Pan-democrats should engage with Beijing to stay relevant

Regina Ip says party members who fully participated in the discussions with Beijing officials in Shanghai understand that they can only reach their goals by negotiating

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 April, 2014, 5:19am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 April, 2014, 5:19am

Hong Kong's long march to democracy reached an important milestone during the weekend of April 12 when 52 legislators, including 10 from the pan-democratic camp, went to Shanghai for a "study trip", the highlight of which was a widely anticipated meeting between Beijing officials and the pan-democrats, hopefully the first step that would lead to a deal on the method for electing the chief executive in 2017.

Such ice-breaking meetings have become indispensable in the process that would hopefully move Hong Kong towards election by universal suffrage. As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong is allowed to choose its chief executive by universal suffrage, but its Basic Law decrees that any revision to its existing arrangements for electing the chief executive by a 1,200-strong committee can only be made subject to endorsement by the legislature by a two-thirds majority, the consent of the chief executive and approval by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China.

A two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council means the government's constitutional reform package needs 47 votes to pass. As Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing has pledged not to vote on any motions to preserve his "political neutrality", the government needs five votes from the pan-democrat camp for its motions to win Legco's endorsement. Thus, although the pan-democrats might appear to be pitched against Beijing as David was against Goliath, they hold a strong, almost decisive, hand in the negotiations.

In a worst-case scenario, both Beijing and the pan-democrats could stand pat, each holding unshakably to their doctrinaire positions, thus torpedoing Hong Kong people's chance to elect their chief by universal suffrage in 2017.

How the two sides, apparently continents apart, could be brought to a mutually acceptable agreement would be an exercise that would test each side's ability to take control of the environment. In other words, a test of not just the strength but also the wit and strategy adopted by both.

In the past year, various factions within the pan-democrat camp have tried, with little success, different tactics, including a continuing threat to "Occupy Central" to coerce Beijing into yielding; garnering international opinion expressed by renowned scholars as a proxy for foreign state intervention; plans to conduct electronic polls and even a hunger strike that ended with a whimper.

The positions taken by leaders of the various parties within the pan-democratic spectrum on the Shanghai visit provide ample fodder for analysis and object lessons for other politicians.

Emily Lau Wai-hing, chairwoman of the Democratic Party, the oldest and largest political party in the pan-democrat camp, ruled herself out of the visit from the outset, on the grounds that Beijing would not issue her with an unrestricted home visit permit. Thanks to such an intransigent position, Lau lost her voice at the Shanghai meeting and a golden opportunity to take centre stage and show her party's leadership in the quest for a deal.

By contrast, legislator "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung adopted the simplest and most media-savvy tactic of making sure that he would be expelled on arrival (by attempting to import prohibited June 4-related publicity materials). By such actions, he spared himself a tough negotiation but gained prime-time media exposure for at least 12 hours.

The Civic Party proved to be the most problematic by virtue of the four different positions adopted by its legislators, with Claudia Mo Man-ching vowing to boycott the visit right from the start; Alan Leong Kah-kit bowing out just before departure on some lame excuse related to Long Hair's expulsion; Kwok Ka-ki and Dennis Kwok abstaining from day one of the visit to distribute democracy fliers at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and a café; and Ronny Tong Ka-wah refraining from any such antics and participating in all sessions of the programme.

All actors in this drama made full use of the symbolism of the exchange of gifts to press home their positions. Sin Chung-kai of the Democratic Party presented to Wang Guangya , head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, a lengthy but uninspiring "hunger strike" manifesto that drew little attention. Kwok Ka-ki presented a scroll inscribed with "civic nomination", which Wang promptly folded up, while Frederick Fung Kin-kee presented a mock Basic Law booklet showing the "three paths to nomination", which Wang derided as fake and reciprocated with an official, authentic version of the Basic Law. The pan-democrats failed to score any points off the Beijing officials.

Only the Beijing officials and the 10 pan-democrats who took part in the private meeting and others privy to the discussions could judge the extent of the progress made. But it is significant that several pan-democrat legislators remained doggedly engaged and, on their return, pledged to continue to do so, braving accusations of selling democracy short. In such a game with the ultimate goal of winning not just Legco's votes but also hearts and minds, non-engagement is likely to prove to be the surest formula for failure and self-destruction.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party