HK's civic freedoms and lack of democracy are an incompatible, unsustainable combination, which is why it is alone globally in that quadrant of the grid of democracy and civic freedoms. Either we move to a democratic open society, or we join mainland China and others with neither civic freedoms nor democracy. The status quo, with recurrent protests against an illegitimate and paralysed government, is not a viable option.

One HK, two possible outcomes
9 October 2014

The number of protesters currently on the ground in Admiralty may be dwindling through fatigue, but the reason they are protesting has not gone away. In a survey of HK citizens commissioned by SCMP and carried out by the University of HK's Public Opinion Program before the protests began, 48% said legislators should veto the restrictive reform proposal handed down by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC), while only 39% said they should take what they can get and "pocket" it.

So of those who expressed a view, 48/87 or 55% wanted a veto. They would rather be stuck with the old system in the hope of a better deal later. And if you had asked those who were in favour of "pocketing" the plan whether they thought this was true universal suffrage, undoubtedly some of them would say no. A clear majority of those citizens who have an opinion want genuine choice, not a choice between 2 or 3 candidates chosen for them by a majority of a rigged committee.

HK is probably the only place in the world that seeks to combine the core civic freedoms of speech, assembly and the media with an authoritarian unelected Government. That's because the combination is unsustainable. Take a look at this table.

  Democracy No democracy

Civic freedoms
Most of the developed world & much of the developing world

No civic freedoms

China, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Syria, absolute monarchies and other dictatorships

There are plenty of regimes (mainland China included) that, for decades at a time, have been able to combine an absence of civic freedoms with a lack of democracy until the economics fail. In China's case, they trashed the economy for 30 years from 1949 until the people could take no more, and then spent the last 35 years partially rebuilding it with the partial introduction of free market principles (no miracle there, just recovery).

Then there are open democracies that have been politically stable for centuries, because they can hold their leaders accountable for economic failure, and indeed they have maintained stability by broadening the electoral franchise and devolving power.

But in the other two quadrants, there are no examples of sustainably combining civic freedoms with authoritarian rule, nor are there any true democracies which sustainably crush freedoms of speech and the media, because the people won't re-elect leaders who do that.

The way out

In a 12th-hour media conference last Thursday (2-Oct-2014), with massive crowds in Admiralty calling for his resignation after the tear gas and riot police were deployed the previous Sunday, the Chief Executive appointed the Chief Secretary to meet with the protesters and discuss constitutional development. But he said:

"We should work within the framework of the decision of the NPCSC and so on, so forth. Only do we follow the provisions of the Basic Law and the decisions of the NPCSC can we have universal suffrage in 2017."

Now to recap, on 6-Apr-2004 during the debate over whether we could have universal suffrage in 2007, the NPCSC issued an interpretation of the Basic Law laying out the "five-step method" for future reforms. It said:

Article 45 of the Basic Law says in relevant part:

"The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures."

But when you read the CE's report to the NPCSC issued on 15-Jul-2014, it is quite evident that the current "actual situation in HK" has either changed since then, or he failed to get it right the first time. In fact, the report was so indecisive as to offer no advice to the NPCSC at all, even if they were seeking it, and Beijing came down hard with its own decision.

The talks and the options

The democratic option

The talks scheduled for 4pm on Friday between the Chief Secretary and the protest leaders (or at least, the Federation of Students) will go nowhere unless the governments here and in Beijing are willing to accept that the "actual situation in HK" has either changed or was not accurately reflected in the July report, and that the decision of the NPCSC was therefore made on faulty information.

Following the 5-step framework laid down by the NPCSC in 2004, the CE should send a new or "supplemental" report to the NPCSC with a clear recommendation for a formula that would be acceptable to the majority of the public. For it to be acceptable, it has to walk and talk like democracy and give every candidate who meets the Basic Law criteria (aged over 40, resident for 20 years, Chinese without a foreign passport), a fair chance to be nominated and elected.

The recommendation does not need to go outside the Basic Law. It can continue to use a nominating committee rather than direct civic nomination, but it does need to contain a reasonable threshold for any candidate to be nominated by the 1200-member committee, such as the 12.5% used in 2012 and not the 50% majority proposed by the NPCSC in its latest decision. That's not nomination, that's pre-election.

