Since the Hong Kong national security law kicked in last year, the Chinese government has been thumbing down the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong, in its determination to mould a new Hong Kong. Lately, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces have all but disappeared, and there is a rare peace in the air.
However, a silent struggle is also happening in Hong Kong.
I am referring to the “major surgery” that the Beijing authorities are performing on Hong Kong’s political system. According to the new electoral system, the 1,500-member Election Committee (EC) will have the right to nominate and elect the chief executive, and also decide the fate of Legislative Council (LegCo) candidates. Given the EC’s expanded scale and power, members of the pro-establishment camp have been exercising all means to get a spot on it.
...many Hong Kong businessmen in mainland China started to pull strings with local governments in the mainland to get into the EC via the “back door”.
Jousting within the pro-establishment camp
It has been circulating in the political arena that after Beijing announced a reform of Hong Kong’s political system, many Hong Kong businessmen in mainland China started to pull strings with local governments in the mainland to get into the EC via the “back door”. As for those in the pro-establishment camp that only have mediocre relations with mainland officials, they are suddenly very active in Hong Kong’s public opinion fora in a bid to prove to the Hong Kong Liaison Office that they are of value.
A friend of mine who does policy studies previously received quite a few assignments to help some politicians write essays for media publication to raise their profile. While such “jostling” is not seen publicly, it indirectly shows that competition within the pro-establishment camp is more intense than before.
At long last, the draft rules of the new electoral system were unveiled last Tuesday, including details of group votes from the various sectors in the EC. Some lesser-known organisations that were previously ineligible to vote had their wish fulfilled when they became part of the 1,500 EC members through their good relations with the mainland government.
However, one cannot please everyone; many organisations that did not make the cut are very unhappy. For example, among the new seats created for “associations of Chinese fellow townsmen” — clan associations — in the third sector of the EC (grassroots, labour, religious, and other sectors), larger groups such as the Federation of Hong Kong Guangdong Community Organisations and the Hong Kong Federation of Fujian Associations were selected as expected, but the powerful Federation of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community Organizations was surprisingly left out. The federation was shocked and criticised the authorities for ignoring its contributions. While the Hong Kong government explained that only provincial-level associations were eligible for the EC, those in the community were not appeased.
Beijing’s “surgery” on Hong Kong’s electoral system — apart from targeting the pan-democracy camp — is also to weaken the political influence of powerful business conglomerates.
In any case, the group votes in the EC are basically set, and the seat-grabbing is in a new phase, with pro-establishment people aggressively coordinating and planning their individual candidacy in some sectors.
LegCo incumbents and business bigwigs at risk
Word has it that 40 LegCo seats will come from the EC, and some current directly elected LegCo representatives who are worried about losing their seats in a direct election are now considering “changing lanes” and getting elected to the EC instead, and getting into the LegCo through that route.
Of course, the elections have not yet begun and everything is subject to change. But one thing is almost certain: Beijing’s “surgery” on Hong Kong’s electoral system — apart from targeting the pan-democracy camp — is also to weaken the political influence of powerful business conglomerates. Those from the traditional four largest property companies will probably not do well in the next EC elections.
This is because, following the previous anti-extradition protests, Beijing is determined to resolve the deeper issues in Hong Kong and use the new system to shake up the vested interests of the commercial sector and others. For example, while there is little change to the number of EC seats in the first sector (industrial, commercial, and financial), the voting base is drastically different. For example, individual votes have been scrapped for the property and construction sector, so that large conglomerates cannot expand their influence by splitting up their subsidiaries as voters.
...most of Hong Kong’s clan associations and local organisations are close to the central government, or may even have their background in mainland China, which makes them generally easier to control.
On the other hand, Beijing has added 120 seats for grassroots organisations and clan associations in the revamped EC, so as to “dilute” the influence of the commercial sector in the EC, while making up strongly for inadequate grassroots representation.
Beijing’s idea is that grassroots organisations and clan associations will be able to represent disadvantaged groups at the lower rungs of society, including the elderly, women, minorities, and those in poverty. Increasing the number of representatives from these organisations would better reflect the overall state of Hong Kong society, and pave the way for resolving Hong Kong’s bread and butter issues.
Clan associations — business groups by another name?
However, one has to question whether these good intentions will work out. Admittedly, most of Hong Kong’s clan associations and local organisations are close to the central government, or may even have their background in mainland China, which makes them generally easier to control. But most of these organisations were founded by people in the political or business sector. In other words, even under the new system, the EC members are still mostly from the business sector, except that the traditional commercial interest groups have been substituted by new commercial forces.
In Western democracies, it is rare now for businessmen to directly bribe politicians; the most common form of corruption is to provide funding to politicians. While these generous donations cannot buy congressional votes or guarantee benefits, at least it does buy “proximity” to a political figure, without which much could not be done. This is the main reason the rich are happy to fund politicians.
Under the new electoral system, it seems Hong Kong cannot avoid the same problem. Surrounded by mostly business sector “patriots”, Beijing will have to stay alert and not allow its policies to be guided by capitalism. It will not be easy to resolve Hong Kong’s deep-seated issues of its economy and livelihood through drastic reforms.
Related: Overhaul of Hong Kong's electoral system: Is it still 'one country, two systems'? | Will it be 'one country, one system' for Hong Kong? | When 'new Hong Kongers' run the show, where do the old ones go? | Hong Kong must be governed by 'patriots'. So who are the ‘patriots’?