Posted:  May 17, 2010


Despite all the dire warnings beforehand, Hong Kong’s first ever referendum was held without incident on May 16.  If opponents have their way it will also be the last and only time will tell if the net impact is positive or negative.  But given the barrage laid down against it, the first achievement to note is that the exercise took place at all.  Officials in Beijing and Hong Kong did all they could, short of declaring it illegal, to discourage participation and all other pro-democracy groups refused to do so for their own reasons.  Five legislators from the League of Social Democrats and the Civic Party nevertheless persisted in their act of defiance and began by resigning together last January.

The idea was to precipitate five simultaneous special elections or one in each of Hong Kong’s five Legislative Council election districts.  The five legislators would then contest the elections treating them as a territory-wide de facto referendum on their demand for political reform that would guarantee genuine universal suffrage elections. They would risk losing their seats, and with them pan-democrats’ all-important one-third veto power in the council, which did not endear them to other democrats.  They would also provoke Beijing and perhaps harm chances for compromise negotiations. But the five earned their radical credentials by calculating potential benefits against risks.

The elections would serve as a gesture of protest against the government’s lackluster November 2009 political reform package.  They might also mobilize public opinion in a way that could be measured directly at the ballot box instead of via the government’s ever malleable public consultation methods.  And the exercise would set a precedent for allowing locally sponsored political initiatives.  Whether seats and concessions were won or lost were secondary considerations.

Ironically, much of the risk evaporated due to effective official opposition. The two parties that might have benefited chose instead to be politically correct.  Both the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and the pro-business Liberal Party accepted their briefing cues from Beijing and boycotted the contest rather than grant it legitimacy by participating.

In the end, all five legislators regained their seats against a non-competitive roster of pro-democracy fringe candidates.  Turnout on polling day was a disappointing 17%. But that translated into a 579,000-vote endorsement volunteered in defiance of all the official powers that be and many lesser obstacles as well.

The impact remains to be seen since the vote count matches turnout for the big protest march that made July 1, 2003 a watershed date in the growth of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.  But whatever might follow, the election campaign itself illustrated a dynamic within the movement that has so far guaranteed its survival by renewing energies in the face of every setback.  The dynamic, between radicals and moderates, also shows no signs of abating despite official attempts to divide, co-opt, and marginalize that have continued non-stop since before Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty.


Within Hong Kong’s democracy movement, two assumptions now separate radicals from moderates.   First, the latter are basically willing to give Beijing the benefit of the doubt by accepting its 2017/2020 universal suffrage timetable at face value, whereas radicals basically are not.  They respect Beijing’s decision-making authority but regard the new timetable issued by decree in December 2007 as a smokescreen for indefinite procrastination or worse.  They see potential danger in the decree whereas moderates essentially do not.

Second, radicals seek to revive the now almost forgotten democracy movement ideal that Hong Kong voters should be allowed to decide for themselves what kind of a political system they want.  Resignations were the only way to simulate a referendum because the authorities will not allow a direct vote on constitutional questions, which Beijing regards as its sovereign territory.

The resignation/referendum idea has actually been a gleam in the eye of “Young Turk” democrats since the late 1990s, when they began to experience first hand the limitations of Hong Kong’s new post-1997 political order.   Some still like to fantasize about the one move that would be sure to make international headlines and force Beijing to take notice, namely, the mass resignation of all democratic legislators.

Unfortunately for such dreams and aspirations, pan-democrats as a whole appreciate the logic, but not enough to take a united stand in its defense against the combined weight of Beijing and pro-government forces in Hong Kong.  Especially the Democratic Party’s December 13 decisions not to allow any of its nine legislators to participate in the resignation plan, and not to participate in the re-election campaign, was a major if not unexpected blow.  The party has long since positioned itself as moderate and “middle class,” and has for the past decade been turning out Young Turk defectors as a result.

One party’s loss is another’s gain, however, and in Hong Kong everyone goes on to fight another day.  Because they see the current reform debate as a last-chance opportunity, this time radicals decided to stand their ground.  But in the end, only the Civic Party was willing to go along with the LSD’s action plan while everyone else joined the Alliance for Universal Suffrage (May 3 post).


         Initiator and chief driving force behind the radical plan was the League of Social Democrats (LSD) and the star of its show is “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung.  His nickname derives from a vow not to cut his hair until Beijing reverses its verdict against China’s 1989 democracy movement.  Leung has a rap sheet for disorderly conduct going back to the 1970s, when Hong Kong’s most daring street scenes were staged by a few self-styled Trotskyists of which he was one.

Leung decided to contest the 2000 Legislative Council election as a perfect foil for his street-theater antics and almost won.  Four years later he did. To everyone’s surprise including his own he then managed to tone down his act enough to last out one full term and went on to win a second in 2008.   Leung has neither cut his hair nor given up his trade-mark Che Guevara T-shirt, but he has revealed himself to be Hong Kong’s most creative pro-democracy politician.

By 2008 he had helped organize the LSD as a party of like-minded radicals and two others won seats as well:  “Mad Dog” Raymond Wong and “Big Guy” Albert Chan.  Chan is a Democratic Party defector and so is the LSD’s new chairman, Andrew To.  The LSD identifies with working class concerns and Long Hair is also a favorite of the1980s generation protesters who burst unexpectedly upon the political scene last January (Jan 29 post).  But more than anything else, his perspectives can be traced to an upbringing unique among local democrats.

