The chief executive election Hong Kong could have had

David Zweig considers what might have been under a rejected electoral reform plan, on the eve of the vote for Hong Kong’s next leader

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 10:42am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 7:16pm

As we look towards the rather bland, preordained chief executive election this Sunday in Hong Kong, let’s think about the election we could be having. Had the pan-democratic camp accepted Beijing’s constrained electoral system set out on August 31, 2014, this election would have been far more competitive, popular attention much stronger, the candidates’ links to the citizenry much closer, the extent of democracy deeper, and the potential impact for Hong Kong and China so much greater.

Beijing did not offer us true democracy, as a nomination committee with a 50 per cent threshold would have prevented any pan-democrat from joining the territory-wide chief executive election. Under what at best could be called “Iranian-style democracy”, a coterie of appointed “mullahs” would have determined the candidates before allowing all the people to vote. But in Iran, the people have elected moderate clerics, greatly influencing Iran’s politics.

In Iran, the people have elected moderate clerics, greatly influencing Iran’s politics

To envision what Sunday’s election could have looked like, imagine two tents. One tent holds Hongkongers who favour greater democracy. They comprise 60 per cent of Hong Kong people who have consistently voted for pan-democratic candidates in the geographical constituencies. A smaller tent holds 30 per cent of the population who regularly back pro-government and pro-Beijing candidates. Another 10 per cent remain undecided which tent they prefer. Interestingly, mainland observers of Hong Kong society with whom I have talked recognise this 60-40 split within the Hong Kong electorate.

What pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong opposed is that under the August 31 mechanism, the two or three candidates running for chief executive on Sunday would have been drawn only from among politicians within the smaller, pro-government, pro-Beijing tent, while the 60 per cent of the citizenry within the democratic tent would have had no one representing their interests in the race.

But who would be the constituencies under the two electoral scenarios? Under the current system, candidates play to the 1,200 members of the Election Committee. Hong Kong people have some impact, as John Tsang Chun-wah insists he is the candidate of the people. But the truth is, the people don’t vote. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, his rival, knows that her bread is buttered in Beijing and in the pro-government camp, and that short of a political tsunami, she will hold Hong Kong’s highest office soon.

Mainland sources say Beijing will keep political reform off the agenda over the next five years and, should it re-emerge after 2022, it will be less ‘generous’ than the August 31 proposal

Under the August 31 scenario, candidates would have to play to two constituencies: the 30 per cent who favour the government and Beijing, and the 60 per cent who favour further democratisation. Candidates would have to be careful to maintain support from people in the pro-government, pro-Beijing tent, as no one would want to surrender 30 per cent of the vote to their opponent.

Then the winning strategy would have been to take a more moderate political position and propose policies attractive to members in the pro-democracy tent, for whoever got the majority in that tent would be the next leader. The run-up to the election would have been exciting, unpredictable and, as with any democratic vote, candidates would present competing views on policies. In Hong Kong, those would include policies on housing, pensions, education, and innovative ways to spend an excessive government surplus. Even political reform might have made it onto the agenda, something Lam under the current electoral format need not discuss.

For many in Hong Kong, Beijing’s pace of political reform, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland, is painfully slow, suggesting that China’s ruling class is uninterested in democracy. Xi Jinping (習近平) has, in fact, reversed gears on political reform in China.

So why did the pan-democrats ever think that, after they voted down the August 31 proposal, Beijing would come forth with a better plan? This was a position they frequently articulated. But today, mainland sources say Beijing will keep political reform off the agenda over the next five years and, should it re-emerge after the 2022 chief executive election, it will be less “generous” than the August 31 proposal.

Has Beijing changed its mind about giving Hong Kong people the vote?

Beijing sees democratisation as dangerous and potentially destabilising; they look at the Arab spring, the civil war in Syria and Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, or political opening. In their eyes, an unstable democratic transition could undermine 40 years of economic growth and end China’s aspiration (Xi’s “China Dream”) of re-emerging as a great power. They prefer to move cautiously. Reforms in China have always been tested through local experiments – think of the special economic zones – so if they fail, damage to stability is manageable.

What better way, then, to experiment with democracy than to test it in Hong Kong under controlled conditions? Perhaps a successful election on Sunday, in line with the August 31 proposal, might have encouraged democratic experiments on the mainland. Then again, maybe not. But imagine if in every city in China, two local Communist Party leaders competed for the mayoralty and all citizens in the city were allowed to vote. That would be progress.

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Working against Lam could backfire for pan-dems

Accepting the August 31 proposal would have been difficult. Beijing gave no assurances that if the pan-democrats took the deal, and the election went smoothly, more political reform would be forthcoming. Pan-democrats argue that had they accepted the deal, their political base would have pilloried them and Hong Kong voters would have punished them in the September 2016 Legislative Council election. Some feared riots by Hong Kong’s youth. Instead, after rejecting Beijing’s proffered political reform, the anti-establishment camp did remarkably well in the Legco election, convincing the pan-democrats even today that rejecting the August 31 reform package had been wise.

Still, had they accepted the deal, Sunday’s election would look very different, both in its influence on government policy in Hong Kong over the next five years and in its potential impact on the future of democratisation in China.

David Zweig is chair professor in the Division of Social Sciences and director of the Centre on China’s Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology