Hong Kong’s Pro-Beijing Forces Lose the Plot

The issue that has transfixed Hong Kong for months and gripped democracy advocates abroad – whether Beijing’s method for selecting the territory’s chief executive – ended yesterday in confusion and embarrassment for the forces that are China’s biggest ally in Hong Kong.

A decision apparently born of bewilderment resulted in only eight pro-Beijing United Front lawmakers in the Legislative Council voting for the proposal, crafted by Beijing, which would have set the stage for the 2017 election for chief executive.

Under Beijing’s plan, which set off 79 days of protest in the city last year, guaranteed all of Hong Kong’s eligible citizens the right to vote, but only for candidates selected by appointees and approved by Beijing.

A two-thirds majority vote was required to pass the measure. If the pro-Beijing forces had held together, they would at least have had the moral victory of a heavy majority – 41 for to 28 against – even if not the two thirds needed.

But 32 pro-Beijing lawmakers mistakenly left the chamber, resulting in a vote of only eight for the measure, with all 28 of the pro-democracy lawmakers voting as a block against it. One pro-Beijing lawmaker who was present was so confused he did not vote at all. (The 70th member of the council is the president who normally does not vote)

An obviously displeased government in China thundered through the People’s Daily mouthpiece: “The opposition must bear full responsibility for hindering Hong Kong’s democratic development. Opposition members are disregarding mainstream opinion to reject the universal suffrage bill.”

But the People’s Daily didn’t mention that it was a procedural cock-up that resulted in the vote debacle.

The resulting defeat of the resolution by a huge margin made no practical difference. It would never have got the necessary two-thirds majority, given the antipathy of a large segment of Hong Kong’s population and their elected representatives. But it left the pro-Beijing group, the core of the government supporters, looking inept. Nor could they now claim that when it came to an actual vote the majority were in favor of the proposed change.

That is important because whatever the pro-China lawmakers did, the pro-democracy forces can claim that they represent the true feelings of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents, whose loyalty to the government across the border continues to diminish. That is also important for a Southeast Asian region increasingly edgy about the giant neighbor to the north. The governmental entity closest to China’s borders – indeed considered a part of China – has clearly said it is not interested in Beijing’s style of government and wants its own.

The method of electing lawmakers and the chief executive will now revert to the previous system unless some compromise can be found. But beyond that, where Hong Kong goes next is anyone’s guess. In the final analysis, the pro-democracy group showed that despite many divisions it could stay united on this issue, and Beijing’s United Front alliance showed a level of incompetence that left Hong Kong bemused and the pro-Beijing forces now unable to claim that it is only the pan-democrats opposing so-called universal suffrage. There has to be fury in Beijing about the united front’s incompetence.

Confusion rules

What seems to have happened is this. The pro-government side wanted the debate to end early rather than in the late afternoon when crowds of opposition demonstrators were expected. As a result its legislators were advised not to make long speeches. They did as they were told. As a result, and because no legislators was allowed to speak more than once, by soon after midday there was no one left to speak so a vote on the resolution had to be called.

Most of the pro-Beijing group, waiting for a member caught in traffic or ill, walked out of the legislative council to await his arrival to attempt to postpone the vote – but their coordination was so bad that enough of them, oblivious to the plan, stayed in the chamber, inadvertently constituting a quorum.

That meant the president of the council, himself the former leader of the main pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance (DAB), had no option but to proceed with the vote. The handful left voted against, but resulting in a lopsided vote against Beijing’s plan instead of a strong simple majority for it.

So bizarre was this end to Hong Kong’s long-running battle on the matter that some smelled a rat. Had the sudden call by the president for a vote been an attempt to trap the pro-democrats who had not been expecting a vote till much later in the afternoon and perhaps been unable to get to the chamber on time?

Or was the government camp, knowing the motion would not get the two thirds majority required, creating a fiasco so that it could later demand another vote on the subject when it had been given more time to persuade, bribe or blackmail enough pro-democracy members to change their stance?

The “cock-up” theory of history however seems a better bet than conspiracy. There was no possibility that the pro-democracy group would be caught napping. This was their moment and they were all there to vote against. Meanwhile the pro-Beijing side was in practice far from unanimous in declining to vote. The final tally: 28-8 to ditch Beijing’s proposal.