27 February 2020
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam is asking for some leeway on the universal suffrage issue, but is she addressing her appeal to the pan-democrats or to Beijing? Photo: HKEJ
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam is asking for some leeway on the universal suffrage issue, but is she addressing her appeal to the pan-democrats or to Beijing? Photo: HKEJ

Who’s blocking the road to Hong Kong democracy?

Is she calling on pan-democratic legislators not to oppose the government’s universal suffrage blueprint for the 2017 chief executive election? Or is she actually asking Beijing for more leeway in the electoral arrangements to make them more palatable to the pan-democrats? 

Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who heads the government task force on political reform, hit the headlines last week when she cracked a not-so-funny joke about the political conundrum facing the government in brokering a deal on universal suffrage.

Lam said the key slogan that stressed the importance of dialogue in the just-ended public consultation on political reform was perhaps less apt as the first round of debate neared its end. She said the slogan of another government consultation about the introduction of fixed penalty for shop owners who occupy pedestrian lanes might sound more appropriate.

She said: “Can you give me some space to walk through, please?”

Superficially, it sounds a soft appeal for pan-democrats not to insist on their demands, in particular the proposal for public nomination, for the 2017 universal suffrage system. Beijing has insisted the idea was not consistent with the Basic Law and the relevant resolutions of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

If the pan-democrats stick to public nomination as a must for their support for the 2017 blueprint, it looks certain the bill will be vetoed when it is tabled at the Legislative Council, and political reform will “march on the same spot”.

Given the fact the pan-democrats have given clear signals they are willing to abandon their demand for public nomination in exchange for what they deem as a fair and reasonable nominating procedure, Lam would have hit the wrong target if her plea was aimed at the pan-democrats.

It may sound odd to Beijing. The truth is that the city’s road to democracy will reach a cul-de-sac if Beijing insists on installing a sky-high bar for political aspirants Beijing deems unacceptable to run for the top post.

Signs abound, however, that the Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping is not about to take any chances in the city’s maiden universal suffrage in 2017. The notion of “zero risk” has emerged in March when Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fan, a local deputy to the National People’s Congress who also sits on the Executive Council, said in an interview the chief executive contest could not end with an unexpected result.

The ruling Communist Party’s obsession with certainty of results in the election is nothing new. The wide disparity of views between the Chinese authorities and Hong Kong on the meaning of free election had been fully exposed in the negotiations for political reform during the transition period.

Beijing’s fears about uncertainty of the election result have deepened in the past two years in view of the ascendancy of Xi and the increasingly complex socio-political scene in Hong Kong.

On the global political front, Xi has hardened Beijing’s stance as US President Barack Obama stepped up efforts to strengthen ties with allies through “rebalancing” in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing feels strongly it was an encirclement tactic aimed at containing China’s development and countering its influence in the region.

Against that background, Beijing has viewed from the prism of conspiracy the alleged interference by foreign governments in the city’s electoral reform.

It may be a mere gesture of Washington’s support for a democratic government in Hong Kong. But the meeting between US Vice President Joe Biden with former chief secretary Anson Chan and founding chairman of the Democratic Party Martin Lee in Washington last month has rubbed sensitive nerves in Beijing. Official media have published a series of articles condemning the pair’s overseas visit, accusing them of inviting foreign intervention.

In a major speech on Hong Kong policies in March, NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang said the city’s political reform hinged upon national security and interest. His remarks reflected the added complexities and sensitivity of Hong Kong’s democratic development caused by the Sino-US rivalry.

Meanwhile, brewing tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China over social and political issues, including tourism, have worsened Beijing’s souring mood towards the city. Worse, the high-profile provocative acts of some activities campaigning for “Hong Kong self-autonomy” and acts like the waving of British flags in rallies have caused more jitters in Beijing.

In sharp contrast to the nation’s growing economic ascendancy, the Xi leadership is seemingly mired in deeper worries about a list of challenges in international politics and the democratic aspirations of the Hong Kong people

Feeling insecure and uncertain, the party leaders have hardened their stance towards the United States and Japan.

When it comes to Hong Kong’s universal suffrage venture, they seem to prefer not to take a big risk, if any. But the irony is that Beijing and Hong Kong risk paying a huge price for trying to avoid any risk in the city’s development of a democratic government.

Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.