Posted: June 26, 2009
On Sunday June 21, a special election was held in Hong Kong for a vacant seat on its Wanchai District Council. This was the second such election to be held this year but unlike the March poll that set precedents for judicial support and effective tactics, this electoral exercise presented a far less edifying albeit more typical picture of the pan-democratic camp’s performance in district-level politics.*
The election generated little interest, which is understandable given its place in the overall scheme of things. Hong Kong has 18 District Councils with some 400 elected members representing 400 small neighborhood constituencies each with only a few thousand voters. The attrition rate is such as to necessitate two or three by-elections, as they are called here, each year. Additionally, the councils also have about 100 members appointed by the government with its Home Affairs Department responsible for selection. District Councils have some minor responsibilities but serve mainly as advisory talking shops, as well as channels for information-sharing, social networking, and the creation of pro-government public opinion as and when necessary.
Besides being understandable, however, popular indifference is also unfortunate because it masks the councils’ true importance, which is appreciated by only the few actual participants at this level of local institution-building. As a result, what might have become a genuinely representative base for grassroots participation in local government is being fashioned into the building blocks of a very different kind of system. Popular indifference also reinforces itself because few people outside the circle of direct participants bother to focus on the clear snapshots these elections provide of the conflicting forces at work in Hong Kong’s slow-moving political evolution.
In the case of the Wanchai District Council by-election on June 21, all the typical pan-democratic weaknesses were evident and the pro-Beijing loyalist camp’s strengths were in full play. This council serves an impressively diverse mix of old and new, that is, upscale and rundown residential and business neighborhoods, plus Hong Kong’s best-known red-light district. As for the constituency in question, it can boast few marks of distinction except for the remnants of a once popular open air street market. Candidates’ favorite campaign photo-op is a sunless graceless spot nearby beneath the busy Canal Road overpass.
In fact, democrats should have had the advantage since the vacant seat had been won by an independent democrat in the November 2007 District Councils general election, despite an unexpectedly disastrous showing for the pan-democratic camp overall. But their weaknesses in the Canal Road Constituency by-election can be summed up in two words: functionalism and funding, the obverse of their opponents whose discipline, coordination, and resources made their candidate the odds-on favorite to win throughout.
The first problem for democrats was the incumbent and his reason for vacating the seat. Kennedy Lee Kai-hung is currently serving a five-month jail term for fraud. Hong Kong’s judicial system strives to keep all candidates on the straight and narrow. Hence a democrat was able to reclaim his seat and his honor in the March election. But democrats are also far less well endowed financially than their opponents and presumably for that reason are more likely to fall afoul of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in its diligent search for expense account irregularities.
The second problem for democrats was their endemic disunity. That only one candidate from the pan-democratic camp should stand in the by-election was agreed, but endorsing him was another matter. Novice politician Gavin Kwai Sze-kit belongs to the League of Social Democrats (LSD), currently the most radical member of Hong Kong’s democratic family, and LSD candidates had helped defeat at least one fellow-democrat in the last, September 2008, legislative election. Still smarting from that defeat, the Civic Party decided it was payback time and refused to endorse Kwai.
The resulting publicity and news stories presented a striking contrast. Coverage of the democratic candidate concentrated almost exclusively on the Civic Party-LSD dispute with only passing reference to support from others. Meanwhile, the Beijing-friendly Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) organized a full-dress support campaign for its candidate, Jacqueline Chung Ka-man. The campaign included feature articles in the pro-Beijing press, photographs with all the DABs leaders and allies, and teams of street-corner volunteers who outnumbered democrats by at least ten-to-one on Election Day itself. Turnout was only 26 % but the result was a foregone conclusion: Chung polled 1,061 votes and Kwai received only 544.
Actually, neither side needed this seat. The Wanchai District Council is solidly in pro-government hands and one representative more or less will make little difference. But this by-election illustrated the division of political labor that has evolved as the two sides adapted their strengths and weaknesses to the ongoing struggle over Hong Kong’s future governing arrangements. Democrats were not relaxing in the shade while DAB loyalists worked to organize their winning campaign. June is the most important month on democrats’ political calendar, which features the annual candlelight vigil to commemorate protesters killed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Tens of thousands turned out for this year’s 20th anniversary commemoration making it the largest since 1990. Democrats are proud to host this event and well aware that Beijing regards them as subversive for doing so.
Preparations have also been underway for weeks to organize the July First protest march, a new tradition that began in earnest on July 1, 2003, when 500,000 angry citizens turned out to mark the anniversary of Hong Kong’s July 1, 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty. Their anger was sparked by the government’s insistence on passing its new national security bill that would have put legal teeth in Beijing’s ubiquitous allusions to subversive intent. Various democratic causes have been proclaimed by marchers every year since.
Hong Kong democrats are thus at their best as activists, agitators, and street performers. In this way they sustain the popular movement aimed at protecting Hong Kong’s inherited way of life, with its Western-style rights and freedoms, against the encroaching Communist Party-led system. Factionalism does little harm to the tactics and antics, which are centered on core values that all share, and funding is less important than energy and commitment.
Pro-Beijing loyalists and pro-government conservatives know they cannot compete for Hong Kong hearts and minds and so play to their own “establishment” strengths. These have found a natural home in the District Councils where the loyalist-conservative coalition predominates with a dense array of well-funded social services and neighborhood activities. But at this level, the coalition has also learned that every council seat is important and every vote counts. For example, eleven by-elections were held during the previous 2003-2007 term and democrats contested every one but prevailed only once. Loyalists and their allies now essentially control the District Councils where democrats have a majority on only two with parity representation on one other.
This might seem a happy division of political labors and cultures if only Hong Kong’s governing arrangements were permanent. But the system is on a 50-year transition track leading toward full integration with its mainland parent by 2047. Toward that end, the District Councils are being fashioned into the building blocks of a mainland-style system, which is actually based on the universal suffrage that Hong Kong democrats are demanding. But universal suffrage in that system exists only at the grassroots level where powers are minimal and compliant candidates can be guaranteed. Indirect elections prevail throughout all the remaining levels of the mainland people’s congress hierarchy.
The next step in Hong Kong’s evolution will come later this year when proposals for the next stage of legislative electoral reform are debated. The most recent government consultation paper states innocuously that “indirect election” is also a form of universal suffrage. The logical end result of this gratuitous aside is the companion proposal to allow legislators to be indirectly elected by the directly elected District Councilors. Such a design can only favor those who now dominate at the district level and it will also add to the amenable votes in Hong Kong’s purpose-built Legislative Council. These are already sufficient to endorse the soon-to-be revived national security bill, which signifies the ultimate clash between Hong Kong’s two competing political cultures and their adherents whose most recent electoral contest ended in yet another democratic defeat. (June 26, 2009)
* On the March poll, see, “A Very Special Election,” link: http://www.chinaelections.net/NewsInfo.asp?NewsID=20101