Beijing Splits Hong Kong's Pro-Democracy Forces

Clever divide-and-rule tactics by Beijing have split the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong and assured passage of what passes for political reform in the territory. The now-certain passage of the electoral changes, which only marginally enlarge the franchise, represents a victory for chief executive Donald Tsang, who has devoted massive government resources to trying to drum up popular backing for the proposals.

It is doubtful that Tsang had much success with the populace -- and even less when he appeared in a debate on the subject with Audrey Eu, who leads the Civic Party which continues to reject the proposal. Even Tsang himself acknowledges he was trounced.

But the barrage of propaganda was effective with the current leadership of the Democratic Party, the largest and oldest of the pro-democracy groups, who felt that a little progress was better than nothing. The new reform package is only a little more democratic than ones rejected by the legislature in 2005. Although pro-government members, mostly drawn from business groups, are in the majority in the legislature, any constitutional changes require a two thirds majority. In 2005 the pro-democracy groups were united in rejecting the reform as totally inadequate.

This time Beijing played hardball till just the right moment. The Democrat Party had suggested an enlarged franchise for voting for District Council members who form part of the group of so-called Functional Constituencies that comprise half the legislature. This originally had been dismissed as contrary to the Basic Law, the mini-constitution created by Beijing for Hong Kong. However, seeing that enough Democratic Party and some non-party waverers would accept this, Beijing changed its tune.

Although this will now be trumpeted as a major advance, the fact remains that Hong Kong is still lacking a timeline for moving to a fully democratic system of direct election of legislators. It remains stuck with a system of functional constituencies which are in effect corrupt, rotten boroughs via which business groups, some with corporate not human electors, get favors from the government in return for votes in the legislature. Although the functional constituency franchise is being expanded, these indirectly elected groups will continue to form half of an enlarged legislature.

The role of the legislature is anyway subject to erosion by a government which, in good Communist party and colonial tradition, believes in "executive-led" government and prefers that the legislature and courts be subservient to it. The courts are not but the legislature's composition means it seldom fights to protect its authority from being bypassed.

The Tsang government has, despite its failures to win over the populace, been quite successful in presenting some of the pro-democracy groups as radical and extremist – even the Civic Party, which consists mainly of lawyers. It has even attracted onto its Executive Council some high-profile persons once regarded as pro-democracy liberals such as former Equal Opportunities commissioner lawyer Anna Wu and academic Anthony Cheung . They seem to have scant influence on major social and economic issues on which they might be thought to have strong feelings. But evidently they enjoy the position – and membership of innumerable other government so-called advisory bodies and private company boards.

Where all this leaves the pro-democracy parties is anyone's guess. The Civic Party, which had alienated many for instigating by-elections as a form of referendum on democracy, has probably made up ground thanks to its firm stance and the performance of Eu in the debate.

The more radical League of Social Democrats, with three high-profile and unruly legislators, has stuck to its guns and refused to budge. Its core constituency will approve.

But the Democratic party itself is now deeply divided with its still much respected former leader Martin Lee opposing the deal with Tsang while high profile battler and former journalist Emily Lau has supported it. In the process she and others such as party leader Albert Ho have come in for much abuse from student and other activists groups who feel let down by the older generation of pro-democracy leaders now seen as too eager to do deals with Beijing.

The bottom line is that although the pro-democracy parties may be split, the underlying sentiment still runs in their favor. This is a consequence not so much of their eloquence, tactics or leadership, which are all sorely lacking, but of government actions which daily show that its executive and legislative councils are pawns of tycoons and Beijing.