Thursday, 18 June 2015

In Hong Kong: a bizarre end to Beijing's electoral reform program

As has been pretty much inevitable since Beijing's decision to offer what amounts to something only vaguely resembling democratic elections under universal suffrage, opposition parties in Hong Kong voted down Beijing's proposed reform package today. This was not a surprise as the proposal of government selection of 2-3 candidates for Chief Executive (CE) who would then be voted for in a popular election as a replacement for the current system of direct government selection of the CE, which at least allowed opposition parties to nominate a candidate for the post if not win, was almost tailor-made to be rejected by Hong Kong's pro-Democracy camp.

What was not expected was that the majority of votes cast in the Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) would be against Beijing's proposals, with the proposal being defeated by 28 votes to 8. Since the pro-Beijing camp is guaranteed a majority in the LegCo as only half of the LegCo's 70 seats are elected through universal suffrage, with the other half being selected by so-called "functional constituencies" (i.e., selected by businesses, trade unions, universities etc.) over which Beijing has powerful influence, this was a surprise.

The expected result was that Beijing's proposals would just barely miss the 2/3rds majority of all votes (i.e., 47 votes) required for them to pass. If there was any hesitancy about the result, it was the idea  that there might be last-minute defections from the pro-Democracy camp which would allow it to pass. However, rather than voting for the package, the majority of the pro-Beijing legislators staged a walk out supposedly because one of their legislators still hadn't arrived.

The end result is that just enough votes were cast (36 or 37 depending on sources*) for the vote to be quorate (35 votes are required), with the majority of pro-Beijing legislators spared from actually ever having voted for the package. It is hard to think that this wasn't by design, but what purpose it might achieve is a total mystery. Whilst much of the campaigning by the pro-Beijing side in favour of the government's proposals seems to have been half-hearted (giving a thumbs-up from the top of an open-top bus seems to have the limit of the amount of effort a lot of pro-Beijing politicians were willing to make) casting a vote for the package would hardly have been a stretch. Whatever ignominy might be involved in voting for a defeated package, it can hardly be as bad as turning up and then refusing to vote for the package that you supposedly support.

Zooming out, this means that (for the first time ever?) a Beijing-proposed package of policies has been defeated by a vote in an (at least partly) democratically-elected chamber. Even the Article 23 security laws were never actually put to a final vote, and whilst a previously-proposed expansion of the electoral committee was voted down, this wasn't directly proposed and championed by Beijing. Depending on whose polling you believe the result may also reflect the opinion of the majority of Hong Kong people.

The government's reaction so far has also been somewhat odd. We are told that the NPC's "decision" on the Hong Kong voting system "will stand", as if it were an interpretation of the law rather than a policy proposal. How exactly a package of proposed policies can "stand" when it has been defeated is beyond me, and this announcement probably reflects more the CCP's refusal to acknowledge failing in anything, past or present. Perhaps this is to be taken as an indication that the CCP believes that it met its commitment to deliver universal suffrage in the territory by 2017 through its offer of quasi-democratic elections and need do no more?

At the very least it seems that there is unlikely to be any further packages of proposals put forward. The CCP government refused any real negotiation of the initial proposals, denied the existence of any "Plan B" in case of defeat, and despite the claim of some pro-Beijing politicians that Hong Kongers could "pocket" the reform package and demand more in future the government recently declared that regardless of how the vote went that it would be the only offer made.

Some may seek to blame the pro-Democracy camp for blocking what would at least have been elections for the CE post under a system in which all Hong Kong citizens could have voted, but the fact that the package would essentially have blocked opposition politicians from even competing, and that the government refused to set even a vague timetable for further reforms to follow it, left them with no choice in this matter. Hong Kong's current political system allows an opposition to compete, if not win political control, but the CCP's proposal would have denied them even this.

*Global Times counts a single abstention in the total, I think this represents the LegCo President Jasper Tsang. EDIT: Since no "abstain" votes were counted, it seems that GT is just wrong on this. One pro-Beijing legislator (Poon Shiu-ping) apparently confused by the walk-out, apparently just sat there without pressing a button to vote. Amazingly, what Poon Shiu-ping did is still more credible than blindly following the party leaders into a walkout for essentially no reason, since he did at least stay in the chamber. As Big Lychee points out, nothing is more demonstrative of the slavish obedience of the pro-Beijing block.

EDIT2: This seems pretty relevant -

[Picture: Hong Kong's Legislative Council building in Admiralty. Via Wiki]


justrecently said...

Shit happens when your heart isn't in your bosses' project. I'm wondering how many of the supporters of Beijing's sham initiative had left to fill their stomachs. Or as Bertolt Brecht said: first the grub, ethics later.

Anyway, I love this story. It's so symbolic.

Gilman Grundy said...

Yeah. I mean, I had kind of expected a fairly anodyne, empty victory for the pan-dems, where they successfully voted against the proposals but still ended up looking like the losers as the pro-Beijing block voted en-masse against them and blamed them for the proposals not passing.

Instead, somehow, the pro-Beijing camp managed to total mess things up for reasons that seem totally incomprehensible and now their leaders are tearfully giving apologies for walking out. They've had years to prepare for this, yet somehow still managed to make a mess out of it.

It's all far too delicious. No doubt they'll re-group eventually, probably around trying to associate the pan-dems with that odd group of maniacs the police seem to have uncovered (the "All-Nation Independent Party", which seems an odd name for a HK independence group). But in the meantime I'm just enjoying the embarrassment of Beijing's local proxies.