Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Too late to ‘pocket first’ as Xi seeks to abolish term limits

Pan-dems ignored the advice of Shih Wing-ching on the 2015 reform package but now with events in Beijing they would be wise to pursue a different course

Prominent businessman Shih Wing-ching is usually credited with coining the phrase “pocket first’ in reference to accepting the restricted framework on universal suffrage imposed by Beijing. In the event, pan-democrats in the legislature voted down the government’s electoral reform package in 2015.

Shih didn’t know how prescient he was. And pan-dems and their diehard supporters still won’t admit how foolish they had been. But many people had already warned at the time that rejecting the reform package meant the end of the road for democratic development in Hong Kong for a long time to come.

This view turned out to be completely correct, but was wilfully ignored even by some very smart and informed pan-dems.

Now, it is undeniable. With plans to abolish term limits on the presidency, Xi Jinping is expected to stay in office beyond 2023.

“No outsider can know for sure what the latest constitutional change in China will mean,” wrote James Fallows of The Atlantic news magazine, one of the most fair-minded Western observers on China today. “Probably no one inside China can be sure, either.”

But we do know what it will mean for Hong Kong: the hard line taken by Beijing on Hong Kong will continue, and possibly even toughen. The city’s limited democratic system cannot be reformed any time soon. But at least we can aim to maintain the status quo and not give Beijing reasons to interfere.

This means reining in radical localism and any advocacy for self-determination, independence or secession. So far, pan-dems have failed spectacularly, having gone the opposite route by fanning the flames. Their fear, not unjustified, was they could not afford to alienate young voters and others well disposed towards those radicals.

But now they can, since localist radicals have effectively been banned from running in Legco elections. If protecting Hong Kong’s interests means teaming up with pro-establishment parties to isolate and contain radical localist groups, they may have to bite the bullet.

Pan-dems should have the courage to declare that whatever you call it, self-determination or independence is a dead-end agenda; worse, it’s wholly self-destructive for Hong Kong to pursue. After all, it is our constitutional duty under the Basic Law to maintain China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and to realise universal suffrage in Hong Kong. This way, we may yet earn back Beijing’s goodwill, and lay the groundwork for future political reform.