Expect more clues on 'bottom line' for electoral reform

All parties in the universal suffrage dispute will need to adjust their strategies after this month

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 5:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 5:17am

Is there any possibility of a consensus being reached on arrangements for universal suffrage? This is the question hanging on many people's lips as we start March.

According to the Chinese proverb, "Good planning in spring secures a smooth year ahead." This month will see two important annual meetings, known together in Chinese as the lianghui, convened in Beijing - the full session of the National People's Congress (NPC), and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC). They will set the tone and direction for the country's overall development in the coming year.

Recent years have seen the meetings cast a more attentive eye over Hong Kong, often setting the tone for Beijing's policies towards the city and turning the lianghui into an indicator for politicians to read the intentions of state leaders, who usually meet Hong Kong delegates at the sessions.

The 2017 poll arrangements will undoubtedly be at the top of the agenda this year. State leaders in charge of Hong Kong affairs - NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang and chairman of the CPPCC Yu Zhengsheng - are expected to reveal their bottom line on the issue in discussions with the Hong Kong delegation later this week.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will be at the lianghui and is expected to meet Zhang and other state leaders.

The meetings come after recent calls by President Xi Jinping for officials to bear in mind "bottom-line thinking" - an approach touted by Xi and seen as a call to avoid anything that would undermine the country's "core interests", sovereignty or security.

What then, is Beijing's "bottom line" on Hong Kong's electoral reform? Though officials have recently dropped hints, it is expected to be much clearer by the end of the month.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced that she would organise four breakfasts at government headquarters in Tamar later this month, during which lawmakers could meet with colleagues of Zhang Xiaoming , the director of the central government's liaison office. It came after pan-democrats declined an earlier invitation to meet Zhang at his office, worrying they would be seen as kowtowing to Beijing, since the building has become a symbolic place for protests.

The timing of the breakfast talks will be important because, by then, the lianghui will be over, and Beijing officials will have clearly set out their views.

They are expected to involve an official rejection of pan-democrats' key demands - nomination of chief executive candidates by the public and political parties - which have been criticised by mainland academics as contravening the Basic Law.

And prominent Basic Law expert Rao Geping will be in town in late March as the keynote speaker at a major seminar on the Basic Law, which will be seen by local politicians as another attempt by Beijing to elaborate on its "bottom line".

It will be crucial for pan-democrats to consider Xi's "bottom-line thinking" and what this entails in terms of Beijing's core interests, and then decide whether there is any room for compromise.

By the same token, Beijing may view civil disobedience campaign Occupy Central and the possibility of no deal at all being brokered on universal suffrage as its worst-case scenario in Hong Kong. And it may seek to figure out what concessions it can offer to avoid these scenarios.

A deal or no deal for 2017? The lianghui will make clearer the chances of success, and will mean a change of negotiation strategies for the parties concerned. Hopefully, for the sake of Hong Kong's future, sensible decisions will be made.