Divided: Hong Kong's Pro-Democracy Movement's Uphill Battle

If the pan-democrats can rekindle the enthusiasm of the Occupy Central days, there could still be hope for their cause, but the road ahead will not be an easy one. 

The convoluted struggle for more democratic elections in Hong Kong reached at least a temporary halt last week with neither a bang nor whimper, but as farce. With pro-government legislators attempting a disorganized walkout for unclear reasons, the remaining members of the territory’s Legislative Council (Legco) voted down an election law dictated from China by a 28-8 margin—even though an all-hands vote would have given the Beijing side a large, though not deciding, majority.

The outcome was highly embarrassing for the governments of Hong Kong and China, and for the mainland’s Communist Party. But it was no clear victory for pan-democratic forces in Hong Kong; Beijing has made clear there will be no compromise substitute for the rejected measure. Instead, an existing and unpopular electoral system will stay in place indefinitely, allowing a pliable election committee dominated by Beijing loyalists to choose whoever the mainland blesses as Hong Kong’s next government head. Democracy will have nothing to do with it, and the coming months seem certain to bring Hong Kong new political, social and economic troubles, some of which could come from the U.S. Congress.

At issue was a proposed universal-suffrage law that would have given Hong Kong’s five million voters the right—for the first time—to choose their own chief executive. But the electoral proposal had a major flaw: only two or three candidates with prior approval from Beijing could be on the ballot. Anyone Chinese authorities deemed “unpatriotic,” who did not “love Hong Kong” appropriately (that is, who might oppose or even seriously criticize Communist Party policies), would be banned. The territory’s pro-democrats called the system fake democracy and vowed to block it in the seventy-seat Legco, where it needed a two-thirds majority to pass. Many outsiders also found the system fraudulent; Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, an expert on elections who has paid special attention to Hong Kong, has called it “frankly an insult not only to democratic aspirations but to the intelligence of the Hong Kong public.”

The main questions now concern what comes next, and it’s difficult to foresee anything positive resulting from this showdown. For one thing, the territory’s democratic forces must decide how to continue their struggle for a more representative voting system.

When Beijing refused to open up the nominating process, they tried confrontation, but it got them nowhere. Their main effort was to seize the streets of Hong Kong’s main business district in a mass protest called Occupy Central, hoping it would pressure (or embarrass) Beijing into offering a political compromise. And the movement did bring forth unexpected thousands of ordinary citizens—especially enthusiastic young people who also had other grievances—and endured for seventy-nine days, far beyond early expectations. It earned worldwide sympathy for protesters symbolized by the yellow umbrellas they unfurled, angering both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments. In the end, however, establishment forces got the upper hand, and the crowds drifted away somewhat dispirited by their lack of tangible gain.

This has widened divisions within the pro-democratic camp, which was never a very cohesive group to begin with. Already, one leading democrat, Legco member Ronny Tong, who helped found the influential Civic Party, has quit both the legislature and his party in protest. He accuses his former colleagues of unwisely abandoning moderation—along with other pro-democratic groups—and becoming too confrontational. (He called Occupy Central a bad idea from the beginning.) Tong advocates a middle way, such as trying to revise membership of the crucial election committee to make it more representative of the general population and thus more likely to support a diverse list of candidates for the top office. Hong Kong’s best-known advocate for greater democracy—former number-two official Anson Chan—also favors more negotiation, though she thinks strikes or classroom boycotts might help the cause.

But others, buoyed by the fact that they nominally voted down the pro-Beijing plan rather than merely blocked it, favor a more aggressive stance. So far, however, they have no clear strategy and little leverage—beyond the fact that most Hong Kong citizens do want a more open voting system and don’t trust the Chinese Communist Party (which leaders of the main pro-Beijing party sometimes concede). Months of internal squabbling are likely, partly because most pro-democratic parties are small and dominated by middle-class professionals with few resources and limited reach into the general public, and they are sometimes divided by personal rivalries. By contrast, the better-organized main pro-Beijing party gets much mainland help (probably contrary to Hong Kong laws about party finances) and practices costly ward-heeling politics that its democratic rivals cannot match.