26 June 2010

And Then There Were Thirteen 剩下的十三個

After months of jeers and cheers, gaffes and laughs, even a mock referendum and a televised debate, the government’s 2012 Reform Package was passed by a wide margin this Friday. Less than two weeks before the bill was put to a vote, with time running out and Beijing breathing down his neck, Donald Tsang cobbled a feeble campaign together to promote what he touted as the only way to break the legislative impasse and to pave the way to universal suffrage. But the snake oil salesman failed to impress and Tsang was all but ready to accept defeat, just as he did five years ago when the pan-democrats vetoed a similar bill. Then suddenly, the storm calmed and the sky cleared: the biggest opposition party came to the chief executive’s rescue and handed him the seven votes he needed to close the deal. The rest, as they say, is history.

Before we begin talking about the reform package, you need to understand a few of things about our wacky political system. The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, stipulates that gradual changes are to be made to the way our chief executive and legislators are elected, with the goal that citizens will eventually be given the right to universal suffrage. What the government doesn’t want you to know, however, is that to get there we must first do away with the functional constituencies (功能組別), an invention put in place by the colonial government in 1985 out of political expediency. Taking half of the 60 seats in the Legco, functional constituencies are each handpicked by a small circle of voters within a trade or interest group. The Engineering seat, for instance, is selected by only a few thousand registered engineers, whereas the electoral base for the Insurance seat is made up of not a single individual but 140 insurance companies. It is absurd, but hey, this is Hong Kong!

Despite their small and uneven electoral base, functional constituencies wield enormous political power. Under the so-called “separate vote count” (分組點票) mechanics, any bill introduced by a Legco member must first be passed by the 30 non-functional, “geographical” seats, before it is put to a separate vote by the 30 functional seats. Think of the split as the Upper and Lower Houses of the British Parliament or the Senate versus the House of Representatives of the United States Congress. Designed to keep the opposition at bay, the bicameral voting procedure enables pro-Beijing special interest groups to override any decision made by democratically-elected lawmakers. But the wacky gets wackier yet. This procedure applies only to bills proposed by individual lawmakers; government-led initiatives, on the other hand, such as the controversial high-speed rail link proposal, require only a simple majority resolution by the 60 seats voting together. The double standard ensures that the government retain complete control over the legislative process and flies in the face of the principle of separation of powers.

If you are still reading this, then you must have a longer attention span than the average Hong Konger. Say the words “electoral base” or “super-majority” and people cringe and run for cover. In a money-grubbing, politically apathetic city like ours, few have the time or patience to understand all that mumbo jumbo, and fewer still bother to do something about it. That is precisely why the functional constituencies, as grotesque and pitifully undemocratic as they are, have managed to survive for 25 years unscathed and unchanged. But not any more. Despite the abysmal voters’ turnout at the de facto referendum organized by the League of Social Democrats (社民連) and the Civic Party (公民黨), the campaign succeeded in cutting through the obfuscation and telling Hong Kongers the one thing they need to know about the whole debate: functional constituencies are bad for us.

Now back to the reform package. When members of the Democratic Party (民主黨) were invited to sit down with government officials and representatives from the Liaison Office (中聯辦) to try to end the legislative stalemate, party chairman Albert Ho (何俊仁) came up with a few minor tweaks to the government’s reform proposal and offered to endorse it on the condition that Beijing must promise to abolish the functional constituencies by 2020. And when the Central Government finally threw him a bone, accepting the Democratic Party’s small revisions but rejecting that other more important demand, Ho made a 180-degree turn and hailed Beijing’s pygmy concessions as a major political breakthrough. In a matter of just a few days, the Democratic Party went from the administration’s sworn enemies to its cozy bedfellows, catching his opponents off-guard and angering even the staunchest of supporters. Local politics, I realized, is every bit as unpredictable as this year’s World Cup group matches.