The Chief Executive and Beijing have one last chance to take the moral high ground and regain the confidence of the HK people. By the CE making a fresh report, and the NPCSC making a fresh decision, they can show that the "two systems" model is alive and well, and that, just as HK is a laboratory for RMB internationalisation, it will be a laboratory for democratisation, with the rest of China to follow when it is ready.

The draconian option

The alternative, of course, is for HK to join mainland China in the bottom-right quadrant of our table - non-democratic and no civic freedoms. That would involve tearing up the Basic Law, co-opting the judiciary, directing the media, filtering the internet and jailing dissidents after pushing through a heavy-handed piece of Article 23 national security legislation. Hey presto, no more protests (or at least, no more reported protests), and no more Webb-site, because we could only say what the Government thinks. The economy would be badly hit, and any economic impact that the protests have had would be miniscule by comparison.

It's worth noting that even if the Sino-British Joint Declaration is upheld, it only promises the "two systems" model for another 32.7 years until 30-Jun-2047. We will need to know pretty soon, in the next 10 years or so, if China is leaning towards implementing its one system and removing civil liberties in HK in 2047, because it will start to impact confidence when making long-term investments. The outcome of the current struggle for democracy will tell us a lot about where we are headed, and by extension, where China is headed (if its leadership retains power).

The hope in 1984 was that by 2047, China would be a prosperous, open, democratic society, including HK seamlessly. So far, we are almost half-way through that 63-year forecast, but China has only about 20% of developed-world prosperity and none of the civil liberties. It probably won't get past 40-50% of developed-world prosperity without introducing those liberties. The only exceptions to that rule have been small, energy-rich kingdoms.

The unsustainable option

The two governments may be operating on the assumption that they can drag out the talks, clear the streets in the middle of one night and arrest a few hundred remaining protesters, and then press on with trying to implement the NPCSC's decision. That would be a mistake. Even if they can temporarily clear the streets and twist the arms of 4 of the 27 pan-democratic legislators to achieve the 2/3 majority of the 70-seat assembly, this would not resolve the real problem, that the Government lacks the legitimacy of an electoral mandate and therefore suffers from constant policy paralysis.

That policy paralysis, and the occasional spasmodic populist policies and interventions, are undermining the economy. You cannot have a free market without having free competition for the leaders and policies which allow it to function.

The protesters have broken and occupied new ground and found new confidence - if an issue has wide enough support, and democracy surely does, then the Government can no longer expect to contain dissent in carefully planned and authorised Sunday marches from A to B. If the democracy problem is not resolved now, then it will have to be revisited in future large-scale unauthorised protests. Next time it would be more coordinated - remember that it was accidental that it began when and how it did at Tamar - HK has actually functioned around this blockage pretty well.

So HK really only has 2 choices - either step up to democracy and join the top-left quadrant, or remove civic freedoms and join China in the bottom-right quadrant. Staying where we are, with recurrent protests and an illegitimate government, is not a sustainable choice.

Reforming the committee is a subsidiary issue

In the talks, the Government may seek to stay within the confines of the NPC's 31-Aug decision and deflect the argument by offering psuedo-reforms to the composition of the sub-sectors of the nominating committee or the ways in which its members are elected. While there is certainly a lot of room for improvement there (for example, abolition of voting by companies), in no way would that address the core issue of the nomination threshold.

Suppose for the sake of argument that the entire nominating committee was selected at random from the adult population, which is as "broadly representative" as you can get. It would then be equally unfair to both pro-Beijing and pro-democracy candidates that they should have to obtain majority support of the nominating committee before they can enter a general election. This would still amount to a pre-election rather than a nomination.

And of course, these psuedo-reforms would have to be false, because if China won't lower the nomination threshold, then it won't allow the nominating committee to be so broad that it might only pre-elect pan-democratic candidates, so the nominating committee would have to stay rigged.

Sorry to drone on

Finally we could not end this article without including the amazing Youtube video by Nero Chan, an amateur drone operator in HK, which gives you some idea of the scale of the peaceful protests last Tuesday, the third night of the protests.

©, 2014

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