Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (centre). Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Pan-democrats should get themselves out of trouble - while they can

Lau Nai-keung says they have a weak hand against Beijing, and know it

Following the recent turn of the tide in public opinion against the pan-democrats, many dissident politicians have suddenly became dovish. Even the Civic Party, which previously blasted the Democratic Party for striking a secret deal with Beijing in 2010 that paved the way for the implementation of universal suffrage in 2017, has now publicly expressed its wish to meet central government officials in private. Can we trust these fickle politicians?

What dissidents really want to know at any such meeting, or at least get an official indication of, is Beijing's real feeling about their confrontational campaigns with regard to constitutional development, most notably Occupy Central.

Many people in this town purport to be unofficial spokespeople for the central government. But their assertions and predictions are often wide of the mark.

Many of our dissidents are beginning to panic because they are not in control

I am not one of those false prophets. In making their policy decisions on Hong Kong, our central leaders will take into account a lot more factors than most of us can imagine, not to mention a lot of information unavailable to most citizens. Sometimes, even the chief executive is informed of their decision at the last moment.

We might say there is no way the central government can be unaware of what is happening in Hong Kong, including the dissidents' manoeuvring. If that's the case, then all their fanfare will prove ineffective and they will surely be disappointed.

Yet there is no indication that Beijing is overly concerned about the dissidents' theatrics. Life goes on as usual both in Beijing, where top officials are busy preparing for the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee due to be held in November, and in the liaison office in Hong Kong. Indeed, it has been rather quiet during the summer holiday season and we haven't even seen Hong Kong delegations flocking to the capital to savour the mood there. Precisely because of this, our dissidents are left hanging, wondering what Beijing is up to.

Fortunately for them, this is perhaps the best scenario because there is still room for them to soften their stance and ask for a negotiated settlement, although it may already be too late. They will now have to concede a lot more to achieve this, as the stakes are getting high and they don't have too many cards to play.

The relaxed air might be an indication that the central government is quite confident that it is going to win anyway.

As I said, our central leaders know a lot that the dissidents don't. Such information asymmetry is always a decisive factor that determines the outcome of a contest.

For example, why did Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying suddenly turn hawkish during his two recent public forums and then fly off for a long holiday? As he is not the impulsive type, does he know something we don't?

If he is not quite confident of his grip on constitutional reform developments, why doesn't he concede to the demands of the dissidents and start consultations now? After all, he is widely perceived in Hong Kong as weak.

It is clear that many of our dissidents are beginning to panic because they are not in control of the situation and have been dragged into an unknown abyss by some radical elements in their camp. Apparently, most are not comfortable with violence and chaos - a quite probable outcome if they continue along the existing path.

My advice to them is to get out of trouble, and stay out, while it is still possible. The window is closing fast and if they don't move quickly enough, chances are they might end up being toasted, along with the radicals. They might be regarded as martyrs by their peers, but that's neither here nor there.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Pan-democrats must now play the get-out-of-jail card