Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Three Views of Election Reform in Hong Kong and the One Country-Two Systems Policy

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

The issue of voting reform in Hong Kong has produced a lively debate about the nature of the relations between the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong and the nature of the political system and the possibilities of political reform in Hong Kong.  The South China Morning Post has been running some commentary about the issues, including the somewhat notorious issue of student political action through the Occupy Central movement.  

Thousands of students from two dozen schools in Hong Kong skipped classes Monday to protest "dictatorial" control by the Chinese central government over the territory's election rules.

Students began a weeklong boycott with a rally on the campus of Chinese University of Hong Kong, where they demanded that Beijing withdraw its election reform plan and issue an "apology to the Hong Kong people." (Joanna Chiu, DEUTSCHE PRESSE-AGENTUR reprinted at Philly.co., Sept. 23, 2014)

At the same time, indications from the central government suggest a determination to more closely manage Hong Kong from Beijing (e.g.,Beijing to take a more active role in Hong Kong's affairs, hints Xi Jinping, South China Morning Post, Sept. 23, 2014). And indeed, the "One Country Two Systems" Policy may be undergoing transition in light of the State Council's recent White Paper: "The Practice of the "One Country, Two Systems" Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region."

This post includes three quite distinct views of the issue and provide a very useful window on the complexities of the issues and the politics of electoral reform in Hong Kong. In the first, "Lessons in Life,"Surya Deva, an associate professor in the School of Law at City University of Hong Kong, suggests that students boycotting classes in Hing Kong in support of democracy can benefit form the experience as it gives them an important lesson in experiental learning. The second, "Champions of Beijing Camp Losing the Public Opinion War on Political Reform," by Albert Chen King-hon, a Hong Kong political writer, suggests that out of touch leaders have failed to effectively sell the pending changes and have contributed to popular discontent by badly handling the situation. The last, "No Benefit for Hong Kong if Election System stays the Same," by Bernard Chan, a member fo the Executive Council, argues that so-called pan democrats are acting out of anger and failing to see the value of the proposed changes.

"Lessons in Life"
Surya Deva

As students from several universities and colleges prepare for a week-long boycott of classes from next Monday, to protest against the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision on political reform for Hong Kong, the local community is responding in diverse ways.

While some are sympathetic to students’ right to assert their freedom of speech and expression in a peaceful way, the anti-Occupy Central movement has gone to the extent of establishing a hotline for people to report incidents of class boycotts. Others have cautioned students about staying away from classes, saying that doing so might adversely affect their learning.

Are students really going to suffer a lot academically by boycotting classes for a week? Opinions may differ. But I think they would benefit, overall, if they missed classes for a short time for a legitimate cause. In fact, if they were to take the class boycott as a “learning group project”, they could accomplish what is generally not achievable within the four walls of a classroom.

There are several major limitations of the dominant learning model currently practised at universities. The first is that we teach in compartments divided first by disciplines (such as politics, business, law, philosophy, mathematics, and so on) and then by separate courses within each discipline.

However, the challenges that graduates face outside educational institutions do not arise within these artificial boundaries. The universal suffrage saga is a case in point: it is a fascinating cocktail of law, politics, ethics, public policy, colonial history, economics, business, international relations and media advertising.

The project of boycotting classes for one week to push for universal suffrage will offer students an unprecedented opportunity to learn collaboratively in an interdisciplinary setting. Students should gain a lot by working with their peers from across the disciplines at all levels.

Students could, for example, apply a cost-benefit analysis to examine the viability and desirability of a temporary class boycott. Also, why not test the behaviour of the relevant parties to the universal suffrage debate with reference to the prisoner’s dilemma? Similarly, law students could explore with students of politics and philosophy the intersection of law, politics and morality.

While management and business students could harness their leadership and and organisational skills before and during the planned boycott, those studying creative media could join with information technology students to develop means to communicate effectively and in an efficient way with a diverse range of people. The second limitation of classroom learning is the lack of adequate opportunities to apply knowledge to diverse and ever-evolving real-life situations. While teachers employ real or hypothetical case studies, those tools are not always adequate.

What Hong Kong is currently experiencing is unique and constantly evolving. Students would develop a better ability to adapt and react to situations by actually experiencing the political saga rather than sitting on the fence and looking through the lenses of others.

