Government’s electoral reform proposals meet with mass opposition

Last year, Hong Kong was shaken by the mass ‘Umbrella Revolution’ of youthful democracy protests which occupied several areas of the city for more than two months. In mid-June, the China-ruled territory’s pseudo parliament, the Legislative Council (Legco), will vote on whether to approve Beijing’s “fake democracy” blueprint – which triggered the mass protests – or to reject it.

The bourgeois ‘pan-democratic’ opposition parties wield enough votes in the Legco to prevent passage of the government’s proposal, which requires a two-thirds majority. Despite their fear of confrontation and a history of seeking rotten deals with the Chinese dictatorship, the opposition parties are under enormous popular pressure to use their veto.

An eleventh hour meeting on 31 May between Beijing’s representatives and the ‘pan-democrats’ to try to break the stalemate merely confirmed the gulf between the two sides. ”We are left with an unequivocal conclusion that the central government [in Beijing] is not going to yield one iota,” said Civic Party leader Alan Leong.

Despite an unprecedented fear campaign by the Hong Kong and Beijing governments – invoking the threat of a stock market crash and even the cancellation of Hong Kong’s autonomous status by the Chinese one-party dictatorship – the mass mood against the government blueprint is solid. This is a plan for an ‘Iran-style’ election in which only candidates endorsed by a government-controlled nomination committee can run. The establishment’s fear campaign about what happens if their proposal is not accepted has so far only succeeded in further antagonising public opinion. As a result it has failed in its ultimate aim which is to split the 27-member pan-democratic opposition bloc in the Legco and win over four defectors – enough to ensure passage of the legislation.

This confirms what Socialist Action (the supporters of the CWI in Hong Kong) and chinaworker.info said last year – that, despite the failure of the Umbrella Movement to win concessions, which led some participants to draw defeatist conclusions, the outcome was a Pyrrhic victory for the government.

“Make it happen”

In mid-April the Hong Kong government launched its propaganda campaign “Make it Happen” to gain acceptance for the reform package. Its argument is that even those who don’t like the proposals should think tactically and “pocket” the reform, so that the process of democratic reform (there is no such ‘process’) can move forward. Reject this plan, they say, and there will be no new offers to democratise the system for years to come. Accordingly, not only will progress towards one-person-one-vote be halted for the Chief Executive (head of government) election, but also for the Legco, which is currently only half-elected with half its seats allocated to business and professional groups.

But too many people have seen through these arguments. They understand that accepting the government’s reform package will only serve to legitimise the bogus democracy of the ruling Chinese ‘Communist’ Party (CCP). Rather than being a stepping stone towards further democratic openings at a later stage, the real aim of the current proposals is to call a halt to Hong Kong’s ‘democratic development’, which has become more and more irksome to Beijing. The Chinese dictatorship wants to concentrate greater powers in Hong Kong in the hands of its Chief Executive, using the fake election system to provide a cloak of legitimacy for this, and at the same time to weaken other organs such as the Legco, which, despite its limitations, exercises a certain check on the government’s power.

The Xi Jinping regime wants to resurrect draconian national security legislation, known as Article 23, to suppress Hong Kong’s ‘protest culture’. A Chief Executive elected through pseudo universal suffrage is seen as being in a stronger position to push through Article 23, which was defeated 12 years ago by mass protests. That this strategy could now be torpedoed by pan-democratic legislators exercising their power of veto will only reinforce the CCP’s conviction that democracy has already gone too far in Hong Kong.

The 79-day Umbrella Movement changed Hong Kong

Losing support

The Hong Kong government’s propaganda campaign has been a fiasco. The net result so far has been to reduce the numbers “willing to accept” the government’s proposal from 47 percent on 29 April (‘Now TV’) to 42.5 percent in a poll published on 12 May (South China Morning Post). Unconfirmed reports say that Beijing set a target to raise public acceptance of the reform plan to 70 percent. Clearly, that is not going to happen. The campaign is now mostly about preparing for the defeat of the plan in the Legco, when Beijing’s propaganda machinery will blame the pan-democrats for blocking ‘universal suffrage’ in Hong Kong.

The pan-democratic leaders are attempting to use the current standoff to rebuild their support, which has been badly dented by the Umbrella protests in which they were relegated to a secondary role and met with widespread scepticism. This time last year, the right-wing or ‘moderate’ pan-democrats were still convinced they could win some concessions from Beijing and were prepared to settle for far less than the “true democracy” they now uphold as a principle. Leaders of the Democratic Party had stated not only that they could accept Beijing’s nomination committee – if ‘democratised’ – but also that free nomination of candidates (public nomination) was not a condition for an eventual settlement. It was Beijing that closed this door with its ruling in August last year, which plunged the ‘moderates’ and their compromise line into crisis.

It is the mass Umbrella Movement (symbolised by the use of umbrellas as shields against police pepper spray) that explains the current position of the pan-democrats which is very different – and for the government more problematic – compared to the previous political reform battle in 2010. At that time, the Democratic Party and its ‘moderate’ allies entered into secret negotiations with Beijing, which led them to vote for the government’s reform package on the pretext of winning concessions, which were in fact bogus. The Democratic Party was widely ostracised for this betrayal and lost 42 percent of its vote in the following Legco elections of 2012.

Although today’s events are not a replay of 2010, it would be a mistake to think the ‘moderates’ have shifted to a more combative position, or realised, as a result of these explosive battles, that the road of compromise and reform is doomed to failure. While more and more, especially among the younger generation, are awakening to the fact that only a mass movement in Hong Kong and in China to overthrow one-party dictatorship is capable of securing genuine democracy, this is a closed book to the pan-democratic leaders.

