Hong Kong’s Pro-Democrats Make a Mess of Things

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp is in deep trouble, a political situation that the world is watching as a precarious experiment in democracy on China’s southern flank – and one of the most important free economies – comes under increasing pressure from its giant neighbor from the north.

Political game-playing and posturing on the parts of the pro-democrats are making a mess of the governing process and, to Beijing’s delight, masking the depth of antipathy that a significant proportion of the population have toward China. A huge cross-section of Hong Kong’s residents want nothing to do with governance from China.

After increasing their share of seats in the September election the pro-democrats find themselves facing the possibility that they will lose two or three and perhaps even more of those in the Legislative Council, the territory’s legislative body, to lawsuits based on the alleged “insincerity” of their oath-taking at the commencement of the opening of the session the Legco, in October.

Beijing’s National People’s Congress has already intervened, pouncing to pre-empt a ruling by the Hong Kong courts on whether two legislators could re-take their oath of office after the rejection of their previous quasi-comic efforts.

The NPC ruling went well beyond the specifics of the case to lay down a broad interpretation of the Basic Law governing Hong Kong which could be used to silence legislators and others seeming to promote the separate identity of Hong Kong (or Taiwan or Tibet or other places viewed by Beijing as integral parts of China).

Nonetheless the local court heard the case brought by the Chief Executive against the two would-be legislators as required under Hong Kong law. In the High Court hearing, the judge ruled against the two but on grounds which avoided the NPC decision. He made it on common law grounds without specific reference to the Basic Law. He argued that though the legislature was no subject to the judiciary, the case fell under the requirements in oath-taking that they did not “truthfully and faithfully intend to commit themselves to the oath” and hence the One Country Two System principle.

The matter is now subject to an appeal which is unlikely to succeed and anyway would be quashed by the now pre-existing NPC ruling.

If this was just the end of the matter it could be written off as an unfortunate outcome of foolishness on the parts of two very young elected persons from the Youngspiration party. But it was soon followed up by the launch by two pro-Beijing activists of separate cases against no less than 13 other elected representatives of localist and pro-democracy groups. They demanded judicial review of or removal of their right to sit in Legco on grounds that they had been “insincere” in their oath-taking and shown disrespect.

Most of these cases seem unlikely to make progress through the local courts, but one might. All the others now find themselves facing the possibility that the NPC will intervene yet again and determine that they had not been acting sincerely in their oath-taking or had otherwise sought to question the Basic Law or the position of Hong Kong within China.

In any event, the banning of the two opens up the distinct possibility that pro-democracy candidates will lose the now-vacant two seats. The Youngspiration and some other radical localists were elected partly because Hong Kong multi-member constituencies make it possible for those with, for example, only 15 percent of the vote to be elected. By-elections for single seats on the other hand become straight fights between pro- and anti-government forces.

If the pro-democracy forces can unite behind a single candidate they can probably defeat the better organised, funded and disciplined pro-Beijing camp. But if they cannot, or choose a young radical who enjoys strong support among the young but alarms many older and middle class voters, they will likely lose.

If the pro-democracy camp loses too many seats, the Beijing-aligned forces which control most of the narrowly based “functional constituencies” would move them to a two-thirds overall majority which would allow them to changes laws governing the elections themselves.

Thus they would be able to push through the changes Beijing proposed for choosing the Chief Executive – rejected in the past – and the constituency system for Legco in such a way as to make it very difficult for radical candidates to be elected.

Meanwhile the cases against those chosen under the existing system have distracted attention from the issue of the choice of Chief Executive to be made in March. This is probably helping the unpopular incumbent, CY Leung as his critics and opponents have temporarily ceased to be in the headlines.

However, it may also be showing Leung to be even more the agent of Beijing rather than one who aspires to represent Hong Kong as far as possible without offending Beijing. Any successor must now face the fact that Beijing has become accustomed to almost daily interference through its Liaison Office in the territory as well as now also via the NPC.

It will need discipline as well as determination on the part of supporters of Hong Kong autonomy and Two Systems if this is to be stemmed.