On the issue of political reform, the only thing the city should care about is true universal suffrage. How we get there and what baby steps we should take in the interim to reach the finish line are a political exercise at best. The ugly U-turn by the Democratic Party has not only legitimized the functional constituencies by endorsing a plan that increases, rather than reduces, the number of their seats, but it also tacitly ceded the control of our legislative process to Beijing and in doing so threw the “one country, two systems” framework under the Basic Law out the window. Ever since the 1997 Handover, pan-democrats have closely guarded their veto power as their only weapon against the government on constitutional matters, only to be blindsided at the most critical moment by one of their own who handed over its votes to their enemies on a silver platter. The passage of the reform package has pitted the pan-democrats against each other, and a realignment of power within our political landscape is already underway. We will find out at the next general election whether the Democratic Party’s high stake gamble, played out so publicly this past week in front of a watching city, will pay off or backfire. For now one thing is for sure: Ho and his party members have crossed over to the dark side and passed the point of no return. In the end thirteen lawmakers stood their ground and voted with their conscience, but from this point on they must fight their battles alone. If it was Beijing’s plan all along to use the reform debate to drive a wedge among the pan-democrat coalition, then they had succeeded many times over.


  1. Thank you. Thank you so much. I love reading this kind of article.


  2. You are welcome, BJ. I hope you found the analysis helpful!

  3. "天生一副硬骨頭" is DP's Emily Lau's most famous last words.

  4. What came to mind after revelling to this article is that the whole thing is likened to a lucid political puppetry.


  5. Indeed, politics is the showbusiness of the ugly.


  6. DN,

    I honestly don't know what 劉慧卿 was thinking. She should leave the Democratic Party and join the Civic Party or revive her old party.


  7. Hi Jason,

    Thanks. I have been waiting to read this article posting.

    A good write-up. I was wondering what's your personal view on aftermath of the passage, in terms of political, social and economic developments in Hong Kong.

    I know that the air is definitely going to change; whether for better or worse is still to "wait and see". In the immediate interim period, for those who oppose the "give-in" of the Democrats will have to wade through utmost painful if not hurting experience to come to terms - over their many years of struggle for democratisation in Hong Kong - which evidently is realizing only a baby step forward towards a unique Chinese-style of self-rule, moving away from the once British colonial rule.

    While hoping the change (temporarily) to be positive tension, neither deviating nor diverting pan-Democrats' focus and full view from ultimate goal of Universal Suffrage.

    One wishful thinking: hoping that there is not and if not, how many more Chinese-style self interpretations of international laws' conformity will be put forward in the coming years.

    Your thoughts....


  8. 曾氏為一市長官,公務員體系中最高領導人,與余議員的辯論中,可見他於管理學(或管治術)之幼稚與不成熟。他應該踏實地替香港市民辦點有益事,反而更受歡迎。翻開香港以往的歷史,香港就任的港督,不是把全體公務員倚為肱股,而栽培、信任有加。因為,這是大群為他做事的幹部,是維護香港公共事務行之有效的重要班底。現在,竟有這樣一個中國特區行政長官把自己的幹部玩弄於股掌之上,把人不當人地,相信祇有毛澤東才做得出來。

  9. Dear Jason,

    As usual, here are my "mindless" impromptu comments as I traverse a fresh riveting piece from you. What a pity I can't say the same of the political situation in HK, especially when one was watching the news just then about the hollering in Victoria Park just as you were penning your piece, I guess.

    I was only 3 or 4 lines down and I was chuckling to myself already at your cynicism (don't tell me it's just your writing technique, I feel it; great minds think alike, huh ?! Though I have nothing to boast about myself... : p ) I hope I would be forgiven if I sound "unpatriotic" or disloyal or whatever, but the political arena in HK has been turning into a mockery post-97. I guss no nation / civilization on earth would like to be under colonial rule, or get their land and culture usurped like the Aborigines, and I remembered an elderly gentleman telling me once that we should not be "ashamed" or complain that HK is now under the PRC and not the UK, afterall, Chinese blood runs in all of us, but sometimes I do look on with dismay at the weekly demonstrations and politically folly we are facing EACH DAY. I appreciate Martie's comments, Chinese-style interpretations of the international laws conformity... From my own experience, they can't even interpret Chinese law in an uniform and standardized way, and they are trying (and have tried ) to interpret our laws and weave into OUR principle of separation of powers with their own embroidery, right?!

