Loyalty’s not enough: Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing parties will gain from elections overhaul, but can expect new pressure to perform
- Even established parties risk having influence undercut by Beijing loyalists after revamp
- Reshaping of Legco could see pro-Beijing parties slugging it out for reduced number of seats
China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, on Thursday formally approved the biggest shake-up of Hong Kong’s electoral system since the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The revamp will mean big changes for both the opposition and Beijing-loyalist camps. In the first of a two-part special, the Post looks at what lies in store for the pro-establishment bloc.
Mainland scholars of Hong Kong affairs have urged the pro-establishment camp to raise its game, warning that expressing loyalty to Beijing will not be sufficient to ensure survival in the new political landscape.
Li Xiaobing, a Hong Kong specialist and law professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, did not mince words when he said that some in the pro-establishment camp had simply been lazy.
“They have been relying too heavily on the central government,” he said.
He added that once Beijing overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system and removed the risk of the opposition winning a majority in the Legislative Council and the Election Committee which chooses the chief executive, it should shake up the pro-establishment camp.
“It’s unavoidable that there are some incompetent people in the pro-establishment camp who only chant patriotic slogans,” he said. “The central government must build a mechanism within the camp to ensure competent people climb the political ladder, while those who are mediocre give way to more capable people.”
In earlier comments, Tien Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s law school in Beijing, said the central government wanted to see Hong Kong run by “competent patriots”, not “loyal trash” or rubber stamps.
Pinpointing qualities these patriots should possess, Wen Wei Po, the leading pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, said in a splash report on Wednesday that they must have political judgment, the ability to look at the big picture and an understanding of public sentiment as well.
The principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” was set out two weeks ago by Xia Baolong, Beijing’s top official overseeing the city’s affairs. The director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office declared that the city’s administrative, legislative and judicial branches, as well as its key statutory bodies, must be led by “true patriots”.
The term has come up frequently since, underlining the seriousness with which Beijing is proceeding to ensure the right people are in charge of the city’s Legislative Council and powerful Election Committee.
Former Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, founding chairman of the city’s largest pro-establishment political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), agreed the camp would have to prove its mettle after the looming overhaul.
“There is no shortage of political talent in Hong Kong, and I don’t think such talented people only join the opposition camp,” he said.
During a visit to Beijing by DAB officials in 2006, then vice-president Zeng Qinghong urged the party to work towards improving its quality as well as its image.
Despite the strides it believes it has made, the party has found it a challenge to balance supporting the government with fighting for Hongkongers’ rights.
‘New pro-Beijing groups will rise’
Beijing plans to strengthen the Election Committee by giving it power to nominate all election candidates and send some of its own members to the Legco.
The new voters will come from among the city’s delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and Hong Kong members of mainland groups. That will create five sectors of voters in the committee.
The Post has previously reported that 117 seats expected to go to opposition district councillors will also be scrapped.
Wang Chen, vice-chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, said last week that Election Committee members should make up “a relatively large proportion” of Legco, which would also be expanded from 70 to 90 seats. He did not specify how many seats should go to committee members.
Sources told the Post that Beijing intended to scrap five seats in the Legco’s functional and geographical constituencies, respectively, reducing the two groups to 30 each. The Election Committee will then elect 30 lawmakers from within its own ranks to make up a new sector within the Legco.
But a local media outlet cited sources saying the Election Committee would become the strongest force in the revamped Legco, getting 40 seats. That would see functional constituency seats reduced to 30 and geographical constituency seats slashed to just 20.
The committee making up “a relatively large proportion” of the legislature was not mentioned in the resolution endorsed by the NPC on Thursday.
Observers see the writing on the wall for Hong Kong pro-establishment parties that rely on grass-roots support if these changes come to pass.
Ray Yep Kin-man, a political scientist at City University, said their influence would shrink, with their clout undercut by newly established pro-Beijing groups that send lawmakers to the Legco via the Election Committee.
Some expect Beijing to use the Bauhinia Party, founded in Hong Kong last year by three mainland-born businessmen, to replace poorly performing members of the pro-establishment camp.
Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University, said: “In the long run, the bargaining power of pro-establishment parties with strong election machinery will gradually decline as new pro-Beijing groups founded by pro-Beijing elite rise.”
Smaller parties more pessimistic
DAB deputy secretary general Kin Hung Kam-in expected competition between pro-establishment groups in geographical constituencies to intensify with fewer Legco seats to contest.
“Our challenge will be to differentiate ourselves from other pro-establishment parties in elections,” he said. “We will have to convince voters to back our candidates when all pro-establishment groups are patriots.”
Disagreeing that the impending overhaul would hurt the DAB, Jasper Tsang said: “The number of seats at Legco will be increased to 90, and the DAB is capable of winning seats through channels other than geographical constituencies.
“Even if the number of directly elected seats is reduced to 20, the DAB will be able to win most of them.”
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, chairman of the pro-establishment New People’s Party and a member of city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s de facto cabinet, also disagreed that the room for pro-establishment parties would shrink if there were fewer directly elected Legco seats.
“There will still be intense competition within the pro-establishment camp to select the best candidate to run for the reduced number of seats,” she said.
Smaller pro-establishment parties, however, were less upbeat about their prospects.
Pessimistic about the future of politics in Hong Kong, a veteran member of a small pro-establishment party said: “When lawmakers turn out to be just another group of Beijing loyalists without demonstrating their role of supervising the administration, those with political vision will no longer take part in the game.”
He recalled that the liberalisation of elections before Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 encouraged many businessmen and professionals, including him, to take part in public affairs. He said he expected the scene would be very different in future.
“Hong Kong will go back to the days when people mainly focus on economic and livelihood issues,” he said.
James Tien Pei-chun, honorary chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party, expects political parties to devote fewer resources to district matters when the number of directly elected Legco seats is reduced.
“It will be more fruitful for parties to spend more effort planning strategies to win seats in the Election Committee, as it will be given sweeping political power,” he said.
He added that the revamp of the electoral system could result in professionals trusted by Beijing, like the financiers in the new Bauhinia Party, to be selected for Legco seats set aside for the Election Committee.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of semi-official Beijing think tank the China Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, expected pro-establishment candidates running in geographical constituencies to shift their focus to district-based issues, unlike in the past when they debated wider topics, such as constitutional issues, with the opposition.
“Constrained competition”, he said, would be inevitable within the pro-establishment camp after the overhaul of the electoral system.
“Infighting within the camp is normal and has always been the case.”
Additional reporting by Chris Lau