Despite last year’s Occupy Central and “Umbrella” movements, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government still intends to propose “universal suffrage” for the 2017 Hong Kong chief executive election in line with China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s highly controversial announcement on Aug. 31 last year.
This proposal, disparaged by some commentators as a false imitation of universal suffrage, is actually aimed at blocking the possibility of Hong Kong’s pan-democracy camp — supported by an estimated 60 percent of the electorate — from fielding a candidate or candidates to contest the chief executive election. It was for this reason that the pan-democracy councilors in the territory’s Legislative Council unilaterally vetoed the proposal, with 28 legislators voting against, and eight for the motion.
The point is, now that the political reform proposal has been rejected, what happens to Hong Kongers’ demand for universal suffrage? Has this turn of events sounded the death knell for universal suffrage in Hong Kong?
Beijing could choose deal with the situation in one of three ways.
The first option is for Beijing and the Hong Kong government to continue as before, as if nothing has happened. Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) would continue in his post, and the Aug. 31 announcement would be shelved.
However, this would only work if there were no more protest movements, and if Hong Kongers were to accept stasis. Leung would gradually win back society’s trust, and the SAR government could continue to operate as before.
However, this course of action is unlikely to be effective because Leung’s legitimacy is at an all-time low: The Hong Kong government has been mired in an administrative crisis for many years, the Occupy Central movement reached a crucial stage and now Leung’s political reform proposal has been vetoed.
At this time, it is difficult to imagine that Leung could continue to lead Hong Kong and spearhead social development and advancement. Beijing is acutely aware of this point and we must not forget what happened with former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華).
Beijing’s second choice would be to replace Leung in the short term, and shelve the idea of promoting universal suffrage. This would be effective, to a certain degree, and would be the least costly option, as far as Beijing is concerned.
The problem is that at the moment, Leung is faced with a much more serious problem than Tung was toward the end of his tenure, both in terms of his personal popularity and the scale of the administrative crisis, in which he is embroiled.
In addition, the rejection of the SAR government’s political reform proposal demonstrates that the SAR government does not have the ability to bring Hong Kong society together. It bears the most direct responsibility to see the political reform proposal is passed.
Simply put, coming up with a fourth chief executive to replace Leung and lead Hong Kong, a member of the establishment with a reputation for being more enlightened, would, to a certain extent, meet the expectations of Hong Konger’s and reduce the pressure on Beijing and the SAR government.
However, this would not get to the root of the problem, and it would not fundamentally solve the SAR government’s problem of legitimacy.
There is also a third option that, while it would be the more difficult pill for Beijing to swallow, would at least be a genuine treatment for the malady. This would be to actually give ground on the issue of universal suffrage and to promptly embark upon the next stage of political reforms and at the same time amend the Aug. 31 announcement, in an effort to ease the universal suffrage issue and bring some semblance of peace back to an already seriously fragmented Hong Kong society.
Frankly, from the “one country, two systems” white paper of a year ago to the Aug. 31 decision, on to the set, inflexible strong-arm response to the Occupy Central and Umbrella movements, it is unlikely that Beijing will make any major changes with regards to its stance on universal suffrage in Hong Kong any time soon.
On the other hand, Beijing is now under considerable pressure. Now that the political reform proposals have been rejected, the democracy movement and its attendant protests, including the rise of the pro-localization faction, is likely to continue.
If nothing is done to ease tensions surrounding the universal suffrage problem, there is the risk of long-term turmoil within Hong Kong society. This would not only put pressure on Beijing disproportionate to the SAR’s size, but the Chinese Communist Party would also run the risk of being written into history as failing to rein in either Hong Kong or Taiwan.
Not only this, but Hong Kong’s stalled democratic development would only further reinforce Taiwanese suspicions of Beijing and would help propel Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) into the Presidential Office. The heightened resistance to Beijing seen in Taiwan and Hong Kong is also having a negative impact on the “Chinese dream” and “One Belt, One Road” initiatives that Beijing is so assiduously pushing.
It is difficult to predict exactly how the Hong Kong universal suffrage issue is going to play out. One thing that is certain, however, is that the issue of universal suffrage, which has plagued Hong Kong for so many years, will not go away simply because of this “setback.” The pressure on Beijing and the cost of controlling Hong Kong are going to escalate.
John Lim is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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