During a tumultuous four weeks of protests, crowds ebbed and surged in response to the use of force against protesters.
Yet, on closer inspection, one could find an interesting picture: moderate democrats, pan-democratic lawmakers in particular, were conspicuously absent from the scene.
The voices of moderate democrats, in fact, have been marginalized since the debut of the Occupy Central Movement which was initiated by civil society forces more than a year ago.
In retrospect, the 2010 political compromise, although a piecemeal deal, marked a first in the history of Hong Kong’s democratization in that Beijing and moderate democrats held face-to-face talks and substantial agreement was reached.
While acknowledging that any electoral reform must be in accordance with the Basic Law, both sides agreed that the franchise of the five new functional constituencies (i.e., super seats) should be expanded to include all those who were not eligible to vote in any functional constituency — a move that would render these seats popular in all but name.
To optimists, the 2010 negotiations augured well for the prospect of gradual democratization, envisaging the normalization of institutional talks (either formal or informal) between the two sides.
Unfortunately, the hope fizzled. Instead, this round of democratization is primarily led by civil society activists (including Occupy Central leaders, the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism) who believe in social mobilization as the best means of pressuring Beijing.
Yet, any real progress needs political society and civil society to complement each other.
While civil society is able to launch large-scale protests, it lacks the organization to push progressive political reform, a role which should be taken up by political society. The 2010 negotiations were achieved under these circumstances.
Lessons from 2010 negotiations
The pan-democrats were split over how to force more progressive reform on authorities who clearly wanted none of it.
The radicals, who chafed at the prospect of a long wait for full democracy and opted for more drastic action, proposed a five-district referendum.
The Democratic Party (DP) and other veteran democrats were weary of repeated confrontations with Beijing. Thus, they stood apart from the referendum and instead put together its own Alliance for Universal Suffrage (AUS).
Beijing welcomed this gesture of accommodation and spoke of the DP lawmakers and AUS as “moderate democrats”.
Without the support of DP, along with the pro-government camp’s boycott of the by-elections, the turnout in the de facto referendum was low, with just 17 percent of the electorate voting.
But it was big enough to force Beijing to budge and make concessions to ease a legitimacy crisis and to stem the tide of radicalization.
DP’s record of standing up for democracy is strong, enough to uphold the party’s credibility with the public and enough to fend off hardliners, thereby resulting in real bargaining with Beijing.
Why then have real negotiations (i.e., incremental democratization) given way to confrontational tactics (i.e., radicalization) in light of real progress made in 2010?
The decline of moderate democrats, I would argue, is the key.
2012 Legco election: A turning point
There is no guarantee that the softliners will win the long-term power struggle in the democratic camp.
The results of the 2012 election are symbolic of the situation facing Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Since then, the political landscape has changed substantially, not least within the pro-democracy camp.
The Democratic Party was blamed for having “sold out” the pro-democracy camp in 2010 after suffering a catastrophic defeat and losing the position of leader of pan-democrats for the first time.
In terms of seats, it dropped from eight to six. The loss was reflected more accurately in vote shares, with a 7 percent fall compared with the 2008 election.
In contrast, radical democrats from the People’s Power Party, the League of Social Democrats and the Neo Democrats gained three more seats, bringing their total to five. The radical wing, in particular, collected more than 15 per cent of the vote in the direct elections, surpassing the DP’s.
The fall of moderate democrats in Legco, along with protests that forced the authorities to back down on national education in 2012, emboldened the radical wing of the pro-democratic movement.
The fact that civil society activists want to distance themselves from pro-democracy political parties is not a healthy sign.
In fact, the political impasse is due less to lagging public support than to a lack of mutual trust between Beijing and democratic forces in Hong Kong.
With moderate democrats unable to mediate between Beijing and civil society activists, any radical attempts will only worsen the situation and make reform less likely.
Instead of using confrontational tactics, the pro-democracy camp should adopt a strategy that would narrow its differences with Beijing in hopes of winning maximal concessions as happened in 2010.
Last week’s meeting between student representatives and government officials, failed to make progress.
Put simply, civil society is better able to defend itself from encroachment by the state but less able to translate the pressure into substantial progress if civil society activists are reluctant to coalesce with moderate democrats.
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