HK debate on political reforms: So many what-ifs

The senator strode briskly into the meeting room inside the American Consulate in Hong Kong and shot the first question at the intelligence officer even before sitting down: "Tom, what should I expect at this week's Legislative Council debate on the political reform package?"

Back came the reply in less than a heartbeat: "Just the usual sound and simulated fury you can expect from politicians who delight in playing to the gallery, sir!"

Then... a stony silence as the influential member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee stared at the Central Intelligence Agency veteran across the table in the hermetically sealed room, dubbed "The Vault" by consulate staff because of its high-tech defences against every known form of electronic eavesdropping.

Realising too late that he was talking to a politician, and a verbose one at that, the intelligence officer cleared his throat and continued: "At my last briefing for you in this very room in November, I said there was an outside chance that enough moderates within the 27-member pan democratic opposition would cross over and vote with the Hong Kong government for the reforms. That would give the government the two-thirds majority in the 70-member Legislative Council or Legco to push ahead with one-man-one-vote in 2017 for election of the Chief Executive, or CE. Of course the choices will be restricted to a slate of maybe three candidates first vetted by a 1,200-man nominating committee controlled by Beijing.

"I now think that possibility is close to zero. Why? Because up to end-April, there were moderate opposition members in Legco like, oh, Ronny Tong Ka-wah of the Civic Party who knew the majority of eligible voters wanted the chance to choose their CE, albeit from a pre-determined slate.

"All the moderates wanted was for Beijing to give them some face-saving concessions - some minor tweaks of the pre-selection process - so they could, in good conscience, accept the package, warts and all, as a prelude to more representative elections in future. Or, as they say here in Cantonese, pocket it first. And all it takes is for five within the opposition to say, yes, they will pocket it first. But those concessions didn't come. So they can't and won't break rank."

The senator asked: "Why can't Beijing yield a little to secure a win?"

Tom replied: "Beijing feels it has nothing to lose by standing firm. So what if the motion to push ahead with the CE election fails to carry! It will just mean going back to square one with the nominating committee deciding, as it did with the past three CEs, who is next to be installed in office. Beijing can live with that. Indeed it might well be delighted with that outcome.

"Its position is it has all along been prepared to give the people the vote but hey, your elected representatives rejected it, so blame them. And Beijing certainly hopes that all the hardline pro-democratic types in Legco will suffer the wrath of the electorate when they are up for re-election next year."

The senator stroked his chin and said nothing as he took all that in.

Breaking the silence, Tom said: "Some people might wonder why Beijing is so obsessed with total control over who can stand in the CE election. This incident should explain it. When Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed our massive electronic snooping, was here in June 2013, our State Department pressed the Hong Kong government to issue a provisional warrant of arrest against him with the view to extraditing him shortly.

"This was permitted under a security protocol agreed with the Brits and still in force to this day. But the Hong Kong government stalled for time, saying the legal paperwork was not in order. And that gave Snowden the chance to bolt and, eventually, land in Moscow. Had the CE been someone more accommodating, and not C. Y.

Leung, a Beijing loyalist, we would have gotten the sonofabitch. Well, we will remember this and the Chinese will be made to pay, as one of our former directors said in Singapore."

After a long pause, Tom added: "Actually, failing to secure the two- thirds mandate may not be such a bad thing for Hong Kong. All opinion polls have consistently put those against the motion at about 37 per cent of the population, with those for at roughly 41 per cent or so. So even if the government scrapes through by a vote or two, the anti-government feelings that have been stirred to fever pitch may just boil over, leading to turmoil, possibly even violence. Hong Kong society, already polarised, may well become ungovernable as the hardline pro-democracy camp digs in and obstructs everything the government wants to do.

"So maybe a cooling-off period is a good thing. C. Y. Leung has already said his government will let it be if it fails, forget about reforms, and focus instead on improving the economy and people's livelihood in the next two years. The opposition will have to pause and ponder about how it will fare in the Legco elections next year."

"One last question," said the senator. "What if the pan-democratic camp indeed loses ground as the electorate punishes it for being obstructive and intransigent? Will the government re-introduce a reform package to take advantage of that? What if the Legco election goes the other way? How will Beijing react?"

Tom sighed as he said: "Sir, last November when you asked me about something I had no way of knowing, I replied, citing a Cantonese expression, you ask me, I ask who? I'm afraid that is still my answer."

This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
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