HT Feature Interview: Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek Convenor of the Alliance for True Democracy

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The political waves were stirred last Wednesday as the Alliance for True Democracy (ATD) stepped out of the filibuster to make a declaration of initial principles they had agreed on. The warning bell sounded incessantly as they presented their views, set off by a quorum call caused no doubt by their mass exodus. But their time had come to make a stand.

The united legislators from the elected camp presented their 7 point outline of ideas for a way forward with the stirringly entitled document “2017 Chief Executive Election – Initial Views for Consultation.’

Perhaps the document title wasn’t so exciting, but there was definitely something happening. The typically fractious pan-democratic camp had managed to agree – mostly – on a broad framework that they could present to the public for discussion. The Labour Party and LSD each had their own slightly different version of the document, but were still generally onside.

After the usual frantic daily media ran off to have their stories usurped by Alex Ferguson’s retirement, HT took time for a long conversation with ATD Convenor Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek for a more indepth look at the ATD’s aspirations. What they found surprised them.

NC and Post-NC era

The ideas presented seem to suggest they saw the world in two places – a make-do present where respect for the Basic Law suggested that the reality of a Nominating Committee (NC) would have to be retained for the time being. The ideal would be a post-NC era, with no NC to act as a bar between candidates and the electorate. Professor Cheng had some interesting ideas generated no doubt from a lifetime of political science action and study – all tempered by the modern political reality.

The NC era would envision a reformed committee that was, in line with Article 45, ‘broadly representative’. Professor Cheng’s description of one way it could be generated with a close one-man, one vote alignment would be to piggyback off the District Council elections to minimise administrative and operative costs. It would almost become similar to a parliamentary or electoral college type system depending on the particulars.

The document set a minimum suggested 1/8th of nominators – but a maximum of 1/6th, with committee members limited to one vote. This would ensure a plurality of votes available to nominate multiple candidates to be presented to the public. Professor Cheng was open to a party or slate system. A very open system. When asked if he thought it would be suitable for a (Chinese) Communist Party or non-Chinese Communist, he said, “we should be mature enough accept candidates if the people accept it….[it is] totally legitimate if people support it.” One point was to allow another means to circumvent even a reformed NC, lest it be captured by ‘business people and Beijing’. They proposed a back-up plan – enabling candidates via their signing up 2-3% of eligible voters in support of their nomination.

Even in his post NC era, when there was no nominating committee, he was open to a wide open election field like those seen in California’s gubernatorial elections of 2003 where scores of people ran, most with no hope of winning.

Everyone is special in their own way

Given the multiplicity of campaigns to push the government in the marketplace today, HT wondered how the ATD would distinguish itself. How did it compare to Anson Chan’s Hong Kong 2020 or the Occupy Central movement?

He stressed they were not in opposition to these groups but rather had friendly relations. Even, it seems, concrete plans for cooperation.

Professor Cheng was not sanguine about the challenges facing him. Pressed on how they would be organizing and collecting opinions, he stressed they were operating on ‘limited resources’ more than once. Each of the Civic Party, Labour Party and Democratic Party had devoted at least a part-time staff to the Secretariat.

Asked about how they would sample the public’s opinion, he was pleased to relate that they were fairly confident of some support from the Hong Kong 2020 movement and perhaps Occupy Central to conduct some public polling. While there seemed to be some suspicion about ‘business people and Beijing’ dominating the NC, he was more than happy, even thought it necessary to engage the business community to gain the support of ‘enlightened businesspeople’. Ms. Chan has specifically articulated she wans to be in dialogue with Beijing and to reach out to the business community – a group that seems anathema to some of the ATD’s diverse base.

Professor Cheng knew it was not going to be easy, with this broad based group, to gather many opinions from the public and then distill them into a plan that the 12 groups could support. They had recruited a team of 8 ‘liberal’ (in the modern Hong Kong sense) academics to support them in the exercise. This included articulating a draft way forward to be presented at the end of June.

But in the larger context of the 3 democratic movements, the ATD strengths and even weaknesses started to make sense.

Rivals? Or Smart Market Segmentation?

The three main groups in play today seem to have very different, in the words of businesspeople, target markets.

Anson Chan’s Hong Kong 2020 is strong on resources and organisational power, but doesn’t have much street power, if any at all. The Occupy Central movement has a bit of an edge, with a whiff of religious fervour and revolution about it. The ATD brings intellectual firepower and the legitimacy of popularly elected officials. If these groups constituencies differ, so do their strengths and weaknesses.

The street power Occupy Central threatens has the power of ‘NO!” Witness Article 23 and national education. But it is weak at creating. For that, you need patience, access to old power and support of the new. Hong Kong 2020 seems perfectly placed and adequately resourced to play this respectable role.

In the very wide middle is the ATD headed by the respected Professor Cheng. Their Wednesday night affair was the model of good discipline with no one speaking out of turn or off the cuff. The message was clear, the Q&A succinct and professional.

The interesting question is if the emergence of three groups with complementary skills, compensating weaknesses, a broad base that encompasses all the potential democratic base and diverse means of exercising power happened by accident. Did Benny Tai, Anson Chan and the ATD all get frustrated enough and organised at the same time by accident, or is something else happening?

Political animals love a conspiracy theory. Spontaneous eruptions of political movements and social causes happen. It could be that old internecine foes are tired of infighting and are ready to succeed. Perhaps they are putting aside old differences, as within the ATD, to make a last grasp at universal suffrage. Or perhaps there is a mastermind.

After June? 

Either way, it will be interesting to track veteran operator and Convenor of the ATD, Joseph Cheng. The post-June proposition they put forth should be one to watch for. Fractious or fraternal, united or un-tied, HT will be tracking this movement for some time to come.

Photo Credits: Chris Lusher