City Beat
PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 5:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 5:56am

Seize the day or miss the boat in dialogue with Beijing

Pan-democrats must welcome every window of opportunity to discuss universal suffrage

For Hongkongers, communication between Beijing and the pan-democratic camp is always warmly welcomed.

And so it was when the long-awaited talks between pan-democratic lawmakers and Beijing's top representative in the city - liaison office director Zhang Xiaoming - on universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive poll, started on Friday. They will continue this week.

However, the atmosphere this time seems to be very different from an ice-breaking Shanghai trip in April to which Beijing invited all lawmakers, including the pan-democrats.

Hongkongers were then full of expectations that the visit would enable further talks between the two sides to seek more common ground so as to work out a proposal for a more democratic 2017 election. As it turned out, quite the opposite happened.

This time, the pan-democrats have found cold water being poured on their meetings with Zhang. Would they be able to accomplish a fruitful outcome and persuade Beijing to adopt a softer stand? Or has the camp, after all its theatrics, missed the best time to bargain for genuine universal suffrage?

The framework for the 2017 arrangements is to be set out officially by the National People's Congress Standing Committee in the last week of this month. Theoretically, there is still a last-minute chance to get Beijing to compromise and agree to let pan-democrats run for the top job.

Was it not a compromise in 2010 when Beijing eventually - to the surprise of one and all - accepted a Democratic Party proposal that allowed more democratic elements in the Legislative Council election?

But in the current round of political reforms, recent signs suggest history might not repeat itself. Just ahead of news of Zhang's meetings, speculation quoting "authoritative Beijing sources" started to spread, saying the Standing Committee would decide to impose on chief executive hopefuls a strict 50 per cent threshold in the nominating committee in order to contest the poll.

Then came suggestions by Beijing-loyalist heavyweights that the Standing Committee should have reached a decision by now and is merely waiting to announce it, rather than still being open to change. And that the window of opportunity for pan-democrats to fight for more democracy had closed after the Shanghai trip, as Beijing would take months to finalise its stand.

Unfortunately, although the Democrats had lined up meetings with Zhang then, they shelved the talks after Beijing released its controversial white paper in June emphasising its total control over Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, a significant development on the mainland caught the eyes of many: the week before, the official Xinhua News Agency released a picture showing first lady Peng Liyuan at the summer resort of Beidaihe outside Beijing, chatting with local teenagers.

That was a strong hint that the annual Beidaihe summit of top leaders, including President Xi Jinping , had begun. One issue widely believed to top the agenda was preparation for the fourth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party.

The plenary is to focus on how to strengthen the rule of law and deepen reform amid Xi's anti-graft crusade.

The summit has apparently ended, as Xi was at the opening ceremony of Nanjing's Youth Olympic Games at the weekend, though official media do not report on these closed-door talks, such as whether top leaders have achieved a consensus on major issues. With Xi obviously having more pressing matters on his plate, various reports hint the NPC Standing Committee has finalised its decision on Hong Kong and that the 2017 issue is just one of several topics in its coming week-long meeting.

That is why Beijing loyalists such as Cheng Yiu-tong, an NPC delegate and honorary president of the Federation of Trade Unions, claim it is now too late to ask Beijing to change its mind.

But as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics. Is this "too late" claim merely a test from Beijing? Or does it really mean the golden opportunity to bargain for more has slipped by?

Doubtless, the public wants both sides to keep up the dialogue. All the lawmakers have been invited to Shenzhen on Thursday to meet top NPC officials. That might just be another window of opportunity.