Don’t expect Beijing to heed public opinion in Hong Kong’s chief executive election

John Chan says no candidate for the post, however popular, can stand for election without the central government’s say-so, and the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 should have taught people that popular sentiment matters little

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 12:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 7:15pm

On May 16,1989, as over 200,000 students demonstrated in Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People, Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) met the visiting president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the meeting, Zhao revealed to Gorbachev what was considered a state and party secret, that although Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) had stepped down from the party’s Central Committee and the Politburo Standing Committee in 1987, he was still the de facto paramount leader as, “on important matters” Deng “still steers the way”.

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Zhao’s words, said in front of TV cameras, were seen as an attempt to shift the blame for the month-long mishandling of the students’ protests to Deng’s dictatorship. It seriously undermined the legitimacy of the ruling party.

Three days later, hardline premier Li Peng (李鵬) declared martial law and imposed a curfew in Beijing, prompting angry marches by over a million protesters both in Beijing and Hong Kong in late May, demanding the removal of Li.

As the events in Beijing unfolded, beginning with the death of former party general secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) in mid-April, there was a sudden mass political awakening among the people of Hong Kong. The crowds chanting for the removal of Li triggered a euphoria that led most people, and almost all local media, to believe in late May 1989 that, because of the overwhelming public opinion expressed, the ruling party in Beijing would soon follow the public will to force Li to step down.

However, what the spirited demonstrators in Beijing and Hong Kong did not know was that, the day after Zhao met Gorbachev, a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee headed by Deng was held at his residence in Beijing, where Zhao’s fate was sealed and the decision made to deploy troops to crush the demonstration.

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During the colonial era, Hong Kong people did not understand the way the party ran China. For a long time, we were accustomed to the Western way of thinking and so took for granted that, in any state, the ruling party must follow public opinion in decision making.

What happened in June 1989 in Beijing taught Hong Kong people that public opinion, regardless of how overwhelming it might be, had no bearing on decisions made by a one-party dictatorship.

During the colonial era, Hong Kong people did not understand the way the party ran China

In the run up to the 2017 chief executive election, many people in Hong Kong, especially the young, are like the marchers on the streets of Beijing and Hong Kong in 1989, who harboured the passionate but naive belief that even the most autocratic regimes have to take heed of public opinion.

What these passionate young men and women did not understand was that when events that have occurred or are about to occur touch on the core interests of the ruling party, or endanger its legitimacy, public opinion is the last point to consider. Lessons learnt from 1989 tell me that, in the 2017 election, people should not overestimate the power of public opinion and mistakenly believe that, in order to gain greater mass acceptance of the chief executive, Beijing would allow a race between more than one pro-establishment candidate.

The wisdom Beijing has from hindsight is that the competition between Leung Chun-ying and Henry Tang Ying-yen in 2012 was a mistake. The hotly contested race did not lead to greater public acceptance of the elected candidate, but caused an irreparable rift in the pro-establishment camp.

The competition between Leung Chun-ying and Henry Tang Ying-yen in 2012 was a mistake

Based on the generally held belief that Beijing is in complete control of the outcome of the chief executive election, it is hard to find justifiable reason, from Beijing’s own perspective, to allow another hotly contested but surely damaging competition between two pro-establishment candidates.

Given that the chief executive is elected by a small circle of 1,200 voters, whoever wins is doomed to be without a mandate and will quickly become unpopular. A competitive small-circle election will not alter that innate shortcoming, and Beijing knows that. Leung will have to wait for Beijing’s blessing to seek a second term, as, without such, the race will be an uphill battle for the unpopular incumbent. For other, more popular hopefuls from the pro-establishment camp, joining the race without Beijing’s blessing would surely be suicidal.

As far as Beijing is concerned, in reaching the decision on who will ultimately receive its blessing, public opinion has a low, if not non-existent, position in the list of considerations.

John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party