Hong Kong government announces electoral reform details

As I anticipated in my post on Tuesday, the Hong Kong government on Wednesday announced the details for the 2017 election of the Chief Executive (CE). Based on press commentary from China, it is clear that the PRC government, which has sovereignty over Hong Kong, approves the package. But to understand the implications for democracy in Hong Kong, it is important to look at the details of the proposal.

Since Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China in 1997, the CE has been chosen by an election committee of between 800 and 1,200 individuals. Beijing had promised that starting in 2017 the CE would be elected by the voters of Hong Kong through universal suffrage. Yesterday’s proposal is the latest step in a transition process toward that system. (For all of the recommendations, see the speech of Chief Secretary Carrie Lam to the Legislative Council.) As I outlined in Tuesday’s post, the principal point of controversy for more than a year has been Beijing’s insistence that a nominating committee choose who gets to stand for election. Hong Kong’s democratic camp believes that the nominating committee will give China an opportunity to “screen out” individuals it does not like.

The most prominent element of the Hong Kong government’s proposal yesterday is a recommendation on the procedural mechanism by which the Nominating Committee (NC) would review candidates. This was important for two reasons. One, under the plan the NC will have the authority to pick two or three final candidates to actually run in the election. Two, Mrs. Lam made clear that that the NC’s membership would be similar to the 1,200-person election committee that has picked the CE up until now and is weighted in favor of people who are biased toward Beijing.

Thus, who the NC considers before making its final nominations becomes critical. That will determine whether the election will provide a choice between the majority who have long favored a quick transition to democracy, and those who have preferred to move slower; and also between those who believe that the current economic system benefits only the rich and should be reformed, and those who are happy with current policies.

The proposed procedural mechanism mandates that any individual who can get recommendations from one-tenth to one-twentieth of the NC will be a “potential candidate” and have the opportunity to articulate his/her policy views to the NC and the public in a transparent way. In effect, this means that the NC will likely consider between five to ten individuals for final nomination. And because pan-democrats will have be at least a minority of the NC membership, as they do in the election committee, they will be able to recommend at least one democrat as a potential candidate. That in turn creates the possibility that a democrat could become a final nominee and compete to become CE. In that case, voters who have supported democracy and believe current economic policies are flawed would have a candidate who shares their general outlook. This mechanism would seem to be consistent with what the spokesman of the U.S. Consulate-General said earlier today: “The legitimacy of the chief executive will be greatly enhanced if the chief executive is selected through universal suffrage and Hong Kong’s residents have a meaningful choice of candidates.”

Let me be clear: the pan-democrats do not like this proposal. They do not like a mechanism that amounts to screening by China, and this one certainly opens a backdoor for Beijing to veto candidates it doesn’t like. In addition, the pan-democrats would like to have a promise from Beijing that this is not the end of the reform process when it comes to electing the CE, but Mrs. Lam gave no hope on that score, even though she said future circumstances might require more change.

The pan-democrats were likely unhappy about the government’s refusal to propose changes on two specific issues. Both concern the sub-sectors that will make up the NC, which will be copied from the current election committee. These subsectors represent different parts of the Hong Kong community, but the balance of voting power favors subsectors that 1) represent various business interests, 2) support Beijing on most issues, and 3) are afraid of populist movements. Back in December, the government floated the idea of shifting the balance of power among the existing subsectors so that under-represented groups got more votes, but on one condition, that the existing subsectors agreed. In the end, no change was made here, perhaps due to the stated reasons that there was no social consensus to make this change and that doing so would only create more political controversy. The more likely reason is that the subsectors that stood to lose their relative power were not willing to have their oxen gored.

The second issue had to do with “corporate voting” within subsectors. In some subsectors the constituent members decide their choices based on the preference of the leader of the member organizations. For example, in a subsector made up of commercial firms, the CEO of each member firm decides how to cast the firm’s vote. The alternative would be to have a larger number of people associated with the firm contribute to the decision, up to all the employees. As a matter of principle, the pan-democratic camp has long called for an end to corporate voting, and while there was an opportunity to do so on this occasion, the government didn’t take it.

So, the pan-democratic bloc in the Legislative Council walked out during Mrs. Lam’s presentation to the Legislative Council and has vowed to vote against this proposal. And if all of them did vote against, that would kill the proposal, because it must pass the Legislative Council by a two-thirds margin and the establishment caucus does not have enough votes on its own. On the other hand, Beijing and the Hong Kong government do not need to win over the whole of the disparate democratic camp. They just have to peel off four opposition legislators to secure the necessary majority. Presumably these would be more moderate politicians who might conclude that the reform package is “good enough” compared to the alternative. That is, Beijing and the Hong Kong government say that if the package is vetoed, election of the CE would revert to the 1,200-member election committee, delaying a one-person, one-vote election for some time. The danger for these moderates in voting for the proposal is that they will be excoriated by their colleagues for defecting and betraying principles, to the point of facing a challenge from within their camp in the next legislative election.

Hong Kong public opinion and legislators in particular have to face a couple of critical questions. The first is whether a system that produces a contest between at least one establishment candidate and one democratic candidate is indeed “good enough.” The recommended system could be improved upon in several ways, of that there is no doubt. On the other hand, if this system works as optimists think it could, then Hong Kong voters will have a real choice in picking their leader, for the first time in history.

Second, would this mechanism indeed produce an election contest between at least one establishment candidate and one democratic candidate? Is there a way in which members of the establishment could nominally consider a democratic potential candidate and then deny him or her the nomination? In fact there is. The government’s proposal specifies that after all the potential candidates have been heard from, the NC members then select two or three nominees. Each NC members get two votes, and nomination requires 50 percent. So establishment members of the NC, after going through the motions of considering a pan-democrat, could simply not give that person the majority needed for nomination. The procedure and their numerical majority give them the power to do so.

But is such a bait-and-switch tactic wise politically? If this mechanism is sold both to the public and moderate democrats as a “good enough” way to produce a competitive election but the result is a contest between two individuals associated with the establishment and the status quo, how much legitimacy will the process itself and the person ultimately selected have? Will the polarization, obstructionism, and protests that have come to mark Hong Kong politics subside or grow? Will Beijing face more stability in Hong Kong or less?

In short, does this mechanism not put the establishment in a position that it almost has to nominate a moderate democrat if it is to enjoy broad community respect? And if the establishment is being challenged to do the right thing, so are the democrats. As imperfect as they see the current package, if it creates a good enough chance of electing one of their own, would the democrats not lose community respect if they reject it and deny voters a choice (they already know that Beijing and others will blame them for reverting to the old system)?

This dual challenge creates the possibility of a compromise. The missing ingredient, of course, is the mistrust that each camp has about the intentions of the other, mistrust born of the decades-long struggle over whether Hong Kong should have a genuinely democratic system. Providing that ingredient will be a challenge itself.