    I have to apologize, I have no solution to all these (I didn't even read PPE from Balliol), and I am probably an apathetic and resignated bystander to this all. But all I can say is, it pains to read and to see that this is happening to the society we are in and is being intertwined with our lives so closely.


  10. Hi Martie,

    You raised some good points. For now it is "wait and see" indeed. For instance, I am very curious as to how this week's July 1st March will turn out, with the Democratic Party under siege by angry supporters-turned-protestors. It amazes me that what used to be a champion of the people could became a public enemy overnight.

    Between now and 2017/2020, I have no doubt we will hear many versions of "universal suffrage" from Beijing, as Chinese officials continue to interpret and reinterpret the Basic Law and entertain us with they believe is a workable form of democracy for Hong Kong. The foreign press used to call our city a "semi-autonomy." I think even that dubious title is under threat.


  11. LLY,

    I agree with everything you said. I don't think Donald Tsang personally cares about anything, not Hong Kong, not the people, not even his own legacy. Tsang had wanted the job of Chief Executive so desperately and he got that already. And now he is just taking it one day at a time and hopes to get it over with before he retires on a huge pension.

    Funny that you should ask, "這是甚麼世界?" I ask myself that question EVERY DAY. There is so much social injustice in Hong Kong and yet so little is done about it. Sometimes I get very emotional and I get this urge to just pack up and leave the city once and for all. But I also know that there is social injustice everywhere (especially when I think of the U.S.) and I love Hong Kong too much to walk away from it. And so I write. For now that's my very very small way to try to make a difference.


  12. Hi Christine,

    Thank you for your comment as always.

    I get cynical too. Every night I turn on the evening news I hear the pro-Beijing camp feed the public with half-truths and most of the time complete nonsense. It hurts my ears and literally gives me a headache. I wonder if there'll be a day when I can't even bear watching the news. Sometimes I feel that the whole world has gone crazy and I am one of the very few sane people left.


  13. http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=364555&id=137222916290346


  14. "One man two votes" universal suffrage, a major political invention.


  15. I dun understand why ppl in Legco support Bowtie.... the outcome is so disappointing!!!


  16. The Democratic Party is finished. I feel so disappointed with them. They should merge with DAB.


  17. 所謂「改良方案」「開綠燈」all jst games。


  18. Disappointed...


  19. What? How come everyone is upset/disappointed, according to the polls, >60% support the 改良方案!?

  20. Dear Jason,

    Just read your comments to Martie's and LLY and my comments, and I think even those (there's no need for a complete article penned by you anymore) were enough to bring tears into my eyes.

    First of all, I empathize with what you are feeling, irrespective of whether that runs as deep in my veins. But what I want to say is, girlish and childish as it is, it's OK, 'it's OK" ..... I know not whether I am trying to hypnotize myself or you, but it is up to us to make a difference as long as HK is still habitable. I have long been forwarned by some elderly people that after all that has gone through in Chinese history, past and present, it won't be long when I will have to go back to live or work in Sydney rather than stay in HK.

    I think there has only been one definition of "universal suffrage" in HK, and that is the Chinese official definitition and certainly not what we learnt in our jurisprudence schools. And bear in mind that definition changes too in accordance with time, but Chinese time and interpretation and not the GMT. Forgive my rudeness, "semi-autonomy", does it mean anything at all? It is so empty, if we ever have had that in the first place, and what does "semi-" qualify? If we do not have it we do not have it; if someone decrees that you can only believe in Jesus but not the Blessed Virgin Mary, is that semi freedom of religion? What a farce... Does anyone understand what true freedom and autonomy mean even though I can't profess I can write a doctoral thesis on it. We have been fed (and spoon-fed in our education since kids, though not in your case if you attend AC, I know), and are being continually fed with what the others want us to know and believe in each day. That process has never stopped. There is no doubt about that.

    I don't know what DT wants, and I think I hardly care; and to think he is from one of the my most esteemed male colleges in HK. I have never quite asked "這是甚麼世界?" , but I have asked myself again and again what it is that I really want in life, in my life and in the lives of all around me. Sometimes I would look at myself in the mirror and question what this being REALLY is, and what I can to those around me if not necessarily to the entire world. Perhaps I am not in a position to question social injustice, coz' I know so well that I belong to the "lucky" and privileged class, but I do weep inwardly every time I see a wrong done, a street-sleeper on the streets, the marginalized like the Philipino maids taking shelter under the footbridges in the city on Sundays, and as recent movies remind me of the atrocities in the past. And the threat we are doing to the ecosystem. What can I do in this all? You are right, nowhere have I seen or learnt of a place that is socially just, Utopia exist in the books afterall.

