A ray of hope for Hong Kong's 2017 chief executive poll

A ray of hope for Hong Kong's 2017 chief executive poll
Pro-China supporters taking part in a July 15 rally in Hong Kong against the Occupy Central Movement and in support of the government's consultation report on methods for electing the Chief Executive in 2017.

It is increasingly unlikely that Hong Kongers will get to directly and independently elect their own chief executive in 2017, given Beijing's insistence on its right to pre-select candidates before putting them on the ballot.

Local democrats have unsurprisingly labelled this a form of "fake" universal suffrage, and threatened to stage a civil disobedience campaign to oppose the Chinese government's plan.

Hong Kong has been torn apart by this political impasse in recent months, with the opposing camps sticking firmly to their guns. Mr Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing's top man in Hong Kong, minced no words in his statement justifying the need for the Chinese government to pre-select the candidates for the city's top job.

"There shall be no room for electing a chief executive that will be antagonistic to the central government. Absolutely no room, not even a thin stitch", he said emphatically.

He even hinted that Beijing was prepared for the worst - a scenario where the planned political reforms for Hong Kong in 2017 would be held back.

But not everyone in Beijing's corner shares Mr Zhang's uncompromising stance.

Several political heavyweights, including legislative speaker Jasper Tsang and former financial secretary Anthony Leung, have issued a joint statement pleading for a more conciliatory approach instead.

Indeed, there remains a ray of hope for compromise despite the growing tension between the two camps. This narrow opening lies in the fact that Beijing does not deem all democrats to be unpatriotic.

Mr Zhang Dejiang, head of the National People's Congress, the Chinese legislature, summoned Hong Kong lawmakers who are pro-Beijing to an internal briefing in Shenzhen last month, outlining Beijing's position on the 2017 universal suffrage.

According to a source with knowledge of the briefing, Mr Zhang, while reiterating all the known positions of the central government, for the first time stated that Beijing did not consider all the pan-democrats as "unpatriotic".

The source added that Beijing seemed to be concerned more with two types of people: those who openly call for an end to one-party rule; and those who are suspected to have insidious foreign connections.

Mr Zhang did not elaborate. But he said enough to leave the door open for moderate democrats to be considered for the 2017 chief executive election.

If this is indeed Beijing's bottom line, then there could be a way out of the current impasse.

One potential compromise could involve the pan-democrats dropping their insistence on voters directly nominating the candidates for the 2017 election.

In exchange, Beijing could relax the way it pre-selects the candidates for the 2017 election. Currently, Beijing tries to control the process via a so-called nomination committee that is heavily dominated by Beijing loyalists.

Those aspiring to run for the Hong Kong chief executive post must also reportedly obtain a majority vote from the committee, on top of "loving China and loving Hong Kong".

Beijing could relax some of these criteria, and perhaps make the committee more representative of the differing political views in Hong Kong. That way, its decision could gain wider acceptance.

It is far from clear whether a compromise can eventually be struck. But a failure to do so could make Hong Kong ungovernable - a dire outcome that would hurt both camps.

This article was first published on August 16, 2014.
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