27 October 2016
Hong Kong's political reform prospects have been caught up in the power-play between Beijing and Washington, among other things. Photo: Bloomberg
Hong Kong's political reform prospects have been caught up in the power-play between Beijing and Washington, among other things. Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong just a pawn in the big-power chess game

The Hong Kong government presented the political reform proposal on Wednesday. As expected, there weren’t any surprises in the plan related to the 2017 chief executive election.

Before the reform proposal was announced, pan-democrats had issued three co-signed statements reiterating their pledge to vote against any reform proposal under the framework outlined by a Chinese parliamentary committee on August 31 last year — the so-called “831″ resolution.

The public statements were a political tactic on the part of the pan-democrats as they sought to force Beijing into making concessions. However, the strategy has proved futile.

Although they are likely to continue to protest against the reform package in the days ahead, at this stage it is actually the game of chess between the US and China that will determine the fate of our political reform.

Looking into the past, we might gain better understanding of the power-play between the big powers.

Back in 2005, when the Hong Kong government put forward its political reform proposal — which failed to pass Legco eventually because the pan-democrats voted against it — the US State Department publicly stated that “the people of Hong Kong and their government should determine the pace of their political reforms in accordance with the Basic Law”.

This statement immediately drew swift criticism from Beijing, which warned Washington not to comment on China’s internal affairs.

By that time, it became obvious that the power game between Washington and Beijing was the main arena in which the outcome of our political reform was determined. Talks between Beijing and the pan-democrats were at best a sideshow.

Then in 2010, the Hong Kong government once again put forward a similar reform package, and the pan-democrats were against it at the start.

However, during a visit to Hong Kong in June that year, US Ambassador to China Jon Meade Huntsman “predicted” at a dinner gathering that the reform proposal “will pass Legco”, and said he was “sure” that the passage of the reform proposal would have positive implications for full implementation of universal suffrage in the future.

Huntsman was also confident that the different stakeholders could eventually “reach a consensus over controversial issues”.

Shortly after that, Apple Daily, which had long been considered by Beijing as a subversive media outlet, did an abrupt about-face and supported the government proposal.

However, the fact that the US government was actively interfering in the political reform of Hong Kong did not draw any criticism from Beijing this time. Instead, some pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong even ran stories on “US supporting political reform” in a high-profile manner.

In comparison, the attitude of the UK has been rather consistent.

In 2005, the British Consul in Hong Kong stated that “the reform proposal obviously fails to meet the expectations of those who are looking forward to full universal suffrage in 2007 or 2008, but at least the proposal marks a step forward towards that direction,” implying that the 2005 proposal was acceptable.

As far as the 2010 reform proposal was concerned, British foreign minister William Hague said “the proposal is disappointing for those who are fighting for universal suffrage, but it still marks a progress in the timetable towards that ultimate goal”.

Even to this day, the UK remains unchanged in its stance on Hong Kong’s 2005 and 2010 political reform process. During his visit to Hong Kong on January 8 this year, Hugo Swire, the Minister of State of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of Britain, urged pan-democrats to “pocket it first”, arguing that the 2020 Legco election is unlikely to see any change unless the 2017 reform package was passed.

As the British have expressed their support for “pocket it first”, what about the Americans?

Clifford A. Hart, the US Consul General to Hong Kong, has been a little busy lately meeting with pan-democratic lawmakers, expressing his views over why they should pocket it first.

By and large, Hart took the view that even though the 831 resolution, which prescribed that all official candidates must get at least half of the support of the members of the nomination committee, imposed restrictions on the election, Hong Kong people would still have two to three candidates to choose from, and vote for their favorite candidates through “one person one vote”.

Moreover, he suggested that the realization of universal suffrage in 2017 could provide a strong foundation on which the 2020 Legco election could be taken to the next level. If the current election package is defeated in Legco, it would only further delay universal suffrage.

The US position on Hong Kong’s political reforms is based entirely on its own national interest, while Beijing’s only concern is the Basic Law and the practical situation in Hong Kong.

The fact is that it is the power play between the major nations, rather than the wish of the Hong Kong people, that determines the outcome of our political reform.

Hong Kong is just a pawn in the game of chess among the big powers.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 23. [Chinese version 中文版]

Translation by Alan Lee

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Chairman of think tank Wisdom Hong Kong

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