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Beijing is hoping to go directly to the people to move obstinate pan-democrats. Fat chance.


 

Former constitutional affairs minister Stephen Lam Sui-lung was ridiculed by journalists for being a “human recorder” for repeating official answers when faced with journalist attempts to find fault in his responses. His successor Raymond Tam Chi-yuen has proved to be a different animal. He caused a stir last week when he departed from the Government’s downbeat tone on the fate of the political reform, saying he has become “cautiously optimistic”.

Steadfast

When asked by reporters, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who heads a three-member reform task force, of which Tam is a member, said she saw no sign of a softening of the pan-democrat legislators’ opposition stance. She remains pessimistic. The third member, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, shares Lam’s views.

Pan-democrats were quick to rubbish Tam’s remarks, dismissing it as a mere psychological tactic aimed to confuse and divide them. They renewed their vow to veto the political reform bill.

True, there are no clear signs of a forthcoming U-turn of any pan-democrat lawmaker regarding their stance on political reform since the second-round consultation began in December. The three-month consultation is due to end this week.

With the final battle at the Legislative Council drawing near, speculation is heating up that cracks within the pan-democrat opposition will surface, making the impossible task of passage of the reform bill possible. Seen from that perspective, Raymond Tam may only have spoken too early of an imminent change of luck. The winds of change may soon blow over the reform battle.

Optimists prime

That may be the growing perception among optimists in the political circle. Nevertheless, public opinion remains sharply divided. Although most polls show that supporters of the passage of political reform outnumber those who oppose it, the margin is not high enough to put pressure on the pan-democrats to rethink.

Speaking to reporters on February 28, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said government’s internal polls showed over half of respondents support political reform based on the rules set by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on August 31, or the so-called “8.31” model. On March 1, the pro-government flagship Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said their survey found 61 per cent backed the “8.31” model. Only 24 per cent said no. The DAB poll was conducted by a lesser-known pollster. According to the poll, 84 per cent said legislators should vote in accordance with public opinion.

A poll conducted by the Hong Kong Medical Association among members, however, showed opposite results. 53 per cent of respondents reject the “8.31” model. A total of 2,462 members including doctors, dentists and medical students responded to the survey between end of January and end of February. The findings were similar to another survey conducted by legislator Leung Ka-lau, who represents the medical functional constituency, published earlier. Citing the Association’s survey, Leung said he was firmer on voting down the bill.

Leung is one of the independents in the pan-democratic camp widely tipped to be among the members who might change their stance over the reform bill. The government needs four more votes from the pan-democrat legislators to meet the threshold of a two-thirds majority of Legco members for reform approval as required in the Basic Law.

Government officials have no hope that pan-dem parties, including the Democratic Party, Civic Party, Labour Party would support the “8.31” model. It is only through their non-affiliated status that that non-affiliated lawmakers, including Leung, Joseph Lee (health services), Charles Mok Nai-kwong (IT) and Kenneth Leung (accountancy) are tipped as the likely U-turners. None have given an indication they are ready to move.

Hang together or hang separately

If that is the government game plan, it may prove to be wishful thinking. One of the independents listed above earlier told me there is no way for him, or the others, to change their stance if none of the major parties switch. Moderate independents may feel they can only change their stance if they do so in conjunction with their caucused counterparts in major democratic parties, especially the Democratic Party. By doing so, it could help lessen the political fallout of a reversal of stance by them. The lawmaker, who chooses to remain anonymous, made it clear he would not change his mind if other pan-dem political parties continued to oppose the bill.

This Party’s not for turning

History of the dramatic, and controversial, passage of the 2012 Legco electoral reform featuring the so-called “super district council seats”, shows the Democratic Party are almost certainly the make-or-break factor in political reform. Their decision to enter  into negotiation with the central government in 2011 made history. In this case, history appears not likely to repeat itself.

The plain truth is that the Democrats in 2015 are not the Democrats of  2010. Gone are the veteran strategists including Szeto Wah (who died in 2011), Cheung Man-kwong and Yeung Sum, who stepped down in the 2012 election.

More importantly, the Democrats have shifted from away from their moderate stance to adopt radical politics in the wake of their humiliating defeat in the 2012 Legco elections and the beginning of the hardline rule of Leung. Their deteriorating ties with Leung, who order to all team members, including deputy ministers and political assistants, to boycott the Democrats’ 20th birthday banquet on February 27 has added salt to old wounds and further dimmed hopes of another Democrat U-turn.

Carrie Lam said on Tuesday the Government would publish a report on the second-round consultation next month, followed by a government proposal on  the chief executive election, kicking off the most critical stage of reform in summer.

To the people!

With no sign of a U-turn of pan-democrats, the Government has pinned its hopes on public opinion to pressure pan-dems to change their mind, or, put positively, provide a convenient reason to justify a U-turn. Officials have started floating the idea that pan-democrats should heed public opinion if 60 per cent of respondents back the “8.31” model. Pan-democrats said privately they would only reconsider if an overwhelming majority of people, say, 70 to 80 per cent, support “8.31”,

In view of the consistency of opposition against “8.31” shown in previous polls and the declining popularity of the central government, a sharp rise of support for Beijing’s electoral model in the next few months seems unlikely.

Beijing holds the key

Much has been said about the power of pan-democrats to veto the political reform. In reality, Beijing holds the key to the city’s acceptance of “one person, one vote”. There are two lines of thinking in the central government. Hard-liners including Liaison Office head Zhang Xiaoming has said “the sky will not fall” even if reform fails. “Doves” including Wang Guangya, who heads State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, has recently told a group of local advisers Beijing still hoped to see the passage of reform.

The hard-line view seems to have prevailed, at least for now. The Chinese Communist Party is also known for its pragmatism and flexibility when faced with the scenario of a all-lose situation. But if no real compromise is offered, the chance of a passage of the “8.31” model remains wafer-thin.