21 October 2016
Leung Chun-ying announces his government's livelihood initiatives a day after the election reform bill was voted down in the legislature. Photo: Bloomberg
Leung Chun-ying announces his government's livelihood initiatives a day after the election reform bill was voted down in the legislature. Photo: Bloomberg

Election bill farce not all bad news but things could get worse

As expected, the Hong Kong government’s electoral reform package, which had been the focus of heated debate, failed to pass in the Legislative Council, thus blocking Beijing’s formula for “one man, one vote” elections for chief executive in 2017.

Instead, a 1,200-member election committee will continue to decide.

But political drama of a high order accompanied the vote in the legislature.

In the end, instead of a substantial number supporting the government initiative but falling short of the required two-thirds majority, the measure received only eight votes in the 70-member legislature, with 28 votes against, after a farcical last-minute maneuver by Beijing supporters,

The 28-8 vote against the bill is extremely embarrassing to Beijing.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office issued a statement blaming “a handful of Hong Kong legislators” for voting against the measure, saying that “they should be held responsible”.

However, it did not report that an even smaller “handful” had voted for the bill.

Authorities in both Beijing and Hong Kong are publicly blaming the democrats, who opposed the bill as “fake democracy” because of a pre-screening requirement of candidates by a nominating committee dominated by pro-Beijing interests.

They were joined by Leung Ka-lau, who represents doctors in the legislature.

However, China’s rage may well be even greater against the 33 pro-establishment legislators who failed to vote at all, most of whom walked out seconds before the vote took place, apparently in the mistaken belief that their absence will halt the vote for lack of a quorum.

The walkout was not a protest, but simply an attempt to delay the procedure so that another member, 79-year-old Lau Wong-fat, the rural kingpin, who was on his way, could also take part, even though that would not have changed the final outcome.

In the event, it was a last-minute decision and not all pro-establishment lawmakers were told of this, so nine of them remained in their seats, with eight voting for the government and the ninth, amid the confusion, not knowing whether or how to vote.

Even more embarrassing for the administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is that three legislators he appointed to the Executive Council, the territory’s highest advisory body, instead of voting in support of the government, joined the walkout.

One of them, Jeffrey Lam, a businessman who represents the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, first asked for a 15-minute adjournment and, when the chamber’s president, Jasper Tsang, pointed out that the voting process had already begun, led the walkout with Ip Kwok-him, deputy chair of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the main pro-Beijing party.

The other Exco members who walked out were Regina Ip, a former senior government official who has made clear her desire to be the next Chief Executive, and Starry Lee, chair of the DAB.

Since then, both Lam and Ip have wept in front of TV cameras and apologized for their behavior. But none have offered to resign.

Ironically, the bill’s failure may well be positive, at least in the short run.

Leung Chun-ying has announced a new focus on economic development and livelihood issues in the remaining two years of his term, a goal supported by Alan Leong, a key leader of the pan-democratic camp.

Hong Kong has for far too long been obsessed with political issues and it is vital to lower the temperature and halt the polarization of society.

There is plenty that needs to be done to make Hong Kong a better place in which to live.

Politically, attention will now switch to the legislative elections next year.

Leung had called for those opposing the reform package to be thrown out of the legislature but the voting fiasco will make it harder to push this argument.

As for Beijing, President Xi Jinping may well be secretly pleased that the package failed.

It was, after all, not his idea but that of the previous administration, which first presented it in 2007.

This way, the Communist Party can say that it has offered universal suffrage elections, as promised in the Basic Law, but that the offer was rejected by the pan-democrats.

The antics of Beijing’s supporters recall those of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, but this should not be a cause for merriment.

The fiasco is likely to presage the tightening of China’s control over Hong Kong, a process that has already been much in evidence for the last dozen years.

Things are now likely to get worse.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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