Why the Hong Kong government is really reaching out to the pan-democrats

Sonny Lo says while Chief Secretary Carrie Lam’s overture to the pan-democrats is a commendable attempt to break the impasse in the legislature, it is also a calculated move, in view of the upcoming Legco election

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 March, 2016, 5:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 March, 2016, 5:29pm

The recent dialogue between Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and pan-democratic legislators in finding a consensus to prioritise bills on livelihood issues in the Legislative Council could be seen as a significant breakthrough in the lengthy executive-legislative impasse in the city.

The deadlock has been marked not only by the filibustering efforts of pan-democratic lawmakers over controversial bills, but also by the endless disputes in the Finance Committee over proposals for contentious projects, such the high-speed railway. While the government withdrew the copyright amendment bill in the face of ferocious opposition from the democrats, the Finance Committee rushed through the request for extra funding for the railway, to the anger of the democrats.

The atmosphere inside the legislature is far from conducive to political harmony in Hong Kong, where both society and the polity are arguably suffering from a post-Occupy legacy of ideological polarisation.

A softer, gentler Beijing shows its good grasp of what’s ailing Hong Kong

Some observers have attributed the government’s dialogue with the democrats to Beijing’s “new” softer policy that emphasises conciliation. This view ignores the fact that the central government has, since the end of the Occupy Central movement in December 2014, been leaving the SAR to tackle its internal matters, which have ranged from the decision to prosecute law-breakers in the Occupy movement to the actions dealing with the participants in the Mong Kok riot this year.

Certainly, central government officials have criticised the Occupy leaders for not fully recognising Beijing’s authority, and have labelled the instigators of the Mong Kok unrest “separatists”. This is understandable, since, from Beijing’s perspective, political change in Hong Kong should never come at the expense of stability.

Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong brands Mong Kok rioters ‘radical separatists inclined to terrorism’

Such criticism aside, however, Beijing officials and mainland experts on Hong Kong have shown restraint since the Occupy protests, choosing to comment on SAR matters more cautiously. This can be seen as Beijing’s attempt to counter the regional and international impression that it often intervenes in local matters.

The National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meetings in Beijing this month saw a continuation of this policy towards Hong Kong. As Premier Li Keqiang said, the central government feels positive about Hong Kong’s economic development. Hence, it has allowed the Hong Kong administration to deal with the executive-legislative impasse in its own way.

A concession of sorts from Hong Kong’s hardball leader CY Leung

The Hong Kong government’s move to extend an olive branch to democratic legislators can be seen as a necessary and pragmatic step, in view of the upcoming Legco election in September, which the establishment in Hong Kong fear could see more radicals come to power.

The dialogue with democratic legislators is insufficient to break the deadlock

After all, the New Territories East by-election last month saw the dramatic rise of localist candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei. The result was a warning: if the government were to keep up its obstinate position, pro-government forces would probably encounter tremendous voter pressure, risking their majority control in the chamber. Faced with the pan-democratic plan to try to capture half the elected seats in Legco – and, with it, the potential to paralyse government bills – the administration is under pressure to make conciliatory gestures to help the pro-establishment camp.

However, while very welcome, the dialogue with democratic legislators is probably insufficient to break the deadlock. The pro-establishment forces will also have to put forward representatives who can communicate with the pan-democratic camp in a more skilful and constructive manner. Over the past two years, both sides have been fragmented, without real leadership. Absent effective intermediaries, the result has been all too clear in the legislature.

In the final analysis, the government will need to revisit the composition of the Executive Council and the related principle of collective responsibility.

Starry Lee’s Exco resignation allows her to focus on Legco poll

The sudden resignation of DAB chairwoman Starry Lee Wai-king from the Executive Council, ostensibly to prepare her party for the Legco polls, in reality demonstrated that even the largest pro-government party is reluctant to shoulder the burden of collective responsibility for supporting unpopular government policies.

Appointing Ip Kwok-him, a veteran of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, to replace Lee won’t get to the root of the problem, either.

Ultimately, the government has two options. First, it could appoint to Exco representatives from all political parties who do not serve on Legco, so that political compromise could be better discussed, and decisions reached, at the top level.

The second option is to set up a new office, similar to the Office of the Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Council during colonial times, so Exco members could act as an effective bridge to discuss matters with elected legislators. More intermediaries are needed to break the executive-legislative impasse.

Clearly, however, maintaining a pro-establishment majority in the legislature has been the driving force behind the government’s conciliatory moves, rather than any change in Beijing’s policy towards Hong Kong.

Sonny Lo is head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education