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Hong Kong democracy fire stoked again
By Janus Lam

HONG KONG - Since Beijing's veto in April of early universal suffrage in the elections for Hong Kong's chief executive and Legislative Council (Legco) in 2007 and 2008, the issue had disappeared from the public eye. The heat is on again, however, as legislator Cheung Chiu-hung, one of the newly elected pro-democratic members of the Legco, proposed that the method of both chief executive and Legco elections should be decided by a referendum by the people of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's Basic Law, or constitution, does not mention anything about referendums, and the Beijing leadership and Hong Kong legal experts are divided in their interpretations over the situation. The Beijing leadership insists the drafters of the Basic Law had no intention whatsoever to introduce such thing as a plebiscite, but Hong Kong legal experts says what is not overtly prohibited in law should be allowed, at least according to the common-law tradition. Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997; China says it is committed to universal suffrage and it has 50 years from 1997 to bring it about, but only Beijing can decide when the time is right for Hong Kong to enjoy full democracy.

Simple as it appears, the referendum proposal - not formal legislation - has nonetheless spurred a new round of political controversies in the territory and irritated the central government in Beijing. As expected, the relationship between Hong Kong's democrats and Beijing - which had been improving in the past few months when the central government even invited some possibly pliant democrat legislators to Beijing for direct dialogue - has gotten tense again. China experts warn that Beijing must be careful in dealing with these democrats because its excessive and coercive tactics could backfire at any time.

On October 18, Cheung, a social worker and university lecturer (elected from a functional constituency, not by popular vote), put forward his referendum motion, which had been scheduled for further discussion on Monday. The voting at the panel under the Legco was postponed on Monday, however, because of a procedural mistake. The date for the next meeting has not yet been decided. However, it was widely believed that the proposal would not go far, or even be fully debated, because of the expected majority opposition from pro-government legislators.

Three "pan-democrats" returned from functional constituencies (only a portion of legislators are directly elected) had declared on Sunday that they would abstain during the panel discussion on the referendum. That made the prospects for a referendum very dim. It is widely believed that Beijing's opposition toward the referendum is related to the move by the three "pan-democrat" legislators, although they have denied they were pressured by Beijing.

Cheung's proposal was met with Beijing's censure. Li Gang, deputy director of the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong, denounced those who suggested holding a plebiscite as "playing with fire". Li lashed out at the proposal as flying in the teeth of the Basic Law and representing a challenge to the central government, which theoretically has a final say in Hong Kong's major affairs, including constitutional development, which would cover any referendum or plebiscite.

Beijing's intense responses are understandable. In fact, it has some traumatic experiences with plebiscites. On October 20, 1945, Outer Mongolia employed a referendum and passed a motion declaring independence from China, thus becoming today's independent nation of Mongolia, while Inner Mongolia remains a Chinese-administered region. More recently President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan - which is considered a renegade province by Beijing but an independent or self-governing entity by many Taiwanese - has also been playing the plebiscite card. Chen held referendums on two sensitive questions - acquiring better defensive capabilities against China and calling for improved cross-strait relations - along with the March presidential election, and he even planned to pass an all-new constitution by 2008. Both referendum measures failed for lack of voter participation.

For Beijing, Chen is a hardcore separatist who has been promoting the island's independence with both covert and open schemes, such as referendums. One might even be about independence. As a result, the plebiscite concept has almost become a political taboo on the mainland for it could well give power to separatist voices and undermine the country's territory integrity.

Political pundits believe that Beijing's stiff opposition to proposed plebiscite in Hong Kong can be attributed to the following reasons:
1) Given the negative precedent in Taiwan, Beijing simply will not allow Hong Kong to follow suit, which might further encourage Chen to deploy referendums as a weapon to fight Beijing.
2) As it has always stressed, Beijing wants to lead, instead of sitting back and observing, the constitutional development in Hong Kong.
3) The results of a referendum, if it came to pass, could culminate in a powerful public consensus that jeopardizes Beijing's leading role in Hong Kong affairs. Such a situation is the last thing the central government wants.