Leung was born into a pro-Beijing worker’s family in 1956 and was radicalized along with Hong Kong’s entire leftist community during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution decade.  Instead of following Beijing’s lead as its line changed, however, he veered off on a dissident track in the 1970s and has remained there ever since.  That background has made him more knowledgeable than other local democrats about their pro-Beijing adversaries and the mass-based movement they lead.  He is also more forthright in challenging the DAB as a front for the still unacknowledged Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Hong Kong branch.

All that could not contrast more sharply with the LSD’s new partner.  So unnatural was the alliance that Civic Party referendum participants insisted on a formal code of conduct to govern behavior on the campaign trail.  The party’s five legislators are all British-trained lawyers and as scandalized as everyone else at LSD legislators’ disregard for the niceties of parliamentary procedure.

Party leader Audrey Eu nevertheless made the decision to join them and to serve as spokesperson for their joint referendum campaign.  Her protégé, Tanya Chan, and Alan Leong rounded out the five-district resignation team.  Besides an uncompromising commitment to Western-style democratic values, the Civic Party also shares with the LSD a concern about cultivating successors to carry on the cause.  Among the political parties these two have the highest proportion of young members.  Both were launched in 2006.


            Asked how things were going mid-way through the campaign, Audrey Eu answered with a Chinese phrase:  “like sailing against the current.”  What she meant was everything that could go wrong did.  Some problems were anticipated, others just kept multiplying.   Beijing officials began by declaring the referendum a “blatant challenge” to the central government’s authority.

Promoters countered that the Basic Law is silent on popular initiatives and referendums and no Hong Kong law prohibits them.  To which Beijing’s answer was the same as it has been since the 1980s when concerned academics lobbied Basic Law drafters for a residual powers guarantee, meaning anything not specifically forbidden to Hong Kong should be left for Hong Kong itself to decide.  Not so, said Beijing then and now.   All powers not mentioned, especially those concerning the structure and function of government, are for Beijing to decide.  The country is governed by a single unitary CCP-led authority.  Therefore, holding a referendum without asking permission challenges Beijing’s sovereign right to rule.

Promoters countered that in fact this was just a series of simultaneous special elections, not a real referendum and everyone agreed that the exercise had no force in law other than to fill the vacant seats.   But the elections were advertised from start to finish as a “de facto referendum.”  They were also launched with a provocative slogan calling for a “popular uprising” (quanmin qiyi) at the ballot box.  Prominent loyalists recycled the standard arguments about populist anarchy, incitement to rebellion, subversive demands for independence, and so on.  The warnings were issued in time to abort the mission had its initiators been so inclined but they were not.


Once legislators actually resigned in late January, the tide seemed to turn in their favor.   Momentum carried over from the defiant 1980s generation protest that had flared suddenly a few weeks before.  It had targeted the Legislative Council and its domination by special-interest Functional Constituencies, which dovetailed perfectly with the aims of the referendum campaign.

Apple Daily and its owner Jimmy Lai were leading promoters from the start, but Ming Pao Daily had warned repeatedly against the referendum plan.  By March 1, however, editors had changed their minds.  The referendum movement had “spread like wildfire,” they wrote.  Now it was moderate democrats who had “taken a great risk.”  If their strategy failed to produce results, radicalism would be vindicated and Beijing would have only itself to blame.   But that was before actual campaigning began.

Unable to find immediate legal grounds to ban it, Beijing did the next best thing by declaring the de facto referendum a de facto violation of the Basic Law.   Both the DAB and the Liberal Party abandoned their plans to participate and the usual supply of second-string conservative “independent” candidates also failed to materialize.  Instead, all hands were mustered for a counter-campaign aimed at discouraging voter participation and discrediting the elections as an expensive “farce” that would cost taxpayers HK$150 million to administer.

By late March official efforts were taking effect.  Leading indicators thereafter all pointed in the same direction.  The popularity ratings of ex-legislators and their parties declined; consistent majorities disapproved of their initiative; pollsters predicted a record low turnout on Election Day.   There was even a possibility that legislators might suffer the ultimate embarrassment of regaining their seats unopposed.  But by the April 8 filing deadline enough fringe candidates had come forward to allow election contests in all five districts.  A total of 26 candidates participated.

Young people did their best to help out.  Fearing contests might not materialize in some districts, college students decided to field their own Tertiary 2012 slate of five pro-democracy candidates, registering one in each district.  This required a $50,000 (US$6,400) deposit per candidate, which students managed to collect in campus fund-raising campaigns.  Unfortunately, they had little money left and could not afford separate campaign leaflets for each candidate.  Instead, they printed up 300,000 fliers picturing all five together only to have them disqualified by election authorities for violating campaign rules.

Whatever the fallout, radicals can say that their two most basic goals have been achieved.  Half-a-million voters defied Beijing to endorse the ballot-box adventure and a precedent has been set.  Now attention will re-focus on the Alliance for Universal Suffrage and its effort to negotiate a better reform package, with everyone aware that only four of the 23 democratic legislators are needed to secure passage.

Share This