Picking sides in the battle for reform
CY Leung's support for anti-Occupy campaign is necessary even if it invites controversy
What was the message Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was sending when he and his aides signed an anti-Occupy Central petition last week?
"I oppose using illegal means to achieve any goals on political reform," Leung said as he announced his support - in his personal capacity - for the campaign by the Alliance for Peace and Democracy.
His move was backed by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor - who is in charge of the reform consultation for the 2017 chief executive election - and dozens of other political appointees.
The only official who made it clear he would not sign the petition was Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, because he has to remain impartial in dealing with the possible prosecution of participants in the civil disobedience campaign.
The Code for Officials under the Political Appointment System stipulates that appointees "shall not sign or procure signatures to any public petition against the actions or proposals of the government".
Leung explained that the anti-Occupy petition was not against the government, but added that he would not pressure his colleagues into signing it as they were entitled to the freedom to express their opinions as long as their actions did not violate the code.
Pan-democrats, however, are concerned that Leung's move could put pressure on civil servants, who are supposed to be politically neutral.
Leung should know his government needs the cooperation of the civil servants; unnecessary political pressure on them could spell political suicide for the chief executive.
When elected for the top job in 2012, he had expressed his appreciation for precisely this neutrality, saying he did not think it fair to put the burden of political duties on the shoulders of the city's civil servants.
We may need to trust the merits of this fine tradition and the integrity of our civil servants.
Leung's overt support for the anti-Occupy campaign shows that the government has sided with one public opinion over another.
Former top government adviser Professor Lau Siu-kai pointed out that the more than 700,000 people who favoured public nomination - which Beijing rejects - in the Occupy Central campaign's unofficial referendum in June, could turn pan-democrats more radical.
The only chance to break the deadlock is for Beijing and the Hong Kong government to assert pressure on the moderate pan-democrats by building up stronger public opinion against any reform that would violate the Basic Law, he said.
So while the Occupy organisers are referring to the 700,000 votes as the "public mandate", the anti-Occupy campaign is aimed at building up an opposing public opinion.
Lau - who is now deputy director of Beijing think tank the Institute of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs - believes that the government's electoral reform proposal tabled to the Legislative Council will be "conservative".
How the government can lobby pan-democrats to support its proposal depends on how loud and clear moderate public opinions are, he said.
There are those who worry that the two opposing sides in the debate could set the city on fire politically. People are now joking that Hongkongers should not touch on politics over the dining table or one might just lose a good friend.
Yet mobilising public support seems to be the only thing the government can do at this point.