Hong Kong pro-Beijing politicians rue their missed opportunity in political reform debate
Pro-Beijing politicians are left ruing their missed opportunity to put down their pan-democrat rivals as they look forward to coming Legco poll
Five minutes. That's how long it took for the pro-establishment camp's unity to crumble as its members messed up a Legislative Council walkout and descended into acrimony, pointing fingers at each other and fearing a reprimand from Beijing.
Having hoped to exploit a pan-democrat-led no vote for electoral gain, they now fear it is they who will be punished.
The final, farcical twist in the 20-month reform saga began to take shape at 12.27pm, when Legco's bell sounded, alerting lawmakers that they had five minutes to get to the chamber and vote on the government's package for the 2017 chief executive election.
As the bell rang, Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung left the chamber while talking on the phone to his Business and Professionals Alliance colleague Lau Wong-fat. The rural kingpin, whose loyal supporters provide a powerful voting bloc for the pro-establishment camp, was still en route and desperate to vote.
Lam then returned in the fourth minute of the five and rose to request a 15-minute suspension for "further discussion", a plea Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing refused.
With less than 30 seconds left, Lam and Ip Kwok-him stood up, with Ip ushering their fellow Beijing loyalists out. Most followed but, crucially, nine stayed behind - enough to ensure the legislature did not fall below its quorum, the minimum number of lawmakers who must be present for a vote.
Tsang, who like government officials present seemed caught by surprise, proceeded to the vote after prompting by pan-democrats.
Those who left did not realise the vote was about to take place. By the time Tsang announced the result - a crushing 28 votes against to eight in favour - it was too late. There was no going back.
So while pan-democrats rejoiced, Lam and the just-arrived Lau had little to say but sorry.
"Uncle Fat has been ill but he always wanted to come back and vote," Lam said. "We wanted to let him fulfil his wish ... But due to a communication gap, some of us didn't join the walkout. Let me say sorry."
Lau, 79, explained that he had been in Kowloon Tong in the morning, and got caught in traffic on the way to Legco in Admiralty.
Asked whether he had considered telling his colleagues to go ahead with the vote - which would have made no difference to the end result, as the proposal would not have achieved the required two-thirds majority - Lau gave a resounding "no".
Asked whether he feared a reprimand from Beijing, he said: "I've tried my best and I have no regrets."
Lau's vote alone may not matter much, but the thousands of villagers he leads are immensely important to the camp. The Heung Yee Kuk - which Lau chaired until handing over to his son recently - is highly efficient in organising villagers to split votes between slates in Legco elections, a crucial skill thanks to the quirks of the city's proportional representation system.
The eight government loyalists who stayed to vote yes - one member of the camp voted no - said they were given no notice of the walkout, or said they were confused.
Five of them were members of the business-friendly Liberal Party, whose chairman Felix Chung Kwok-pan said the walkout was "unwise".
The split brings back memories of 2008, when Lam, Lau and others quit the Liberals to form a group which later evolved into the alliance after a major defeat in the Legco election.
Those who joined the stunt put aside their differences long enough to sign a statement, which they are running in newspapers today, expressing "deep regret". But acrimony soon surfaced.
Wong Kwok-kin of the Federation of Trade Unions said the "very silly" mistake had "angered" Beijing. He blamed Ip and his Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong colleague Tam Yiu-chung, as well as Jeffrey Lam.
"[Ip and Tam] were very reckless. They should have stayed behind to make sure everybody got the message," Wong said.
Wong said the FTU would now have to answer to its supporters for failing to vote, and foresaw problems in November's district council elections and next year's Legco poll. That said, at least FTU lawmaker Chan Yuen-han voted yes - she was caught on camera looking aghast as her colleagues left the chamber.
New People's Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee agreed it was a "blunder" but stressed she was only following the DAB, which she regarded as the camp's "whip".
Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, said the fiasco would anger Beijing and inevitably affect the camp's electoral prospects.
"It has definitely disrupted their game plan as they had hoped to attack pan-democrats for blocking the reform package," he said. "But how could you run this blame game if you did not even cast your votes?"
Additional reporting by Stuart Lau
RUN-UP TO THE VOTE
12:27pm: Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing moves to put the reform package to a vote; bell rings to give five minutes' notice
12:28pm: Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung looks for kuk representative Lau Wong-fat to see if he is near the Legco complex
12:31pm: Lam asks Tsang to suspend the meeting for 15 minutes to allow "further deliberation"; Tsang turns down his request, citing Legco rules
12:32pm: Ip Kwok-him, convenor of the pro-establishment camp, leads most of its lawmakers out of the chamber
12:33pm: Pan-democrat Dennis Kwok prompts Tsang to press ahead with a vote as the five minutes are up; Tsang asks Legco clerks whether enough lawmakers are present for a vote
12:34pm: Tsang declares the reform package rejected