    And you love the news items and journalism so much. I think of all the comments, it pains me most to read that there may be a day when you can't bear to watch the news anymore, it hurts to see a friend (allow me to call you friend ) in that state. Don't let that happen to you, overcome them and do not let this folly overcome you, emotionally or rationally or otherwise. Your personality and mind worth heaps more than these adulteration or whatever you call it.


  21. Jason,

    Below is my comment!



    (Dividing into 2 since Blogspot comment section can only accept 4000 word per comment)

    Several weeks up to the vote on the Political Reform, we, the public, witnessed some dramatic changes from the Democratic Party.

    The Democratic Party started getting warm with the Liaison Office long before they proposed and accepted the revised version. In fact, they became the cozy bedfellows the moment they sat down with the officials.

    Yet, that also means we should have seen the DP were up to something and everyone should have seen something sinister coming. But no, no one seemed to have any clues, not the League of Social Democrats (社民連) and the Civic Party (公民黨).

    From 21st June, the political scene is spinning and turning more rapidly and dramatically than the Space Journey ride in the Ecoventure Park in Shenzhen. But one thing is certain that there will be some “causality” at the next District Council election.

    I applause to the people who are so persistence on fighting to have universal suffrage for Hong Kong. However, we are no match to the Chinese government YET!!!

    When the 5 resigned and triggered a by-election. It looked like the pro-Beijing parties would rush to grab any seat and a share of the pie. Yet, the Chinese government stopped them and puppet the SAR government to tone down the campaign. How beautifully played!!! You got to give it to the Chinese government on how they can manipulate the media, the people and the SAR and achieved the lowest turnout in HK's election record.

  22. == Part 2: Two Birds with One Stone – pass the reform package and destroy the pan-democrat camp ==

    You would not believe the shock I felt when I heard Bowie Tsui was challenging Audrey Eu (余若薇). What was Bowie thinking? Why her? He is no match to her and why would he humiliate himself in front of everyone? Just as everyone expected, Bowie lost and everyone applaused Eu for her performance. The debate fed enough air time and printed space for the local media while the DP was talking to the Liaison Office. The hype was to set up that Bowie's proposal was rotten. We want a better version. So there you have it – slightly better version was proposed and at the last minute, accepted by the Chinese government. After all, like bargaining in the local wet market, you announce how much you would pay, the vendor gives a counter-offer and you throw back another counter-offer. Bingle! The DP threw a proposal, Beijing counter-offered and there we have it!!!

    I recently watched two movies, one said, “we should condemn the sin, not the sinner” (Prayer for Bobby – in cinemas now, if you want to watch it). Well, in that case, people should point their fingers at the DP for what they DID, if they don't agree with them, not their fingers at the individuals and calling names or cursing them. Thanks very much to the radical post 80s and Long Hair (長毛), the so-called Pan-democrat now is portrait as illogical or arbitrary.

    The other movie was about street gangs in London (Shank – a 2009 movie). One of the boy refused to beat up and bully a French kid, his friends then ganged up against him for he was no longer on their side. Well, that certainly rings a bell to me when the DP turned around and what treatment they got from their "old buddies". No doubt, such thought is echoing among the general public.

    The way I see it, now the “anti-government” camps are getting disorientated. The Chinese government successfully divided them and with the help of local media to labelled them as “radical” and “non-radical”. In fact, certain people enjoy being radical and would like to be labelled as such. What is left as a tiny common thread linking the “radical” and “non-radical” together now is the "abolishment of functional constituency". What they need to do is to sit down, try to find their common ground, and stop competing with each other for votes.

    Also, DON'T underestimate your enemy (or who you are up against, the Chinese government is not entirely an enemy). In the game of politics and propaganda, these pan-democratic parties are like kindergarten kids while the Chinese government is like a Professor. Remember how they could mobilise and brain-wash millions during the Cultural Revolution.

