Posted:  June 7, 2010


Turnout rates are reported throughout Election Day evenings in Hong Kong, so optimism began to flag even before the polls closed on May 16.  Radical democrats, so-called, had dared to defy Beijing and were now paying the price, mild by comparison with the treatment of dissenters elsewhere in China but a reminder of Hong Kong’s shrinking political space nonetheless.  The immediate cost to participants was not great.  More important was the impact on a democracy movement that has sustained itself for 20 years in an increasingly hostile environment and can still look forward to little chance of success.  This election provided a sudden clear snapshot of the accumulating toll that usually goes unnoticed amid the routine altercations of day-to-day political life.


Five pro-democracy legislators had staged their resignation/referendum exercise as a gesture of protest against the pace and scope of political reform decreed by the central government in Beijing.  The idea was that one Legislative Councilor from each of Hong Kong’s five election districts would resign together in order to trigger  territory-wide special elections.  The ex-legislators could then campaign to regain their seats and focus public attention directly on the government’s latest package of lackluster political reform proposals.  Voters could have their say and the government would get the message (May 17 post).

Since most of Hong Kong’s democratic parties and activists ultimately decided not to join what initially seemed a risky adventure, its Civic Party and League of Social Democrats (LSD) leaders were dubbed “radicals” while everyone else became by definition “moderate.”  In good radical campaign-style, promoters at first let their hopes soar and began by speculating on the possibility of a 50% turnout rate, which was just within the realm of possibility.  Since 1991 when direct elections for the Legislative Council began, only two regular polls and one special election (in 1998, 2004, and 2007 respectively) registered turnout rates above 50%.   Special circumstances had provoked voters in each case but referendum promoters dared to hope their cause would be similarly rewarded.

One tactical mistake was not to have been more forthright in readjusting their own measure of success once friend and foe alike decided to boycott their project.  Not only did the Democratic Party with its nine legislators refuse to participate; it also refused to help with campaigning and canvassing.  The second blow was administered by Beijing.  Once officials declared the de facto referendum a de facto violation of the Basic Law, all pro-Beijing and pro-business candidates also stood down.

At that point, with no foil for debate and no backup for support, the exercise became little more than a mock election and public information campaign.  Participants carried on as energetically as if it had been the real thing but in continuing to call for a symbolic high turnout, they set themselves up for the letdown that followed.     Somber faces and downcast poses were fitting illustrations beneath banner headlines proclaiming their disappointment with the17% turnout rate.  It was the lowest on record just as pollsters had predicted.  And there was worse to come.

The most derisive responses naturally came from those who had never supported the exercise.  “Great defeat for the referendum,” gloated the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po.   The central and Hong Kong governments together with the general public had united to “draw a clear line” between moderates and radicals (May 18).  Special scorn was heaped on Audrey Eu, Civic Party leader and spokesperson for the referendum campaign, who was caricatured as its evil genius.  Columnists mocked her mercilessly as a gambler, clown, self-anointed goddess of democracy, and blue-blooded elitist who had led her party into an alliance with wild-eyed LSD radicals (May 18, 21).

The establishment-oriented South China Morning Post and its columnists echoed similar sentiments. “Blow to pan-democrats,” declared the May 17 morning after headline, and a “misconceived stunt that did nothing for democracy” (May 18).   Commentator Michael Chugani had called it a “great folly” beforehand (May 10) and a load of “bull” afterward (May 19).  Frank Ching lauded the government’s reform package as a “great feat,” dismissed the referendum as farce (May 10), and derided as “weird” pan-democrats opposition to the package (May 24).  Retired colonial official Mike Rowse was scathing in public forums and in print beforehand (Feb. 1).  Afterward, he too targeted Audrey Eu:  “top female politician gambles big and loses spectacularly” (June 1).


         Verdicts so extravagantly proclaimed are obviously targeting something more significant than a farce and the consequences of this one will take at least until the 2012 Legislative Council election to be registered in full.  But even sympathetic by-standers chided the two parties for not admitting defeat.  Their leading champion had no such reservations, however.  “Admit failure,” declared Apple Daily, “absorb the lessons” (May 19).  These were threefold.

First, the election was not really a referendum and many voters did not understand why legislators should resign only to seek re-election.  Such people accepted the government’s line that the exercise was a meaningless waste of public funds.   Second, the pan-democratic camp was not united and the two referendum parties did not do enough to build consensus before announcing their plans.  In the end, others did come out to campaign but their help was half-hearted.   Third, the two parties essentially ran separate campaigns and did not design an effective joint response to the establishment’s coordinated attacks against them.

A Popular Mandate

Gains were as obvious as failures, however, and the government responded with uncharacteristic speed.  Chief Executive Donald Tsang challenged Audrey Eu to an unprecedented television debate, which she promptly accepted.  The turnout may have been a disappointing 17% but in absolute numbers that amounted to 579,000 voters who defied Beijing, the Hong Kong government, and an avalanche of ridicule to participate in the “meaningless farce.”  Of that number, a higher than usual percentage of blank ballots were cast (19,000), which signified disapproval of the exercise.  But that still left over half-a-million sympathetic voters since the fringe candidates were all democracy advocates.

