Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Taking to the Streets in Hong Kong

Like their namesakes in the United States, Hong Kong's democrats want a timetable. Like its counterpart in Washington, Beijing won’t give them one. In this case the timetable is for implementation of full democracy, or "universal suffrage" in Hong Kong parlance.

The democrats seem to be uniting behind their demand for universal suffrage and nothing less, especially in the wake of Sunday’s successful demonstration for democracy. It means that Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s political “reform” package faces defeat in the Legislature (Legco) later this month.

In the absence of full democracy, political opinion polls and demonstrations take on greater importance in Hong Kong, almost like surrogate elections. So, much attention was paid to how many people would turnout to march for universal suffrage. The government was openly hoping it would be small.

Hong Kong people are old hands at reading the numbers. Anything less than 50,000 would have been a failure – hardcore only; government safe to ignore. Over 50,000 and less than 100,000, a wash – hardcore and sympathizers; too big for the authorities to ignore, too low to be a mandate. Over 100,000 an unqualified success.

The reported figures differ wildly. The Hong Kong police set the turnout at 63,000. The police are pretty straight shooters, yet this still seems low-ball. The pictures I’ve seen suggest the turnout was closer to the organizer’s estimate of 250,000. Not as big as July 2003’s epic march, but pretty damn good.

So Donald Tsang has been handed his first real political test. His political reform package needs a two-thirds majority in the legislature, which means he needs a few votes from the democratic camp (made up of the Democratic Party, smaller parties and liberal independents.)

Tsang came into office last summer with enormously high popularity ratings, and he has apparently decided to use his “political capital,” to coin a phrase, to push the reforms, which amount to adding ten seats to the Legco and district councilors to the committee that picks the chief executive. Just before the march he made an unprecedented television appeal for the people to support his program.

Although he often delivered little homilies over the radio, not even Britain’s last governor, Chris Patten, ever made such a direct appeal. Said Tsang: “The package did not come easily. Don’t let two years of hard work go down the drain.”

I thought Tsang was shrewd in not getting too closely identified with the political reform package. He had allowed his deputy, Chief Secretary Rafael Hui, to announce the proposal last October, rather than unveil it himself. Then he turns around and makes a personal appeal. It seems like a misstep to me; perhaps he was pushed into it by Beijing.

The problem for Tsang is that there isn’t much reform in the reform package. It would add ten seats to the legislature, but it does not change the composition of the legislature, just makes it a little bigger. The plan to add district councilors to the committee that picks the chief executive, does inject some element of democracy in the process, but it still remains a small body.

Beijing sees these reforms as a means of showing that Hong Kong is making gradual steps towards the ultimate goal, enshrined in the territory’s own constitution, of achieving universal suffrage at some indefinite future. But last year Beijing stated not to expect this in time for the 2007 chief executive election or the 2008 legislative election.

Why is Beijing so adamantly set against a timetable for full democracy in Hong Kong? Most people would probably say, what do you expect from a communist regime? And maybe they are right. But I think there is another explanation.

My hunch is that Beijing is holding out until Anson Chan, the former chief secretary, is too old to be an electoral threat. The Chinese despise Anson Chan, who was chief secretary under Patten. Yet at the time of the handover in 1997, she was the most popular figure in Hong Kong, and she still commands widespread respect.

So it was no small thing that Anson Chan made a very high profile appearance in Sunday’s march, even though she had never marched in a demonstration before, not even the epic 2003 march. “I feel there are moments in life when one has to stand up and be counted,” she said.

So does Tsang have another little problem on his hands? If his own reform package goes through and district councilors, most are directly elected, are added to the selection committee, Chan could quite possibly garner the 100 nominating votes needed to challenge Tsang in 2007.

Tsang is committed to the proposals, however, and he is a smart enough politician to leave himself some room for compromise before the Legco votes on Dec. 21. The betting is that he’ll suggest eliminating the unelected district councilors (about a fifth of the councilors are appointed) from voting in either Legco or the Selection Committee.

At the same time, the South China Morning Post floated an intriguing story on Wednesday that Beijing may soon be dropping hints that maybe, just maybe, it will agree to universal suffrage in 2017 (when Anson will be pushing 80). Together with a compromise on the councilors, it just might be enough to peel off enough democratic votes to pass the bill and save Tsang’s bacon.


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