    As to me, now that it (as the political reform) is all said and done, let's move on and concentrate to build Hong Kong better. I am sick of those surveys on how Hong Kong has dropped in competitiveness as commercial centre, or attractiveness as tourist attraction etc. It is time to WORK TOGETHER and bring Hong Kong back to the international stage as “the place to be” in Asia!!!

  23. Hi Jason,

    Now that the July 1 protest march for democracry and uplift of grassroot level livelihood had just finished - with the headcount nos. still to be determined and announced - what's your take on this when on comparison with past years' march and subsequent developments?

    I'd given a miss this year because of the sobering heat with fear of heat stroke and body dehydration. Sort of disappointing that my footprints were not there this year.

    There's emerging a definite change of scene. The unity and unanimous slogan in past march are no longer in sight - with marchers divided into two factions and confronting fellow participants. Ugh..what an ugly sight.

    My belief on all 'the change' that came about was from trick or treat (carrot or stick) tactics of the Central Government - demonly but successfully divided and conquered all HK democratic seekers; creating a case of disharmony, i.e. enmity among people who stood up for democracy over a large part of their lives in Hong Kong.

    To Donald Tsang, this day is historical and the most joyous moment of his troubled career as CE - where he could eventually gain unqualified support on his fateful governance - while he had always pereceived those who oppose his "parental based formulation of policies" as foes. History will remember him in perspective.

    May this be only a temporary loss of power of the people for all democracy seekers....or else HK people are all locked up as trapped and bonded enemies.

    After heavy rain, there's always a rainbow in the horizon. Let's keep that hope and better future for Hong Kong.


  24. Dear Jason,

    Today I just discussed this issue with my classmate who's agree with HK should follow China, the communist system. But in this point I said it's just a start, I do agree with you Jason like you said the city should care about is true universal suffrage. How we get there, those baby steps and reach the finish line. I think is not only political excercise but is also a big huge test about trust to the government, how they can handle it?

    Because for the Chinese Communist Party it is a great irony of history, which one stood for the revolution, didn't believe in national sovereignity at all, but now will take over HK, it has Western system, liberal world view.

    I also wondering about "universal suffrage" from Beijing, how they can make it? It's not easy because China's military originally designed for wars, defense of its own territory, to one capable fighting and winning in short duration. They want instant result but forgot the process and how the mind work to reach the long term goal. Their mindset same as great wall I think, it's long but it's thick, apology maybe it sounds cynical :)

    I agree in some parts, they are strong in power, military, economy but the country is just wake up for couple minutes not yet run in the liberal thinking the daily life. They are over confident, because they forgot the important point, how to change the mind from communist into liberal? Mean same as they need to change their life history.I'm not against China but this one come out based on my experienced blend with some of the mainland students and sees how life goes in China. The government has no transparency.

    It takes lifetime because deep rooted and becomes culture, lifestyle how they have gain the perspective to see the world.. And as I know China's never use the world United or maybe I'm wrong. This is the important word to create one purpose. Like I always discuss with my father, they are big but not yet united. We can see from their characteristic. We can see that they blocked Youtube, Facebook, Google. This is the powerful new media these days. And in the few years later will change and control the world. They blocked theirself from the world and I dunno why. The growth from media is not transparent, I heard from my friend whom works in media. Especially if the news is about government, they make up, because I'm asking about how to sue people.

    Their fighting spirit is very high but sometimes makes them cheating not use the fair process.
    Another question is do you believe that China is the peaceful rise and the competitor from US?

    It's not that easy to change the system in only in one decade, I experienced it until now when we had the reformation 1998. In Jakarta, when our president Soeharto fell down because of the demonstration from the students. It has changed the history of our country. But sadly said until now the government not yet settled the problems, and the condition is getting worse with point of no return.

    I also wanna say special thanks for your blog, it's really help me lots during I work on my final Year project and I'm now doing another research about Asian lifetysle design and culture. I will put it as a reference if you don't mind. :)

    And your book collection is great; I look for my free time reading again, I have 2 books wait for me. :)

    Keep on writing and inspiring us, always wait for your new article. I wish you a wonderful weekend.