the middle ground. Who will be first to occupy the political centre, not Central.

You were nearly right, Professor Tai.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.