Is Hong Kong not ready for democracy? This is a rhetorical question frequently asked by democrats. We all know the answer, so let's not get struck on it. A more realistic question is, "Is Beijing ready for Hong Kong to become a democracy?" I know the typical unthinking answer from our usual hate-China suspects would be a resounding, "NO!"
But let's pause for a moment. The answer to Beijing's readiness or not is actually far from clear. I am not sure our top leaders have a clear answer at this moment. Basic Law Committee head Li Fei has only presented a framework, not a fixed position.
It has been Beijing's strategy to slow, but not to halt, democratic development in Hong Kong. It has insisted, until now, on controlling the composition and numbers of the election committee which alone has the voting right to choose the chief executive. Beijing is now ready to transfer that voting right to every eligible voter in Hong Kong. Think about what that means for an authoritarian dictatorship to do that.
That is universal suffrage by any definition. It is, however, not fair or "real" suffrage, in the rhetoric of many pan-democrats, because of the screening of candidates. That Beijing will still influence the background, numbers and composition - indeed the very existence of a nominating committee - means that such a full suffrage will fall short of international practices. It is, however, right out of the Basic Law. I don't deny the pan-democrats may win out yet. Bear in mind that sovereignty-obsessed Beijing was willing to grant considerable sovereignty-like powers to the two SARs, a subject I discussed previously. That could mean it could go all the way on democracy too. However, it is a no less valid position, held by many Hong Kong people but demonised by most pan-dems, that it is ok to accept a "broadly representative" nominating committee for 2017, with the proviso that it is not the endpoint, but a stepping stone, to full and FAIR democracy.
That would get the ball rolling on negotiations by focusing on the composition of the committee.
The all-or-nothing demand of many, but not all, pan-dems on public nomination is becoming a distraction; it may get us everything - or, more likely, nothing.