23 February 2019
Rita Fan, a Hong Kong member of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, has made it clear that Beijing has no plan to nullify the Aug. 31, 2014 framework on Hong Kong political reform or even revise it. Photo: HKEJ
Rita Fan, a Hong Kong member of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, has made it clear that Beijing has no plan to nullify the Aug. 31, 2014 framework on Hong Kong political reform or even revise it. Photo: HKEJ

Time for the opposition to compromise

Sometimes I wonder if the opposition camp is living in a make-believe world where everything is possible if you fight long and hard enough for what you want. In politics, as with everything else, it is, of course, laudable to fight for what you believe in. But regardless of how long or hard you fight, a point has to be reached when you must accept that sometimes your fight, no matter how noble or moral, is simply unwinnable. That is the point you must either surrender or agree to compromise.

The opposition has fought long and hard for the central government to withdraw its August 31, 2014 political reform framework and replace it with a new mechanism that fits the opposition’s definition of so-called true democracy. In September 2014, the democracy movement began its Occupy protest that paralyzed key areas of Hong Kong and Kowloon for 79 days. In June of 2015 opposition legislators voted down the August 31 reform framework. In February 2016, radical elements of the democracy movement rioted in Mong Kok.

Despite such immense pressure, the central government did not bow to demands for so-called genuine democracy as defined by the opposition. Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a Hong Kong member of China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) made clear several times in the past few weeks that the NPCSC has no intention of nullifying the August 31 framework or even revising it. Some mainland officials and academics have gone as far as to say the reform framework should not even be put back on the table for the next five or ten years.

Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has made no secret of her intention to put political reforms aside while she focuses on pressing livelihood issues. Her standby quote, which she has repeated many times, is that reforms can only be put back on the table when the political climate becomes more conducive. But as we all know, the political climate can never become more conducive if the opposition stands firm on its demand the central government must withdraw the August 31 framework and replace it with a version acceptable to the opposition.

I personally believe the central government has no intention to revive political reforms anytime soon. Leaving aside the Occupy protest and the opposition’s rejection of the August 31 framework, the central government’s mistrust of the opposition grew even deeper when the opposition went all out to win over 300 seats in the 1,200-seat Election Committee that selects the chief executive. Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong had to pull out all the stops to make sure Carrie Lam won the election when the opposition made clear it would cast its 300-plus votes for John Tsang Chun-wah who the central government did not want as chief executive.

Having seen the opposition’s ability to win more than a quarter of the votes in the Election Committee and its willingness to use these votes to directly confront and defy the central government, mainland leaders will now be in no mood to put political reforms, even the original August 31 framework, back on the table. There is a simple reason for this. If the opposition camp can win over 300 Election Committee seats even for a small-circle chief executive election, it is plausible the camp can one day win far more seats in a Nominating Committee that will select chief executive candidates even for a restrictive universal suffrage election.

Under the August 31 framework, a 1,200-member Nominating Committee will replace the current Election Committee. It will nominate two or three chief executive candidates. To be nominated a candidate must get over half, that is, over 600 of the Nominating Committee votes. The opposition has said this is not true democracy since it will effectively screen out pro-democracy candidates because the Nominating Committee will be elected under the same system as the Election Committee, a system that the opposition has long condemned as favorable to pro-Beijing candidates.

But now that the opposition has succeeded in winning over 300 Election Committee seats in an election system seen as favorable to Beijing, it is not impossible to greatly increase that number for a Nominating Committee election because the 250,000 or so voters may not necessarily vote in the same pro-Beijing way for a committee that will nominate candidates for a universal suffrage chief executive election. Enough of them may want the opposition to have a bigger say in the Nominating Committee so that the universal suffrage chief executive election will include at least one democracy camp candidate.

This possibility is the reason why I think the central government has no desire to put even the original August 31 framework back on the table, let alone a new package that meets the opposition’s definition of true democracy. The central government knows it is better able to control the outcome of a chief executive election under the current Election Committee system. It will be impossible to control the outcome under a one person, one vote system if the opposition wins enough of a say in a Nominating Committee to nominate a democracy camp candidate.

By rejecting the August 31 framework, the opposition has played right into Beijing’s hands. It has given Beijing the excuse it wants to not even put the framework back on the table because it has made repeatedly clear the starting point must be the August 31 framework. The opposition has, in fact, inflicted defeat on itself by voting down the August 31 framework. It has now lost the fight for democracy because the central government will neither compromise nor offer reforms of any kind.

The only way the opposition can extricate itself from having played into Beijing’s hand and to force Beijing to put reforms back on the table is to eat humble pie and accept the August 31 framework as a starting point. That will take away Beijing’s excuse to not revisit reforms. But can the opposition bring itself to doing that? Does it have the political wisdom to recognize that a point is sometimes reached when it becomes clear a fight is unwinnable and surrender or compromise is the only way out? I hope so for the sake of Hong Kong people but I don’t think the opposition possesses such political wisdom.

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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.

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