For Beijing, real democracy is unpredictable as Trump has shown

November 17, 2016 12:00
Abraham Shek 's innocent error in his oath-taking is nothing compared to Baggio Leung's intentional insults, according to Michael Chugani. Photo: HKEJ

Those of you still hoping that the central government can somehow be talked into trusting Hong Kong with so-called genuine democracy, hope no more. It’s gone out the window.

Hong Kong’s defenders of democracy themselves killed it with their words and actions.

Genuine democracy has many virtues but the virtue that best defines it – if you want to call it a virtue – is that anything can happen.

The world saw that last week when, against all odds, American voters elected Donald Trump as president. None of the opinion polls predicted that.

The one thing you should know about the central government is that it doesn’t like unpredictable politics.

Sir David Akers-Jones, who served as chief secretary during British rule, was reported to have said the central government doesn’t mind democratic elections if it can know in advance who will win.

His remark became fodder for ridicule by Chris Patten, who championed Hong Kong democracy as the last British governor.

In our 70-member legislature, 40 are elected through genuine democracy.

Last September’s Legislative Council elections proved how unpredictable the genuine democracy part of the election can be.

Pollsters had not expected that nearly 20 percent of voters would support candidates who branded themselves as localists and independence advocates. About half a dozen won seats.

This blew a hole in the mantra that only a tiny fraction of Hong Kong people support independence, self-determination, or localism as defined by the independence movement.

The surprisingly strong support for independence candidates was a wake-up call for the central government, which watched with fury the insulting behaviour of two elected independence advocates who mocked China during their oath-taking.

For central government leaders, the reality that anything can happen in genuine democracy was something they could no longer tolerate in a highly-politicized Hong Kong with a growing independence movement.

They took unilateral action to remove some of the unpredictability from genuine democracy by interpreting the Basic Law in a way that made sure independence advocates could never become Legco members.

Hong Kong’s opposition defines genuine democracy as one person, one vote for all Legco seats and for the chief executive election without any political screening of candidates.

Opposition legislators voted down the central government’s August 31, 2014 universal suffrage framework on the argument that it allowed Beijing to use a nominating committee to screen out chief executive candidates it didn’t trust.

The opposition says its bottom line is a framework without political screening of candidates.

But a democracy framework without political screening would mean a chief executive election in which anything can happen.

An independence advocate could become a candidate and conceivably win.

How is it possible that Beijing would allow such an unpredictable chief executive election when it took such an iron-fisted move to ensure that even Legco couldn’t have independence advocates.

That’s why I say genuine democracy as defined by the opposition is out the window.

Those who cling to the illusion that Beijing could strike a genuine democracy deal with moderate democrats need only study President Xi Jinping’s hardline position last week against separatism.

Opposition legislators exacerbated the central government’s mistrust of them by siding with the localists and independence advocates who abused their oath-taking.

Even moderate democrats spoke with a forked tongue, claiming they disagreed with the insulting behaviour of Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang yet insisting the pair had a right to be legislators without facing any consequences for their actions.

A High Court judge has since ruled otherwise by disqualifying the two.

And even moderate democrats condemned the government for filing a judicial review against the two, a case the government has now won, and condemned Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen for not allowing Yau and Leung to re-take their oaths.

Surely, that’s not a smart way to regain Beijing’s trust.

The central government decided on its own to pre-empt local courts by interpreting the Basic Law in a way that made clear oath-taking must be solemn and sincere.

That's why I was surprised that Johannes Chan Man-mun, a law professor and former law dean, demanded the resignation of Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung for failing to defend Hong Kong’s judicial independence.

Surely, Prof. Chan is learned enough to know Yuen has no control over what the central government does.

By his own logic, should he then take responsibility and resign even though he had no control over the student violence that erupted when he was not appointed pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong?

Legislator Claudia Mo Man-ching sank even deeper into petty politics when she said Abraham Shek Lai-him should be disqualified for having said "administration" instead of "administrative" during his oath-taking.

I am not defending the central government's interpretation of the Basic Law.

Our society is already deeply polarized.

The last thing we need is for Hong Kong people to feel that Beijing is extending its interfering hand too far.

It is my firm belief that Beijing could have avoided causing further political upheaval if it had let the local courts handle the matter.

But if Mo bothers to study the interpretation, she will know its essence is that oath-taking must be solemn and sincere.

What’s wrong with that? To compare Shek's innocent error to the deliberate expletives and insults by Leung and Yau boggles the mind.

Trust lost is hard to win back.

I am not sure if it is possible for the opposition to regain Beijing’s trust after the Umbrella Movement, the constant blocking of government policies in Legco, and the siding with independence advocates in the oath-taking controversy.

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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.