On the other hand, what the democrats in Hong Kong want most is the increasing recognition of the validity of plebiscites and a popular, universal vote in 2008 for chief executive, which could put pressure on Beijing. After Beijing's veto in April, the discussion for a genuine general election in 2008 has almost died and the public has seen an increase in different opinions that criticized the suggestion from the pro-democratic camp as impractical. Many more legislators call for a more protracted strategy, proposing a popular vote in 2012 for the chief executive, allowing more time for preparation and consultation. As a result, the democrats brought forward the issue in the Legco again, hoping to rekindle the public's concern over the constitutional development and raise the awareness of their work to bring about authentic democracy and pluralism.

However, the proposal is a two-edged sword for the democrats, because both Beijing and the Hong Kong government already have expressed opposition to any kind of plebiscite, while the position of the middle class - the traditional vote bank of the democrats - remains unclear. Analysts caution that the pro-democratic camp should be careful in proceeding with the proposal and any miscalculated and excessive moves could backfire.

As a fail-safe, alternative strategy, the democratic camp proposes a civil plebiscite - instead of one funded by public money - and it has managed to receive support from Bishop Joseph Zen Zen-kin of the Catholic Diocese; the cleric has been highly critical of Beijing's and the Hong Kong government's rejection of early universal suffrage. China experts are still concerned that the democratic camp does not have enough resources to fund a civil plebiscite. If badly organized and with a poor turnout, it will leave the camp vulnerable to the attacks of its rivals, mainly the pro-government and pro-Beijing members of the Legco.

Most important of all, the proposal has created conflicts even inside the pro-democratic camp. Three members of the democratic camp, including lawmakers Kwok Ka-kid, Joseph Lee and Maundy Tam, said on Sunday that they would not vote for the referendum if it was discussed at the Legco meeting. Cheung Chiu-hung, the lawmaker who spearheaded the referendum proposal, regretted their decisions and explained that there existed some misunderstandings about the plebiscite. He said it would not be legally binding and only would serve as an indicator of public opinion for the leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing. Yet would it produce that powerful public consensus, which could be used to pressure Beijing, that political groundswell that the democratic camp has long been striving for?

According to one informed source, a few officials in the central government do hope that Beijing will cut off the budding communication with Hong Kong democrats once and for all - if the deadlock between the two sides remains over the fundamental political issue of universal suffrage, of which the skirmish over referendums or plebiscites is only the latest. Only a few months ago, the Beijing-Hong Kong relationship began to improve when Beijing invited some democrat legislators to Beijing for National Day celebrations and exchanges between professional associations. Although they were preliminary, these visits implied a future dialogue and hoped-for flexibility; these contacts already have meant a lot for Beijing's relationship with Hong Kong democrats who have long been denied visits to the mainland, for personal, family or business matters.

Still, it appears that most Beijing officials responsible for Hong Kong and Macau affairs would rather distance themselves from those democrats not deemed sufficiently compliant with Beijing's go-slow approach to democracy and popular participation in government.

Some figures in Beijing go much further by suggesting that these obdurate democrats in Hong Kong be labeled unpatriotic separatists, a truly damning indictment that would ruin many a political career. In fact, the support rates for the democratic camp in Hong Kong have fallen to the lowest level since it sought to improve communication with Beijing. The people of Hong Kong may well be wary that authentic democrats cannot get to cozy with authentic authoritarians.

China experts warn Beijing against any heavy-handed moves or crackdowns because they might prove counterproductive and help boost the popularity of the democrats, as witnessed by Beijing's handling of Taiwanese pro-independence officials. In previous Taiwanese presidential elections, Beijing went beyond the boundaries in slamming some pro-independence figures such as former president Lee Ten-hui and exasperated the voters, who then pledged overwhelming support to the figures accused by Beijing. This is a mistake that Beijing cannot afford to make again.

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Nov 17, 2004
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