Beijing's vote framework offers chance for pan-dems to prise open the system

William Case says a more democratic election has to be better than the alternative of no change

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 1:35pm

Like others, I first greeted Beijing's framework for Hong Kong's universal suffrage with abhorrence. And I applauded the pan-democrats for refusing even to consider it. No reform is better than bad reform. And this one seemed especially bad.

For example, the framework's logic resembles a loathsome royalist ideology in Thailand, wherein subjects are required to "know their place, low and high". Only then, after accepting a steep and intricate social hierarchy of sakdina, can ordinary Thais be trusted to vote. Under "Thai-style democracy", they must reliably elect "good people", those whose karma and merit please the monarchy and the military.

Similarly, under Beijing-style universal suffrage, ordinary Hongkongers must pragmatically avoid "wrong candidates", those whose insolence vexes Beijing officials and local oligarchs.

By rejecting this framework for Hong Kong, pan-democrats claim to do more than vent their indignation. By permitting the existing mechanism to reprise in 2017, they hope to sabotage it. Again, an Election Committee would produce a chief executive whose acceptance in Beijing and on the Peak varies inversely with his or her illegitimacy at the grass roots. And given the multiplier effects across consecutive disappointments, the chief executive's assumption of office would heighten public contempt, therein deepening the wellspring for democratic change.

But here, the pan-democrats err. Echoing the Umbrella Movement, they envision that if only pressure can be made sufficiently intense, Beijing will return with a sweeter deal. But of course, Beijing will not. Rather, it will wash its hands of reform, declaring that it has met its Basic Law obligations. And in the face of any resurgent pressures, Beijing will only reply with yet greater muscularity. Indeed, as democratisation theorists have long known, Hong Kong cannot become a democracy until China does - which could, of course, be never.

Accordingly, some of these theorists are amazed that the National People's Congress Standing Committee has made even the offer that it has. Let us imagine, then, what in these conditions an election for chief executive might look like. The new nominating committee, though composed of the same entitled figures who operated last in the Election Committee, would face graver uncertainty. They could be counted on, of course, to select their candidates in accord with stingy self-interest. But their control over the next step in the process would not be so airtight.

To be sure, the few candidates who surfaced would themselves be oligarchs. And when seeking the nominating committee's support, they would have hewed to blandly conservative platforms. But in afterwards facing far more variegated social constituencies, then striving to forge a majority, they would be driven to compete by differentiating their appeals. Outbidding strategies, spiralling concessions, mounting ill-will between candidates, emboldened electorates - who knows what might happen next on the field.

Indeed, this is why the real hardliners - in Beijing and on the Peak - think Deng Xiaoping was mistaken when agreeing to any kind of universal suffrage for Hong Kong. They remain hopeful, then, that the framework will be rejected by the Legislative Council - in itself a powerful reason for pan-democrats to seize it.

What if no meaningful differences between candidates did appear, leaving them to slug it out over, say, the dimensions of their respective illegal structures? Voters would still be able to boldly register their displeasure. They could begin by spoiling their ballots, as citizens once did in Suharto's Indonesia. And were their discontents greater, they could go further, boycotting the election in large numbers, therein so spotlighting disparities between eligibility and turnout that they might embarrass the nominating committee over its clumsy functioning.

Indeed, far more than under the current system, citizens could deny legitimacy to an unpalatable chief executive, a potent form of participation.

But whatever the virtues of the NPC's framework, pan-democrats are hesitant to revisit it, not wishing to diminish the legacies of earlier activists. But their posture, though principled, is pointless in its defiance, ill-fated and, worse, uncreative. Even more, with recent surveys suggesting that a majority of Hongkongers prefer the framework, pan-democrats may themselves be acting undemocratically - except in the most Burkean of interpretations wherein as trustees, they claim a free hand, sniffing imperiously that they know best.

Most Hongkongers want the framework. Hardlining Beijing officials and local oligarchs do not. Pan-democrats should seize it to prise the system open, even if just a crack. We know what will happen if they refuse: very little. We don't know what might follow if they do, except this: the most democratic place in all of China will become more democratic still.

William Case is a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong