(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 27 May 2015.)
The most significant development in the struggle to introduce a democratic system of government in Hong Kong has been the December 2007 ruling by the Standing Committee of the Tenth National People’s Congress to conduct the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage ahead of the Legislative Council.
The sequencing of the two steps gave hope to those concerned with Hong Kong’s future development that it might be possible to restore a healthier balance in our political system and allow democracy to have a genuine chance to do good, and that the rampant narrow interests to whom the Chief Executive is currently beholden and held hostage could be tamed through political reform.
To be sure, the necessary legislative reform would threaten the political stakes of all parties – pan-democrats and establishment alike. One would expect them to be highly concerned about the process of nominating and electing the Chief Executive.
In fact, some in both camps may privately wish that the Chief Executive is not elected by universal suffrage in 2017.
As it happened, the most significant political development in Hong Kong since the December 2007 ruling has been the Occupy Central movement, an idea advanced by Benny Tai only in January 2013. It was proposed initially as an act of civil disobedience carried out in Central to put pressure on the government if its universal suffrage proposals were not acceptable.
In subsequent deliberations, the Occupy Central movement demanded that the government proposal should satisfy “international standards” in relation to universal suffrage. At the final stage of preparations, the movement in effect endorsed the proposition that public nomination was the only acceptable proposal to achieve “genuine” democracy.
This public nomination position had been rejected by major pan-democratic political parties back in 2009, after it was proposed by radical legislator Leung Kwok-Hung of the League of Social Democrats. It is likely the leadership of the Occupy Central movement had in effect been captured, at least through thought leadership, if not by strategic manipulation.
So, while the Occupy Central movement drew attention to the dominance of narrow establishment interests in the Selection Committee for the Chief Executive, it also revealed how the pan-democrat camp was beginning to fall victim to the manipulations of radical elements. It is not inconceivable that reactionary and conservative elements in the establishment actually welcomed the radicalization of the democratic movement.
In terms of the Chief Executive election, since certain narrow interests on both sides of the political divide see universal suffrage as a threat, and each side sees the other as a threat, there is greater likelihood that political reforms will become stalled. This is despite the fact that rejecting the current proposal serves only the interest of a few narrow, well-organized political elements on both sides.
The classic feature of such a failure is characterized by economists as the “smart for one and dumb for all” syndrome (also known as the prisoner’s dilemma game). The machinations of narrow interests have pushed both the establishment and the pan-democrats into a political dead end.
A friend of mine related a story containing the germ of an idea that could lead us out of the current impasse. In1971, tobacco advertisements were officially banned in the US. The lobbying effort of the anti-smoking movement was successful because the heavily cartelized tobacco industry actually recognized that banning advertisements was in their interest as it saved them a lot of unnecessary expenses that ate into their profits. Tobacco advertisements did not increase the total sales of tobacco, but merely changed the relative market share of different brands. It was a “win-win” solution for both the anti-smoking movement and the tobacco companies to have government impose the ban, but for all stakeholders not to openly talk about its real effects.
The analogy is that every legislator must cease to hold each other hostage and openly declare that each of them should vote their conscience for the interest of Hong Kong – exactly opposite to Hong Kong’s path to democracy to date. It may be too late to change the outcome this time, but unless we realize our true situation, there can be no hope for the future. Hopefully there may still be a small chance that a final accommodation can be found. The final victory would then be for the people of Hong Kong and for Beijing, rather than the minorities that have ransomed our future.