Nevertheless, with the government offering nothing, not even cosmetic concessions, and the hot embers of the Umbrella Movement still glowing, it is not possible for the pan-democratic right-wing to repeat their betrayal of 2010. An opinion poll conducted by TVB showed that 71.4 percent of pan-democratic voters said they would refuse to vote for any candidate who voted for the government’s reform package.

The columnist, Steven Vines, in the South China Morning Post summarised the acute dilemma that faces the pan-democratic leadership: “The reality is that if the democratic legislators forsake their frequent pledges to block the government’s proposals, there will be an eruption of anger and a deepening feeling that trying to obtain reform through constitutional channels needs to be abandoned in favour of confrontation on the streets.”

The final possible refuge for would-be defectors could be the argument that an ‘even worse’ outcome must be averted. This scenario would be based on taking at face value the government’s threats to cancel further rounds of electoral reform, and the even more incendiary threat to abolish the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement and impose central control over Hong Kong.

But how credible are such threats in the current situation? This is not about the formal or ‘constitutional’ powers of the central government, but the actual political balance of forces. It was Beijing that restrained the Hong Kong government during the Umbrella Movement from unleashing even greater police repression, to avoid further inflaming the situation with the risk that, at a certain point and level of intensity, the Hong Kong movement could spill over into mainland China. This is connected to the array of difficulties that currently face Xi Jinping and the Chinese regime with a sharpening internal power struggle, growing international tensions, and so far unsuccessful attempts to arrest a severe economic downturn.

Referendum?

The blocking of the government’s package – as now seems most likely –¬ will be a significant defeat for the CCP regime. It involves a loss of political prestige and awards a ‘posthumous victory’ to the Umbrella Revolution.

Far from emerging strengthened from this showdown, however, the pan-democratic bloc shows increasing signs of disarray and fragmentation. The proposal of Democratic Party veteran Albert Ho Chun-yan to resign his Legco ‘super seat’ later this year and trigger an unoffical city-wide ‘referendum’ (by-election) on the reform package is mainly driven by the desire to shore up the Democratic Party’s position and prevent further losses to its more ‘radical’ rivals. The Democratic Party opposed and actively sabotaged the referendum campaign of 2010, similarly triggered by resignations, and their conversion to this tactic today inevitably raises a lot of questions. This version of the ‘referendum’ tactic is more restrictive and top-controlled by the Democratic Party establishment, which will translate into a less radical programme and appeal, especially among the younger generation.

These contradictions have been forced into the open by the decision earlier this month of the youth group, ‘Scholarism’, to withdraw from the leadership of the ‘referendum’ campaign. The larger Federation of Students, which is now undergoing a sharp internal crisis, is also likely to distance itself from the Democratic Party-led by-election campaign.

Scholarism raised “reservations” about the insistence of the Democratic Party that all organisations participating in the campaign leadership must “leave aside all the arguments in the pan-democratic camp”. This is an outrageous but unfortunately typical example of the lack of basic democracy in campaigns dominated by the pan-democratic establishment.

As we also saw in the largely phantom ‘five-side platform’ set up by the pan-democratic leaders and their allies to try to control the Umbrella Movement, which enjoyed little actual support inside the movement, this represents a fundamentally undemocratic approach to building and running a mass movement. The Democratic Party’s attempt to ban “arguments” (i.e. opinions other than their own) has more in common with CCP-style politics than a democratic approach.

Student Federation splits

In a parallel development, the Student Federation has been plunged into a historic crisis as four of eight university student unions have voted to disaffiliate. The votes to split have been initiated by the right-wing populist and racist ‘nativist’ movement.

The ‘nativists’’ attacks on the Student Federation leadership, often hysterical and personalised, have struck a chord with a layer of students unhappy with what is widely seen as a bureaucratic organisation, while this does not mean these layers support the ‘nativists’’ other political positions. The undemocratic methods of the pan-democratic leadership, and their history of shabby deals with the government, have created a breeding ground for the confused and reactionary ideas of the nativists, who combine anti-mainlander racism and pro-independence rhetoric with an ‘anti-hijacking’ narrative against the pan-democrats - ideas that get an echo in today’s political climate.

The Student Federation leaders are now paying the price for not distancing themselves clearly from the pan-democratic leaders, in terms of politics and methods, and even using similar top-down methods – as was the case in the Umbrella Movement. A mass student organisation with a democratic tradition and politically conscious activists would have been able to withstand what on the part of the nativists is a conscious wrecking campaign.

The emergence of nativism as a major trend is a complicating factor in the current political conjuncture, especially the growth of racist ideas. But the inherently contradictory and unstable nature of the nativist currents also points to a future of conflicts, splits and crises among the nativists themselves.

Workers’ alternative

The Beijing-based one-party dictatorship is staring at probable defeat over Hong Kong’s political reform. While it can live with that situation, it represents a setback for its plans. It heightens the prospect of continuing political instability in Hong Kong that could later spill over into China. What is lacking in the situation is a mass workers’ alternative that can take advantage of the regime’s discomfort and press forward.

This is a key lesson from the Umbrella Movement and from the lack of a fighting strategy from the leaders of the pan-democratic camp. These parties and political groups are locked into a capitalist perspective – that the ‘free enterprise’ system is the essential economic framework for ‘democracy’. Yet Hong Kong and China prove irrefutably that when it suits their interests, the defenders of capitalism can also be stalwart defenders of dictatorship.

As Socialist Action has explained, democracy in Hong Kong and China can only be achieved through class struggle to break the dictatorship of the dominant billionaire families and their representatives in China’s ruling clique. For this to be possible, a new workers’ party with socialist policies needs to be built on both sides of the border and, indeed, internationally.

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