18 October 2019
Hong Kong is lost in a political labyrinth because some people insist one way is the correct way out and others insist on another way. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong is lost in a political labyrinth because some people insist one way is the correct way out and others insist on another way. Photo: HKEJ

How Hong Kong can find its way out of the political labyrinth

Hong Kong is lost in a political labyrinth. There are many ways to turn inside a labyrinth but only one correct way out. Hong Kong people do not know the correct turns to find their way out.

We are lost in the labyrinth because some people insist one way is the correct way out and others insist another way is the correct way. This quarreling among ourselves means we could be trapped inside for a very long time.

Hong Kong became lost in the labyrinth when pan-democrats in the Legislative Council voted down the central government’s political reform framework for Hong Kong. Half of society supported the framework and the other half did not. The half that opposed the framework won when democracy legislators voted against it.

Their victory was made even sweeter when pro-establishment legislators, who supported the framework, walked out during the voting in a bungled attempt to delay the vote so one of their colleagues, Lau Wong-fat, could arrive to cast his ballot.

The embarrassing gaffe, resulting in a 28-8 vote against the framework, humiliated not only the pro-establishment camp but also the Leung Chun-ying administration and the central government.

Democracy legislators were not magnanimous in their victory. They gloated and even laughed at the humiliation of the pro-establishment camp. But the defeat of Beijing’s reform framework is, of course, no laughing matter.

Winners of battles are expected to know how to make use of their victory to advance their cause. They are expected to have a clear plan ready on how to move forward so their victory would not be for nothing.

But the democracy camp’s only strategy was to vote down the reform framework, which they condemned as fake democracy. Having now done that, they are clueless about their next step.

In a way, it is a pyrrhic victory because it has left Hong Kong in limbo. The central government has made crystal clear the same reform framework will be offered to Hong Kong for future chief executive elections if it is voted down this time.

The democracy camp has also insisted it will not accept the same framework in the future. It would be political suicide anyway for democracy legislators to accept the same framework next time after having opposed it this time.

With each side wanting to go in a different direction, it is not hard to understand why we don’t know how to get out of the labyrinth.

The irony is that while the winners have no clear strategy to capitalize on their victory, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who failed to get enough Legco votes for the framework, has a strategy to capitalize on his defeat.

His plan is to put aside democracy for the remaining two years of his term so his administration can focus on livelihood issues, which have been neglected during the long fight over political reforms.

It is a shrewd plan but only if he knows how to sell it to the people. The pan-democrats are not going to just keep quiet and let C.Y. Leung set the agenda for the next two years.

After having spent so many years fighting for democracy, they are not going to suddenly forget about it and focus solely on livelihood issues just because the chief executive wants to do that.

Even though the pan-democrats don’t have a clear strategy on how to force Beijing to allow so-called true democracy in Hong Kong, at least some of the democracy legislators, especially the radical ones, will most likely use their old strategy of blocking Leung with filibusters and other tactics.

This strategy of blocking proposed government policies in Legco – even those involving livelihood issues – did not hurt the democrats too much in the past because they could claim they were doing it as part of their fight for democracy and to oppose Leung, whom many Hong Kong people loathe.

But the political landscape has now changed. The democrats have already voted down the reform framework. Their supporters expect them to show the way ahead. But if their only way ahead is to block policies on livelihood issues, it could hurt them a lot more than before.

Even though C.Y. Leung is loathed by many people, the vetoing of the reform framework has given him a new opportunity to re-shape his image.

More and more Hong Kong people are tired of the democracy fight which has sharply divided society. They are tired of seeing their politicians squabble with each other every day. They are tired of endless filibusters in Legco.

A growing number of people are alarmed that Hong Kong – once a very competitive city – is now losing out to places like Shenzhen and Singapore. Social discontent is rising over such things as the wealth gap, unaffordable housing, and the flood of mainland tourists.

If Leung can show the people he wants to put aside democracy and tackle all these other issues that are at the root of social discontent, and if he can show the people the pan-democrats are blocking him, he has a chance of re-shaping his image, even though a hard-core of people will still hate him, whatever he does.

The coming year leading up to the 2016 Legco elections is a make-or-break period for both the democrats and the Leung administration. It will be one of Hong Kong’s most important Legco elections because it will be seen as an unofficial referendum on how society feels about the way forward.

Leung has already said his strategy is to focus on livelihood issues. It is crucial for the democracy camp to come up with a strategy of its own.

A vague strategy of just continuing the fight for democracy is not good enough. It has to be a clear strategy that can convince the central government to modify its August 31, 2014 reform framework for Hong Kong in a way acceptable to the democracy camp and the majority of people.

The central government cannot be convinced unless it trusts the democracy camp. And it will never trust the democracy camp as long as pan-democrats link the fight for Hong Kong democracy with democratizing mainland China.

In fact, making the fight for Hong Kong democracy part of an overall fight against the Chinese Communist Party is at the heart of the deep mistrust between the two sides.

Leaders of the democracy camp need to send a loud and clear message that they are fighting for Hong Kong democracy for its own sake, not as part of an attempt to democratize China or confront the Communist Party.

It is up to mainlanders to democratize China, not Hong Kong people. Such a message will be a first step towards winning the trust of the central government, which firmly believes – for whatever reason – that some in the democracy camp want to use external forces to destabilize the country.

If the democracy camp can show that gaining the trust of Beijing, together with advocating policies that improve the lives of the people, form part of its new strategy to win genuine democracy, it could do very well in next year’s Legco elections.

But if the democracy camp relies on its old strategy of simply obstructing everything the government tries to do, Leung could say the democracy camp not only failed to get genuine democracy, it is also blocking policies that improve the lives of the people.

If such a message clicks with the Hong Kong people, the democracy camp could lose seats in next year’s elections.

That is why the coming year is so crucial. Both sides will try to shape public opinion by winning the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people leading up to the elections. The democracy camp’s task is to hang on to the 27 Legco seats it now has, which gives it enough votes to block government policies, including political reforms.

The strategy of the pro-establishment camp is to make sure the democrats lose at least four of the 27 seats they now have so that they no longer have enough votes to block government policies. If the pro-establishment camp succeeds in doing that, then it is virtually certain that Beijing will ask the Hong Kong government to put forward again the August 31, 2014 reform framework so that there will be one person, one vote for the 2022 chief executive election with screened candidates.

The pro-establishment camp believes Occupy Central has angered so many Hong Kong people that the democracy camp will lose Legco seats in next year’s elections. But that is by no means certain.

Next year is light years away in terms of politics. And public opinion is fickle. It can change back and forth in the blink of an eye.

The democrats have many hard-core supporters. This was clearly shown in public opinion polls leading up to the Legco veto of the political reform framework. The polls showed public opinion was equally divided between supporters and opponents of the framework, which sent a clear signal that the democrats had not lost too much support despite Occupy Central.

But anything can happen between now and next year’s elections. It all depends on how each side plays its hand and what tactics each side uses to win public support.

If the pro-establishment camp wins enough Legco seats to pass the reform framework for the 2022 chief executive election, the democracy camp should accept the result and move on because the pro-establishment camp can legitimately claim it had a public mandate to pass the reforms.

But if the democrats win enough seats to again block the reforms, the central government will need to re-think its strategy.

The article first appeared in the July issue of Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.