The worse time for HK democracy, the best time for HK democrats

December 16, 2016 18:15
His loyalty to Beijing notwithstanding, Leung Chun-ying's stubbornness and combative ideology, particularly in dealing with the Occupy protests, led to his sudden departure. Photo: Bloomberg

Leung Chun-ying’s sudden withdrawal from next year’s chief executive election has been a happy surprise, in particular to the city’s pan-democrats and members of the “anyone but CY” coalition.

But Leung’s pullback doesn’t mean their woes are over. Similarly, Beijing’s sudden offer of an olive branch – mainland travel permits for all democratic lawmakers – should not be taken as a sign that it is backing down.

Independent legislator Eddie Chu, who amassed the highest number of votes in the Legislative Council election, is among those who still maintain a sober mind.

He said the city’s democratic movement is still in a rather precarious state as four localist lawmakers may be unseated by the government’s legal challenge over their oaths.

Defending the legislature is a key battle that the whole opposition must not lose, especially at a time when the government is making steady headway to banish them from the chamber.

The animosity towards the opposition can well continue: never before has the government been so unscrupulous in its siege of democratic lawmakers. The menace remains even with the ouster of a hardliner, if there’s no change to the system itself.

Thus, the whole opposition camp must not lower its vigilance, even though it appears that Beijing has heeded the people’s clamor against Leung.

I’m glad to see such a consensus is building up among democrats. And I’d like to advise them on a few issues:

The first is, do not waste time guessing why Beijing has ditched Leung. With Leung already fading into history, details about the demise of his political career are no longer relevant.

Second, all of Beijing’s sudden reconciliatory moves are rather a change in tactics, not a shift of its policy. Beijing is getting more pragmatic and flexible after making clear its bottom line.

It has now lifted the ban on Hong Kong democrats wanting to visit the mainland and it may be more tolerant with their pursuits.

But if anyone dares to raise the question of Hong Kong independence, Beijing has all the legal and political means to put them down with no mercy or leeway – none whatsoever.

Beijing may now allow the “caged” democracy, something that has long been written in the Basic Law, and as long as democrats play within the boundaries, it won’t bother suppressing them too much.

Hong Kong independence or self-determination is but a fallacy in the foreseeable future and it is my hope that members of the opposition can shift their effort back to relaunching constitutional reform and work toward universal suffrage.

There is no better time than now to press chief executive candidates on what they plan to achieve these goals, when Beijing is intransigent when it comes to sovereignty and national security while pragmatic on other issues.

Mainstream democrats should draw a line between their own camp and the separatists.

Leung’s "legacy"

I racked my brains about what Leung might have done right and only found a few things. Zero delivery quota for expectant mothers from the mainland is one, and his ban on baby formula parallel trading can be another, though the latter is also a controversy by itself.

Yet these are just trivial compared to his numerous blunders that constantly haunted his tenure.

The first of such crises occurred shortly after he assumed office. Leung chose to wait out the rallies against national education in 2012, but his miscalculation led to the rise of student leader Joshua Wong, and we all know the “troubles” these student protesters had stirred up in the aftermath.

No doubt, Leung’s stubborn handling of the Occupy Movement has been his most notorious blunder.

He slammed the door on any talk or contact with the opposition throughout the long period from when Benny Tai conceived the idea of civil disobedience in March 2013 to the actual start of road blockades a year and half later.

He could have used the time to allay the discontent of at least some of the participants.

His knee-jerk reaction to bombard the protesters with pepper spray and tear gas when Occupy broke out in September 2014 further aggravated the situation, and many of the young activists started to vent their anger on Beijing.

Xi Jinping was also portrayed in a very unflattering light in the international media because of the crisis in Hong Kong.

The situation was only compounded when Leung mobilized triads and mobs to crack down on the students.

His tactics reminded us of Mao Zedong’s callous philosophy of revolutionary struggle: the more chaotic the situation the better for a tyrant who needs to consolidate his powers.

As such, he also singlehandedly bred localist and separatist sentiments among the young and everything he did was a denial of Xi’s own instruction of maintaining social order and harmony.

Even his most vigorous critics won’t question his devotion to Beijing, yet all the past years have proven that he has done more harm than good to Xi.

Beijing needs more than loyalty. Leung’s ineptitude and his combative approach make him a genuine liability. His sudden departure is not at all surprising.

Thus, all members of the pro-Beijing camp must draw a lesson from Leung’s demise: to remain useful, you need to show your guts and also your brain.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 13.

Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting

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A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal