Immovable object: Beijing’s gameplan to 2017

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The strategy of ‘immovable object’ may seem like a winner. Chris Yeung isn’t so sure.


University of Hong Kong law professor Albert Chen Hung-yee is not known as a man of controversy. Although he sits on the powerful Basic Law Committee under China’s national legislature, the constitutional law expert has rarely put himself at a vulnerable place in the risk-laden political landscape. From the interpretation of right of abode provision to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s rulings on universal suffrage, he played the role of a guiding light on Beijing’s thinking and the plain truth Hong Kong people face. But since last week, Chen has put himself on the media spotlight after he floated the idea of giving Hongkongers a veto over all candidates for Chief Executive.


“Mrs Lam is anxious to show there is still much room for such ideas as NOTA to be discussed in the next two months.



Dubbed as “guarding the back door by casting blank vote (白票守尾門)” proposal, Chen urged voters be allowed to veto all candidates if a majority of them chose “none of the above (NOTA)” option on ballot paper for the chief executive poll. By empowering voters to say no to candidates they found unacceptable, he is hoping that pan-democrat legislators, or at least some of them, would change their mind over their stance on NPC Standing Committee’s decision on the 2017 election. Chen also suggested committee members be asked to vote Yes or No on a “bundled” list of two or three hopefuls prepared earlier in the nominating process, of whom one could be a pan-democrat. Pan-democrats have threatened to vote down reforms based on the decision if there is no genuine choice of candidates.


Under the NPC standing committee’s decision decreed on August 31, only two or three candidates would be allowed to stand and each would need majority support from a 1,200-strong nominating committee. The 8.31 electoral rules have caused a furore in the society, resulting in a 79-day-long civil disobedience campaign, known as Umbrella Movement, that ended on December 15. After a delay caused by the protests, the government has kicked off the second, and last, round of consultation on the 2017 election on Wednesday.


“politically suicidal for the pan-democrats to back down from their demands and settle on the negative power of veto



But even before the new round of debate began, Chen’s NOTA proposal has caused a stir in political circles. Importantly, it has given an early snapshot of the sharp divide among various stakeholders over universal suffrage. While Beijing has remained non-committal and cool to the idea, the immediate feedback from the pro-establishment faction has been lukewarm, bordering negative. That is not surprising. A long-serving Hong Kong deputy to the NPC, Cheng Yiu-tong, has dismissed the proposal as meaningless. Leaders of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said it would be a non-starter unless pan-democrat legislators dropped their threat of a veto of the blueprint.


Concurring with NPC Standing Committee member Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, Legislative Council President Tsang Yok-sing said Chen’s proposal did not deviate from the Basic Law and the relevant NPC standing committee decisions. But Tsang was quick to add the chance of a Beijing nod over the veto proposal was slim. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who heads a government taskforce on constitutional reform, probably agreed with Tsang on the legality of NOTA. She has good reason not to kill the idea at this stage, saying the idea deserved further exploration. Now that the possibility of Beijing allowing a more democratic electoral system the 8.31 framework in the wake of the Umbrella Movement is close to zero, Mrs Lam is anxious to show there is still much room for such ideas as NOTA to be discussed in the next two months.


Responses from major political factions, however, have been negative. If the pro-establishment camp has been lukewarm, the pan-democrats made clearly the idea is unacceptable. Given their insistence on civic nomination, it is politically suicidal for the pan-democrats to back down from their demands and settle on the negative power of veto in the voting stage, at least at this stage. It is not difficult to understand why Beijing reacted coolly. They understand well they cannot kill the NOTA option by claiming it is not in line with the Basic Law and the relevant NPC Standing Committee decisions. The fact is that it clearly complies with both. But it is equally clear they do not like the idea of NOTA, which could be seen as a de facto referendum.


Hardball only

Cynics may dismiss Chen’s initiative as politically naive in view of Beijing’s hardened stance on universal suffrage and Hong Kong as a whole. Even without the Umbrella Movement, the present leadership under President Xi Jinping is bent on playing hardball in Hong Kong. The White Paper on Hong Kong published by the State Council in June, in which Beijing has reasserted their full jurisdictions over the city, has set the tone and direction of Beijing’s hard-line strategy towards Hong Kong. Soon after the dust of the Umbrella Movement was settled, a Basic Law Committee vice-chairman Zhang Rongshun has said Hong Kong needs “re-enlightenment” about the Basic Law and “one country, two systems” policy. The message is clear: the problem over the conflict in “one country, two systems” lies with Hong Kong, not Beijing.


But if Chen and some other like-minded have refused to keep silent, it is because the universal suffrage blueprint looks certain to be voted down by the pan-democrats if nothing is done. It is ostensibly clear that such ideas as broadening the representation of the 1,200-member nominating committee and lowering the threshold of entrants for the first stage of nominating process will not be attractive enough for pan-democrats to consider giving consent to the blueprint. As a matter of principle, Beijing cannot fault the idea of giving people power to say no to the selection made by the nominating committee. In practice, the idea of a veto through casting a vote of NOTA could create a chance, though razor-thin, of garnering enough votes from pan-democrat lawmakers for the passage of it at the legislature.


“ The message is clear: the problem over the conflict in “one country, two systems” lies with Hong Kong, not Beijing.


The immovable object

Signs abound Beijing is in no mood to loosen its control over universal suffrage. Their game plan remains unchanged. Both Beijing and the Leung Chun-ying team believe there is a fair chance the notion of “pocket it first” will get support among pragmatically-minded Hongkongers.  This puts pressure on the pan-democrats to reverse their stance. Just as the Leung government succeeded in doing nothing, letting the Umbrella Movement fizzle out, they prefer to stay put, at least for now, on reform. They believe they can wait for the winds of change in public opinion to blow their way.


Beijing has sought to convey a message to Hong Kong people that they, not Beijing, would be the big loser if 2017 universal suffrage plan are derailed. This appears to be the case, but is arguably untrue. The truth is Beijing can hardly claim success in the “one country, two systems” experiment in Hong Kong if the promise of universal suffrage turns sour and the city is riddled with prolonged street conflicts over democracy.