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Why Hong Kong democrats should look to Macau’s opposition lawmakers for inspiration

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 5/7/2020 Alice Wu
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu (right) climbs a wall during the Legislative Council House Committee meeting on May 8 as pan-democrat lawmakers scuffle with their pro-establishment counterparts over lawmaker Starry Lee Wai-king presiding over the committee meeting. Photo: Dickson Lee © SCMP Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu (right) climbs a wall during the Legislative Council House Committee meeting on May 8 as pan-democrat lawmakers scuffle with their pro-establishment counterparts over lawmaker Starry Lee Wai-king presiding over the committee meeting. Photo: Dickson Lee

Primaries for pan-democratic candidates running in the city's upcoming September Legislative Council election are to be held over the coming weekend.

They are part of the "35-plus" campaign that co-founder of the 2014 Occupy protests Benny Tai Yiu-ting hatched for pan-democrats to win a majority in the legislature and become, in Tai's words, a "massive constitutional weapon" to veto the budget and disrupt the government.

The plan is (was?) to ride on the electoral momentum of the district council elections last year " in which the pan-democrats won 85 per cent of the seats, putting them in charge of 17 of the 18 local councils " and to turn all of the frustration that had been played out on Hong Kong's streets since June last year into seats in the legislature.

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Tai's plan is for this pan-democratic majority to control the legislature's agenda and the power to block government bills. The "massive constitutional weapon" that Tai referred to is Article 52 (3) of the Basic Law, which gives the chief executive the power to dissolve Legco if it does not pass the budget or "any other important bill", but also stipulates that the chief executive must resign if the new Legco also does not pass the original bill.

Of course, it would take more than just a simple majority, but Tai understands " perhaps better than any one else " that the prospect of creating that sort of disruption to the normal business of the government is enough to get reactions from not only the populace, but also the government and Beijing.

But that was before the national security law, which has been tailor-made to address exactly the brand of obstructionist politics Tai has recommended. Now, at least one former lawmaker who had pledged to stand for election, despite the distinct risk of being disqualified as a candidate, has skipped town.

It would probably be wiser for the pan-democrats to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure how much leeway they have to operate in Hong Kong politics. Tai may have the camp's best intentions at heart, but the political survival of a functioning opposition is more important than putting his theories to the test.

Under the law's new normal, all those previously exhausted tactics to obstruct Legco's functioning " such as lawmakers resorting to spilling mixtures of rotten organic matter at meetings to cause suspensions " and every excuse and effort made not to compromise, are no longer viable.

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And, more than ever, Hong Kong needs an effective opposition. Like it or loathe it, the new political reality requires that to be effective, opponents need to be "tolerable".

They can learn how to do this from the pro-democratic politicians of Macau. Since the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Macau Special Administrative Region in December, when it was clear that Macau was Beijing's favoured child, we have been hearing a lot about the "Macau model".

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First, President Xi Jinping praised its exemplary implementation of "one country, two systems". Then, when talk of Hong Kong's need to enact national security legislation became more than just political chatter, using Macau's "Article 23" model was mooted as a possibility.

Against greater odds than those faced by their Hong Kong counterparts, Macau's democrats contested elections in a system that is overtly skewed toward the pro-establishment. There are only 14 directly elected seats, and the democrats currently hold four.

They are up against another 12 indirectly elected members returned from functional constituencies and seven members appointed by the chief executive in the legislature, with no constitutional promise for democratisation or universal suffrage.

a group of people posing for the camera: Pro-democracy candidate Sulu Sou Ka-hou thanks his supporters after winning a Macau Legislative Assembly seat on September 18, 2017. Photo: Dickson Lee © Provided by South China Morning Post Pro-democracy candidate Sulu Sou Ka-hou thanks his supporters after winning a Macau Legislative Assembly seat on September 18, 2017. Photo: Dickson Lee

And yet, they have not resorted to outrageous and physically combative ways inside the council. In 2014, Macau's government shelved a bill that would have given the chief executive immunity from criminal charges while in office and grant public officials lofty pensions. While public protests helped achieve this outcome, lawmakers avoided any theatrics within or outside the legislature. Rather, they have demonstrated the Beijing-tolerated model of "opposition".

With this in mind, it's time for Hong Kong's pan-democrats to return to the old ways of doing politics, which involves the hard work of meaningful deliberation and debate and the even tougher task of hammering out imperfect solutions that people of different political shades can agree on. With such a mindset, we can still work out how to achieve universal suffrage for Hong Kong.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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