The Legco veto of the election bill offers a golden opportunity for Hong Kong to get back on track.
That chance will come when Beijing asks for a report of the voting and how the proposal went down so disastrously.
To be sure, it will want an explanation of the walkout by pro-establishment legislators.
This opportunity is significant given recent attempts by the central authorities to tighten their grip on Hong Kong.
These began in 2003 after half a million people took to the streets to protest a proposed national security law, prompting the Hong Kong government to shelve it.
In June last year, the State Council released a while paper which states that China is the source of Hong Kong’s autonomy, calling “one country, two systems” into question.
Two months later, the National People’s Congress issued an election reform framework that gives Beijing control of the selection process for Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017.
In addition, there have been displays of meddling by Beijing in local affairs, highlighted by the growing influence of its liaison office in Hong Kong.
Then there is the antagonism of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying toward pan-democrats in the legislature and hostility toward activists and the outspoken section of Hong Kong media.
So, having Beijing’s ear at this time is an opportunity that cannot be overemphasized.
There will be a lot of questions from President Xi Jinping and from senior party leaders.
Can they continue to count on this government to lead Hong Kong?
What went wrong with the plan to cultivate capable leaders almost two decades after the handover?
Should they carry on with a heavy-handed approach or placate people to calm things down?
The answers will determine the central government’s short-term policy on Hong Kong and influence future decisions.
Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong, wants “everyone to reflect on the hard lesson” of the failed electoral reform plan.
“Everyone” includes departments under the State Council, such as the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which are expected to submit reports to the central government.
Leung will have to give his own accounting. Hopefully, he will be fair and realistic.
Any changes that will arise from these reports will have to be approved by Xi.
Obviously, these will not be implemented anytime soon. It’s likely Beijing will keep the status quo until after the Legco elections next year.
That said, we are already seeing some changes.
Leung has shifted gears by focusing on livelihood issues after saying election reform will not be re-tabled in his remaining two years in office.
Pan-democrats can seize on the opening.
The most pivotal tasks ahead are the district council elections at the end of this year and the Legco election next fall.
Pan-democrats saw their share of the vote drop to 55 percent in 2012, down from 60 percent historically.
The reason may have been that they’re weak on economic and livelihood issues.
Meanwhile, middle-of-the-road parties such as the Democratic Party could lose even more ground next year as pro-democracy voters tend to favor more radical candidates.
With election reform out of the way, pan-democrats can focus on non-political issues including Leung’s many unfulfilled election pledges.
They can press the government on the following:
1) removal of an onerous system that allows offsetting of severance and long service payment with accrued Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) benefits
2) implementation of statutory standard working hours
3) introduction of a special tax on the super rich to increase recurrent revenue
4) reduction or scrapping of the daily quota of 150 mainland immigrants to mitigate their impact on society
5) revamp of the MPF regime to protect middle class workers
6) introduction of a “Hong Kong first” policy in the property market and concessions for first-time homebuyers
For a long time, the government has been ignoring calls for reform in these areas, hampered by functional constituencies that fiercely defend vested interests.
But pan-democrats can change the rhetoric by engaging the government on livelihood issues.
They have a chance to shape the post-electoral reform era.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 2.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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