Conservative critics wondered why Donald Tsang had bestowed recognition on Audrey Eu in this way when he had denied the legitimacy of her referendum.  But he recognized what they did not.  She was no longer just the spokesperson for a failed election.  Audrey Eu could now claim to have the support of half-a-million voters.  If he could succeed in discrediting her, he would also undermine popular confidence in her cause, or so the government hopes.  The debate is scheduled for June 17.

The Democratic Party’s Dilemma

Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho protested that it, too, should be represented in the debate but his plea was ignored, adding another to the list of embarrassments for the White Pigeon Party.  Its symbol is a white dove but conveniently for critics and cartoonists, the same Chinese word is used for both birds.  First came Beijing’s post-referendum boast that the voters had stood with the central and Hong Kong governments by drawing a clear line between moderates and radicals.

Next, when official meetings began on May 24, the Democratic Party’s Chinese host noted pointedly that the contact was a reward for boycotting the referendum (all local papers, May 25).  The party, as leading member of the moderate Alliance for Universal Suffrage, had called for direct dialogue with Beijing to discuss demands and possibilities for compromise.  Preliminary discussions through intermediaries had begun in March and this initiative was widely applauded.  But the post-referendum implications were not, making the path between compromise and capitulation that much more difficult to maneuver.

Much was made of the May 24 meeting because it was the first between Chinese officials and those now leading the Democratic Party since the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.  Hong Kong’s then democracy movement leaders, Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, founded the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which Beijing still brands as subversive.  Many other core members of this alliance went on to found the Democratic Party in the early 1990s and its current chairman, Albert Ho, remains a core alliance member.   It just hosted well over 100,000 people for its 21st annual June Fourth candlelight vigil, the record turnout being an unspoken tribute to gravely ill alliance founder, Szeto Wah.

After his May 24 meeting with Li Gang who is the deputy director of Beijing’s Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong, Albert Ho acknowledged that when contacts began in March Beijing had asked the party to disengage from the 1989 issue.  Ho replied that the matter was non-negotiable (SCMP, May 25).  Beijing, too, is in an awkward place caught between acknowledging what it regards as the Democratic Party’s subversive past and its moderate present.  But choices for the party are more difficult since that past is now one of the few unblemished reminders of its glory days as the standard bearer of Hong Kong’s pre-1997 democracy movement.  Members have already discussed the matter and know they can abandon 1989 only at their electoral peril.

Meanwhile, Audrey Eu knows that much can be done with the leftovers of a failed election and has rejected feelers to join the Democratic Party’s negotiations.  The reason, she told inquiring reporters, was that the moderates seemed to be looking for excuses to accept the government’s reform package whereas she had campaigned for substantial revisions and half-a-million voters agreed with her.

Building New Constituencies

Adding to the Albert Ho’s headaches are the statistical profiles emerging from the referendum his party members refused to join.  The youth vote sent the strongest message.  Young people here as everywhere are not reliable voters.  But the new 1980s-generation anger that erupted suddenly in January continued on through the referendum and inspired the Tertiary 2012 backup slate of candidates fielded by college students.  Young people aged 20-29 account for 14% of Hong Kong’s population but exit polls suggested that 24% of the voters were between 18 and 30 (Apple, May 17).  And of those registered, 26% voted, compared to 19% and 13% for the two over-30 age groups (Xinbao/HK Economic Journal, May 18).  The Democratic Party is obviously showing its age with only 12.6% of its members under 30.  In contrast, the LSD claims that 55% of its membership is under 30 and 42.5% of Civic Party members are under 40 (Ming Pao Daily, Jan. 5, 2010).

The LSD’s emphasis on grassroots working class concerns also seems to have paid off.  The two parties together received 29% more votes (or 104,000) in 2010 that in the last, 2008, regular Legislative Council Election.   But most surprising was where those votes came from since working class voters are also not noted for their turnout rates.  Chinese University researcher Ivan Choy compares voter turnout in working class, middle class, and upper income residential areas.  He found the highest increase for the two parties to be among public housing residents.  The trend was apparent everywhere with increases of from 40% to a striking 84% in one district (Ming Pao, May 18, 20).

The Democratic Party must now worry about how may of those 100,000 votes went to its candidates in 2008 and how many will return in 2012.  Losing votes to other parties in this way was reportedly one of the considerations underlying the decision not to participate in the referendum.  But now, for once, at least two parties succeeded in working across the factional barriers that have hampered the development of Hong Kong’s democracy movement from the start.

And among those 100,000 votes is one brand new constituency that will have only the referendum candidates to remember.  Thanks to lobbying by pro-democracy activists, Hong Kong’s prisoners have recently won the right to vote and this was their first territory-wide election.  They rewarded the effort on their behalf by turning out in greater numbers than anyone else.  Of the 2,300 prisoners registered to vote, 43.5% availed themselves of the privilege on Election Day (Standard, May 17).

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