Anyone following Hong Kong’s political reform saga might well have concluded that the 2014/15 controversy about electing the city’s Chief Executive by universal suffrage was over and done with.

At the very least, Beijing’s restrictive August 31, 2014 (8.31) ultimatum, mandating mainland-style party-managed elections, must be well and truly dead after the June 17, 2015 veto by pro-democracy legislators. It was the 8.31 directive that provoked Hong Kong’s 79-day Occupy street protest in late 2014.

But the controversy is not over. Beijing’s electoral reform design has risen from the ashes of defeat and seems set to fight another day, sooner rather than later.

xi jinping
Chinese president Xi Jinping. File photo: Michel Temer via Flickr.

Evidently the electoral reform project is to be revived with the same Beijing-mandated framework, the same arguments, and the same official players.  Only the action plan will be different.

Instead of a definitive Legislative Council up or down vote on Beijing’s design, the next round is to be played out via the coming, September 4, Legislative Council election. From the look of it, Beijing has an ambitious plan: not just winning more seats for its candidates but also shoring up its authority by saving the day for its 8.31.

The scene was set a year ago when Beijing leader Zhang Dejiang encouraged pro-Beijing politicians to win more seats in Hong Kong’s next Legislative Council election. It was during a duty visit, the first after loyalists and their allies in the council failed to break pan-democrats’ vow to veto 8.31.  Just five more seats would give their opponents the two-thirds majority needed to override that veto.

But if Zhang’s intention was to reintroduce the very same reform bill, drafted by the Hong Kong government in compliance with Beijing’s August 31 directive, no one actually said so, until now.

Re-introducing 8.31

 Campaigning for the September 4 election is well underway and enthusiastic candidates are struggling to distinguish themselves from each other. Too many hopefuls chasing too few seats (June 27 post). But most of the talking is being done by pro-democracy partisans and they are almost all thinking in more comprehensive terms, terms that reflect local fears about the growing pressures to “mainlandize” key aspects of Hong Kong’s political life.

Pan-democratic lawmakers
Pan-democratic lawmakers. Photo: Stand News.

The year 2047 now looms large in debates about how best to protect Hong Kong’s inherited rights and freedoms. Beijing was only willing to guarantee the local way of political life for 50 years from 1997, when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule. Hence the preoccupation with evolving political trends, now that the first 20 years of that 50-year guarantee have expired. But there has so far been no renewed discussion about the specifics of Beijing’s 8.31 electoral reform mandate.

That’s why the full-page spread in the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao on June 23 looked so out of place. There seemed to be no particular reason for a banner headline that came out of nowhere to proclaim: “The central government is truly sincere in promoting the democratic development of Hong Kong’s political system: the 8.31 decision points clearly in the direction of universal suffrage.”

More than that, the 8.31 directive: “is a historic document that not only gives Hong Kong’s five million eligible voters the opportunity to elect their Chief Executive by one-person-one-vote beginning in 2017. At the same time, and besides designating the principles for the concrete methods of electing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive by universal suffrage, the directive points the clear way forward, with the effect of law that cannot be changed.”

The article also reviewed the details of the directive, complete with the old 1,200-member Election Committee scheduled for a simple name change to become the Nominating Committee that is to endorse, by a 50% vote, two or three candidates. Readers were reminded that the directive is constitutional and legal and guarantees elections that will be open, fair, and just.

cy leung 689 votes

Short companion pieces reinforced the message by citing relevant passages from Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution and the June 10, 2014 White Paper.  The latter was issued by Beijing in the midst of the electoral reform controversy and startled Hong Kong with a blunt declaration that Beijing enjoyed comprehensive jurisdiction (全面管治權)  over all such matters, including the high degree of autonomy that Hong Kongers were taking too much to heart.

Readers were also reminded that it had been pro-democracy legislators who vetoed the Hong Kong government’s bill, drafted in conformity with 8.31, thereby depriving Hong Kong citizens of the chance to elect their Chief Executive in 2017.

Officials join the campaign

 Then, after having spent the past year pouring cold water on all suggestions about reviving discussion of electoral reform, the Hong Kong government’s two top officials have come forward with happy faces full of smiles to say just the opposite.

At a July 2 forum sponsored by ex-Civic Party legislator Ronny Tong’s new moderate Path of Democracy (民主思路) think tank, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said she hoped the new, 2017-22, administration would be able to restart the electoral reform process. She spoke in unfamiliar terms, about political legitimacy and popular mandates, and about the Hong Kong government’s need for greater authority of the sort that can only come from a government elected by the people  (人民授權).

carrie lam
Carrie Lam. File Photo: Stand News.

So, career civil servant Carrie Lam has discovered the virtues of a popular mandate. And so has Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. A few days later, speaking to journalists, he volunteered similar sentiments, even though no one had asked.

He said that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive should be elected by universal suffrage as soon as possible. To be elected by one-person, one-vote would give the executive greater authority (認受性) and it was everyone’s hope, here and in Beijing, that such an election would come to pass.

Leung acknowledged the difficulty of overcoming democratic opposition as reflected in last year’s veto. But Leung said that both democratic legislators and Beijing would have to find ways of narrowing their differences. He said he had done what he could to try and bring the two sides together, but so far to no avail.

Leung nevertheless ended his July 5 press briefing with an enthusiastic pitch: “We must bridge differences; only then can we accomplish political reform. To do political reform work well is in fact the common aspiration of Hong Kongers and the government, including I myself and the central government, something for everyone to energetically strive for and accomplish.”*

Something is obviously going on. But what? A decision has evidently been made to revive electoral reform ahead of the September 4 Legislative Council election, which will make the election in effect a referendum on 8.31.

legislative council
File photo: HKFP.

Leung Chun-ying’s reference to differences on both sides that need to be bridged might be a sign that Beijing is toying with the idea of making some concessions. The engaging velvet-glove presentations by Leung and Lam suggest the same. Or do they ?

That full-page reminder as to the iron-clad unwavering effect-of-law components of the 8.31 directive indicates otherwise.

Or it might be some combination of both, with a carefully thought-out strategy designed to exploit the opportunities being offered by September’s Legislative Council election.

The pro-establishment camp (composed of Beijing loyalists plus conservative allies) is far more cohesive than pan- and pro-democrats. And all the establishment needs is five more Legislative Council seats in order to achieve the two-thirds super-majority required for passage of the 8.31 electoral reform package as is.

With the hint of a possible compromise by Beijing, if only democrats will cooperate, Leung and Lam are tempting voters to consider the significance of electing their Chief Executive. But for that to happen, they will need to look favorably upon the most moderate candidates, those most likely to accept Beijing’s rules of engagement.

Or pro-democracy partisans might simply squander their votes by dividing them up among the multiplicity of pro-democracy candidate lists that grow more numerous by the day.

Suzanne Pepper headshot

Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.