21 January 2020
Beijing is unlikely to relent on Hong Kong political reform process at this point, as it wouldn't want to be perceived as weak following the violent anti-extradition bill protests in the territory. Photo: AFP
Beijing is unlikely to relent on Hong Kong political reform process at this point, as it wouldn't want to be perceived as weak following the violent anti-extradition bill protests in the territory. Photo: AFP

Prospects for fresh constitutional reforms dialogue get dimmer

Over the past one month, Hong Kong witnessed three mass demonstrations against an extradition bill, forcing the government to suspend its controversial legislative push.

On July 1, when the city was marking the 22nd anniversary of its return to Chinese rule, a group of protesters stormed the Legislative Council building, calling on authorities to withdraw the bill completely and also meet other demands, which include release of arrested activists and withdrawal of police cases.

The July 1 Legco storming, as well as a previous June 12 protest that saw police use fire rubber bullets and tear gas against demonstrators, was predominantly spearheaded by young people.

Overall, the mass rallies and the other incidents of the past month have made it clear that the anti-extradition law uproar was a trans-class and trans-generational battle waged by citizens from all walks of life.

As authorities refused to withdraw the extradition bill completely, opting instead to merely put it in cold storage, and as no top official had taken responsibility for the fiasco and stepped down, people’s anger has become a powerful political tsunami against the administration.

At the annual July 1 rally, many demonstrators and political groups had, among other things, called for relaunch of constitutional reforms dialogue.

The demands were echoed by even by some in the pro-establishment camp.

For example, Michael Tien Puk-sun, a Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress, has suggested that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor should persuade Beijing to allow Hong Kong to reopen dialogue by 2020 on the issue of constitutional reforms.

Former Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing has put forward an even more progressive idea.

According to Tsang, Beijing should allow discussions about political reforms “from a lower starting point”, where there is no need to mention the 2014 Occupy Movement, and the “831 Resolution” made by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), during the early stages of dialogue.

Tsang’s suggestion bears a striking resemblance to the long-standing position adopted by the pro-democracy camp, which demands the withdrawal of the “831 framework” and the reopening of political reform consultations.

A seasoned figure in the pro-establishment camp has told us that the opinions expressed by Tsang were solely his own and definitely didn’t represent Beijing’s stance.

He went on to say that Tsang’s proposal is well-intentioned, but the former Legco chief has apparently failed to take into account the current state of political affairs in Hong Kong.

“Playing the good guy is always easy. But the political reality is that it is totally impossible for the government to embark on another political reform initiative outside the 831 framework,” he said, referring to a ruling made by China’s NPCSC on August 31, 2014 on Hong Kong’s election system.

That pro-establishment figure explained that it has become difficult for the administration to relaunch political reform initiatives after the July 1 occupation of Legco.

And the situation has been further compounded by the British government’s recent rhetoric over the extradition bill saga, which has virtually elevated the Hong Kong issue to the international arena.

As such, Beijing would be seen as giving in to a small bunch of violent protesters if it relented over Hong Kong’s political reform process at this point.

That said, the pro-establishment figure advised those who sincerely hope for a re-opening of constitutional reforms to put forward their requests to Beijing “in goodwill” rather than “in ill will”.

As to whether any top government official is going to take responsibility for the extradition bill fiasco and step down, that pro-establishment figure reiterated that the central government is still throwing its weight behind Carrie Lam.

Replacing the CE alone cannot resolve the fundamental issues, it is felt.

As far as a possible cabinet overhaul is concerned, focusing on issues such as whether Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, who has taken a lot of hits from the pro-Beijing camp, can serve out her term or should be shunted out, the source told us that the final word rests with the CE, and that Beijing isn’t going to intervene at this stage.

Some in the government have stressed that the CE is already working aggressively to mend fences in society by meeting with members of different sectors, and that the administration will stay focused on improving people’s livelihoods and building a “just society” in the coming days.

Yet the question is, will Carrie Lam really be able to resolve the deep-rooted social tensions in the city?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 5

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.