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Comedy of Errors 錯中錯

In politics, sometimes a mistake is just a mistake. Then there are blunders so shocking that they draw gasps and deer-in-headlights stares from even the opponents. The latter happened at Legco today. 

After nearly two years of bitter political wrangling, 79 days of street occupation, months of government-funded media blitz, and a last-minute appeal to the opposition by senior Beijing officials, the biggest constitutional showdown in the post-Handover era finally came to an end – and a dramatic one at that. It came as little surprise that the Beijing-backed proposal for the 2017 chief executive election was voted down at the legislature. What’s astonishing was the 28-to-8 defeat. There are 70 seats in Legco and 42 of them are taken by pro-Beijing lawmakers. That means the government was only about five votes shy of the super-majority it needed to pass the electoral reform bill. There were unconfirmed rumors that pro-democracy lawmakers were offered hundreds of millions of dollars to change their minds, although none of them took the bait. In the end, however, the bill that Hong Kong’s No. 2 official Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) has been peddling for months received only eight out of the 70 Legco votes. Even a Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t have come up with a better twist.

Legco vote count

Exactly what happened is the subject of much contention and confusion. Here’s what we do know. The reform bill was submitted to Legco for a vote yesterday. It triggered a series of predictable floor debate and political posturing that lasted until early afternoon today. But then, shortly after the voting bell had already been sounded, all but a handful of pro-Beijing lawmakers suddenly got up and walked out of the room. Those who stayed – nine from the pro-Beijing camp and 28 pan-democrats – constituted a quorum and they cast their votes: 8 yea, 28 nay, 1 no-vote, 33 absent. Most of the absentees were the pro-Beijingers who had left the room. That’s right, the reform proposal that the Communists had practically drafted themselves will now enter the history books as a bill that got less than 10 votes. For Beijing and the SAR government, it was the equivalent of being thrown a dozen eggs and having them rubbed all over the face. Dripping yolk and all.

After the vote, Jeffrey Lam (林健鋒), a member of the pro-establishment Business and Professionals Alliance (經民聯) and the bumbling lawmaker who initiated the walk-out, scrambled to do damage control. Flanked by his fellow Beijing loyalists (including a visibly fuming Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀)), Lam told reporters that the whole thing was a case of misunderstanding. He had intended to stall the vote by staging an adjournment, Lam claimed, in order to buy some time for fellow pro-Beijinger Lau Wong Fat (劉皇發) who was late to the session. Lam’s real motive might have been to derail the vote altogether to give the Liaison Office (中聯辦) – the de facto Chinese consulate in Hong Kong – a few more days to get some of the pan-democrats to switch sides. Whatever his rationale, Lam failed to communicate his plan to everyone in his own camp, and so some of them ended up staying in their seats. Of the nine, eight followed the party line and cast a “yes” vote. Poon Siu-ping (潘兆平), a little known labor union head, was present in the room but he didn’t vote. The poor guy said he didn’t know how to respond, panicked and then pushed the button too late. 

The walk-out

The turn of events looks like amateur night at a comedy club. It is as mortifying as a soccer player who kicks the ball into his own net, or a runner who passes the relay baton to the wrong team. It may be funny-ha-ha for us viewers at home, but Beijing isn’t laughing at all. A political autopsy is now feverishly underway to find out what went wrong and who should take the blame. Slow revenge is not for China, public lynching on the spot is more its thing. That means heads are expected to roll in the coming days. This time, however, everyone is fair game. Any member of the pro-Beijing camp, C.Y. Leung and his cabinet, and the Liaison Office can potentially be held responsible. 

To Beijing, this practical joke is another reminder that it should never send an idiot to do a communist’s job. These so-called loyalists may be successful businessmen in their own right, but savvy politicians they are not. They play too much golf and not enough team sports to know how to work together. They are no better than the rent-a-crowds who were hired this week to stand outside Legco and chant pro-government slogans they didn’t understand. Opposition lawmaker Long Hair put it best: it was like drafting a bunch of boy scouts to fight World War II. The biggest loser today was perhaps Regina Ip. The fact that she was one of the lemmings who headed to the Legco door might have dashed her hopes to be the next chief executive. By Beijing’s book, Ip is just one of the idiots.

The government's "Make it Happen!" campaign

Meanwhile, the pan-democrats are laughing all the way to the bank. Yes, the situation is comical, but more importantly, they have all come out of the political crisis unscathed. With public support for the reform bill hovering at around 50 per cent, they have reason to be worried. Half of their constituents may punish them at the next election for rejecting a proposal that would have given them a vote, any vote, in 2017. A huge upset at the ballot box for the pan-democrats would be Beijing’s consolation prize, especially if the pro-democracy camp loses enough seats such that they can no longer block future electoral reform bills. Luckily for them, the blooper today has shifted the public’s focus and deflected the narrative. Come the next Legco election, few voters will remember the likes of Alan Leong (梁家傑) and Emily Lau (劉慧卿) as democracy blockers. Instead, citizens will think back and say to themselves, “Ah yes, the reform bill got only several votes. What a dreadful proposal it must have been!” Tonight, the pan-democrats can heave a collective sigh of relief; some of them may be celebrating in Lan Kwai Fong right now. Champagne, champagne for everyone!

As for the rest of us, we are now back to Square One. With the bill voted down, Beijing is expected to permanently shelve the sore subject of electoral reform. Hong Kongers can kiss goodbye Article 45, the Basic Law provision that guarantees the right to freely elect their leader. For the five million eligible voters in the city, universal suffrage is dead on arrival. Amidst the belly laughs and cackles, we know deep down inside that the joke is really on us.

From the left: Regina Ip, Lau Wong Fat, Jeffrey Lam
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This article appears in the South China Morning Post under the title "Comedy of errors at reform vote leaves pro-Beijing camp red-faced... but is the joke also on us?"

As published in the South China Morning Post

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