Occupy Middle Ground

The proposed Occupy Central demonstration is over a year away and many things are scheduled to happen before it kicks off.

But already it constitutes a clear and present danger both for our Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying and the pan-democrats, although the latter seem not to recognize the fact yet.

First a quick recap. A local academic Professor Benny Tai Yiu Ting of Hong Kong University has called for 10,000 people to blockade Central District in July next year to put pressure on the administration – and by extension Beijing -- to move ahead with universal suffrage. The constituent parties of the pan democratic movement are one by one coming out in support of the idea.

First to face the music will be the Chief Executive. Whether he reverts to the traditional practice of delivering the Policy Address in October this year or stays with the January date to be closer to the 2014 Budget, he will have to give an outline of his thinking on reform of the system for electing the Legislative Council in 2016.

Such a timetable will allow 2014 for a thorough public debate, and 2015 for the necessary legislation to be enacted.

Partly overlapping with this process will be a need for the government to also set out its thinking – no later than 2015 – on how to elect the CE himself by universal suffrage in 2017. Those arrangements also will have to be approved by the Legislative Council as presently constituted. It would be expecting too much to ask the newly elected legislature in 2016 to rush through the necessary amendments in the first few weeks of its term.

In his election manifesto, Leung promised to reform the functional constituency election arrangements for 2016. That is certainly a necessary step, but as I have pointed out in this column before, by itself it is insufficient. There must also be a modest but decisive shift in the balance between directly elected seats and FCs, in favour of the former.

If there is not, then I fear the numbers occupying Central will swell to at least 10 times the target, if not more. Hong Kong will come to a standstill.

Public anger at the timidity of the proposals for Legco will render irrelevant whatever is proposed for the CE election in 2017, which is bound to have its own sticking points anyway.

But let us look at another scenario, the one where Leung explains to the Central authorities that what he promised in his manifesto about the 2016 Legco elections is not enough and he is going to have to go a bit further if he is to keep a lid on local sentiments.

By moving to occupy the middle ground on Legco, he is more likely to win broad support from the public at large and also gain a fairer hearing for his proposals for the 2017 CE election.

That will in turn put the onus on the pan democrats to respond in a measured way to the whole package.

For there is another game in play here. Whatever screening mechanism is put in place for the CE election – and there is bound to be one – it is not going to prevent a candidate acceptable to the democratic camp getting on the ballot.

The question is whether that candidate can beat the pro establishment favourite at the ballot box.

The Hong Kong electorate has shown time and again that it is very sophisticated and knowledgeable, and well able to pursue its best interests.

There is no way voters are going to elect someone unpatriotic who simply obstructs everything. Or someone who overreacts to a reasonable reform package by bringing the central business district to a halt.

How ironic it would be to win the fight for a democratic election, and then to lose the contest itself.

In other words, the CE election will be a race for the middle ground. Who will be first to occupy the political centre, not Central.

You were nearly right, Professor Tai.