The third limitation of our education system is the excessive focus on grade oriented knowledge accumulation. Grades are important, but equally vital for life is developing a social and ethical consciousness.

By participating in political reform on their own terms, students would realise that, sometimes, grades might have to be sacrificed to some extent to uphold paramount principles. Organising a week-long class boycott would also enable students to harness a range of generic soft skills. To begin with, they would learn to communicate concepts such as universal suffrage, representative democracy and constitutional freedoms to peers from diverse disciplines. Since not all students are likely to support the proposed boycott, students could also learn the art of persuasion by trying to convince each other of the pros and cons of the campaign as a means to achieve certain goals.

Despite sincere attempts to build a consensus, disagreements are bound to surface. This should help students to understand the value of agreeing to disagree and respecting diversity of views. The class boycott project should also result in students picking up other skills, including formulating goals, working in teams, developing reflexive strategies, coordinating tasks and analysing scenarios critically. For example, students would need to analyse critically not only the Standing Committee’s decision but also the political situation in Hong Kong as well as on the mainland. Considering the nature of the subject matter, a discussion on how to strike a balance between sacrosanct principles and pragmatism would be inevitable.

After the strike, students may also learn the limitations of protests and the power of constructive engagement. The aim of this boycott is to fight for democracy and freedoms. In the future, students should consider a class boycott to further many other worthy goals as part of their learning projects – for instance, collecting donations to assist the poor, helping the elderly with their daily chores, promoting sustainable living, and building cultural bridges between people from different ethnic, racial or religious communities. Apart from enhancing the capabilities of students, such projects would benefit the whole of society.

This could, however, only happen if we trust our students – the future of Hong Kong. The current generation should share space with students in shaping the future of Hong Kong and mainland China. The need of the hour is to nurture active, reflective and socially responsible learners who have the capacity to make informed decisions.

Surya Deva is an associate professor in the School of Law at City University of Hong Kong. The views expressed here are the author’s own


"Champions of Beijing Camp Losing the Public Opinion War on Political Reform,"
Albert Chen

The authorities are waging a war against the pandemocrats in the court of public opinion in a bid to steamroller Beijing’s highly restrictive nominating method for the next chief executive election in 2017 through the Legislative Council.

It is anybody’s guess how much the Communist Party has spent on its so-called united front efforts in Hong Kong, but it must be a huge amount.

The Hong Kong government is expected to turn the unpopular decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress into a proposed amendment to the Chief Executive Election Ordinance early next year. A two-thirds majority in the 70-member legislature is required for the measure to pass.

If it is vetoed, the status quo will be maintained. The bureaucracy’s propaganda machine is now focused on luring the public to take whatever is doled out.

At this critical juncture, both mainland and Hong Kong officials are pulling out all the stops. Yet their line-up of talking heads to argue the case has been, to put it politely, dismal. Their public faces have included the usual ultraconservatives hand-picked as NPC delegates and members of the Executive Council. They include Elsie Leung Oi-sie, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, Maria Tam Waichu, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun and Arthur Li Kwok-cheung.

They have come across as little more than Beijing mouthpieces. Instead of lowering the political temperature, their sound bites have often ended up inciting more discontent. Leung, a former secretary for justice, said Hong Kong had to become a municipality directly under the central government if residents were to ask for more liberal election rules.

Li ridiculed the planned student boycott of classes by asking three times in the same breath, “Who cares?” He dared the students to give up their university places instead. Students and alumni of Chinese University are ashamed to say that Li was once its vice chancellor.

Tertiary students have been at the forefront of the civil disobedience movement in the wake of the NPC’s decision. Their action is echoed by some progressive students in secondary schools. These young activists, in particular, have become a target of the campaign to stem pro-democracy protest efforts.

The Alliance for Peace and Democracy has gone as far as advertising a hotline to name and shame those secondary schools that allow their students to boycott classes. Its spokesman, Robert Chow Yung, even had the nerve to say the hotline would help our children. The move is a reminder of tactics employed during the Cultural Revolution, when people were urged to betray even those closest to them in the interests of the party.

The alliance’s name-and shame tactics have led to a public outcry, as they are a flagrant breach of the fundamental values in education.

These pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong are typically aged over 60 and thus witnessed the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. They often seek to compare the student activists to Mao Zedong’s red guards.

Yet, as the hotline stunt has shown, it is these people who are resorting to red-guard tactics to resist change.

Another figure who has stepped into the limelight is Wong Kwan-yu, from the Federation of Education Workers. Wong became known two years ago for his role in the government’s aborted attempt to introduce national education as an independent subject into the school curriculum. He was a director of the National Education Services Centre, which had been funded by the Education Bureau to produce material suitable for national education.

Wong told Scholarism convenor Joshua Wong Chi-fung that he and his fellow activists were not much different from triad gangsters. He is oblivious to the fact that the students are just calling for a peaceful demonstration in the form of a class boycott. In contrast, it was the leftist pro-Beijing students in Hong Kong who took an active role in the violent riots of 1967. Chief Executive Leung Chunying and his governance team have consistently performed poorly in popularity surveys. If other public faces of the anti-Occupy Central movement were included in the polls, their popularity scores would probably be even worse.

The fact that opportunists such as Robert Chow and Wong Kwan-yu lead the antidemocratic movement says a lot about the calibre of the rest of their camp.

As the proverb goes, in the country of the blind, the one eyed man is king. The French have a similar saying, which is equally applicable to us: “When a blind man bears the standard, pity those who follow.” We need to keep our eyes wide open to see where these blind standard bearers are heading.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk


"No Benefit for Hong Kong if Election System stays the Same,"
Bernard Chan

I have previously argued that legislators and the community in general should accept the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision on election methods for 2016-17. I said we cannot ignore Beijing’s view of Hong Kong’s constitution in a national context. And I said that rejecting the proposal would do nothing but delay reform.

I also argued that the package, with its element of universal suffrage, really would be an improvement on the current system. Pro-democrats refuse to accept this. They insist that pro-democracy lawmakers should veto this reform, and indeed the next round of consultation.

In effect, they are claiming that we would be better off with the current system. This makes no sense. Yes, the proposed framework is a huge disappointment to many people. But I wonder if some opponents are so bitter and angry about it that they refuse to admit that it is an improvement.

Let me expand on what I wrote about the nomination process for the 2017 chief executive election. I believe that this process, combined with an election by universal suffrage, will produce a far more representative outcome for Hong Kong. That makes it a real improvement.

It comes down to the prenomination stage of the process. This will not be some sort of secret deal fixed behind closed doors. We will not wake up one morning and read that three (or maybe two) individuals have made it onto the ballot for election. We can imagine a number of individuals – maybe eight or nine, or more – competing at this primary stage.

We cannot say specifically how these contestants will be proposed. The forthcoming public consultation will cover that. But I am confident that this will be a competitive process, in full public view. I am also sure that contenders will come from a range of backgrounds; there is no reason a pro-democrat should not take part.

These primary-stage contenders will need to debate in public on big and sensitive issues. They will need to propose their own platforms on education, welfare, housing, tax, economic policy, consumer rights – you name it. If some of them back policies that the public doesn’t like, you can be sure other contenders will criticise them for it. Public opinion polls will identify those with strong public backing. And they will highlight any that the public dislike.

The 1,200 members of the nominating committee will not be able to ignore public opinion in this primary stage. It would be naive to think that someone hostile to Beijing would get onto the ballot. But that still leaves a lot of possibilities.

If I am wrong – if the whole process is rigged and we get just a couple of unpopular “stooges” on the ballot – the whole election loses any credibility. Opposition groups could probably organize a successful boycott of the universal suffrage election. With a low turnout, the “winner” would be visibly rejected by the electorate. Our governance problems would, if anything, be worse than they are now.

I am pretty sure that officials in Beijing and locally have thought this through.

After the primary stage, there will be two or three candidates on the ballot for a universal suffrage election. They will not get that far without being serious about wanting the job. They will compete for your vote. This is going to be very different from the past.

I am not saying this system will be fully democratic. And I am not claiming that, even with an improved mandate, our government will suddenly be perfect. But this really is better than the status quo.
Boycotting the next consultation, or vetoing the final package, might make angry prodemocrats feel good. But please tell me: how exactly do the people of Hong Kong benefit from another five, 10 or even 15 years of the current system?

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council

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