Posted:  July 12, 2010

 

The onetime standard-bearer of Hong Kong’s democracy movement including its leaders, members, and supporters, endured what must have been the most uncomfortable afternoon of their political lives during this year’s July First memorial march.  The route is well-travelled:  2.5 miles along the main thoroughfare from Victoria Park and the Causeway Bay shopping district to Hong Kong government headquarters downtown. Protestors walk this route several times a year for various causes.  But July First is a new tradition, commemorating the unexpected upsurge of public anger in 2003 when at least half-a-million people turned out in protest against the government’s proposed mainland-style national security legislation.

July First is the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule and the legislation is mandated by Article 23 of the new Basic Law constitution, despite its promise of one-country two-systems autonomy.   In 2003, the size and temper of the crowd shocked government leaders both in Hong Kong and Beijing.  They had assumed the pre-1997 movement led by the Democratic Party was dead because it seemed unable to adapt to an unfriendly executive authority after losing the favored status enjoyed during the last heady years of democracy-building under British rule.  Taking the party’s place in 2003 was a new generation of activists from a wide variety of groups, already cynical about professional politicians but not yet about populist causes.  The legislation had to be shelved when the pro-business Liberal Party lost its nerve and, after asking Beijing’s permission, withdrew support for the government’s bill.

Since then, activists have vowed to march each year on July First welcoming all groups and causes willing to support the general demand for democratic institutions that will “return power to the people.”  The Democratic Party accepted its place as one of many who joined the annual trek, except that this year was different.  In 2009, marchers were united in anticipation of the coming debate on political reform and the main rallying cry was “struggle for universal suffrage.”  This year the Democratic Party was the target of everyone’s wrath for having betrayed that promise by accepting what is widely seen within the democracy movement as a sorry substitute (June 26 post).

Throughout the entire four-hour march, in 90-degree heat with humidity to match, the party’s contingent had to endure a continuous barrage of taunts, insults, and rude gestures from bystanders and fellow marchers alike.  Because tempers were already running high, party leaders had agreed to follow at the back of the line-up to minimize disruption in case of violence but, by prior agreement among protesters, there was none.

Instead, young people moved into the line of march just ahead of the party’s contingent, forcing it to walk behind critical placards, banners, and much street theatre mockery depicting among other things the party’s dove/pigeon mascot having its feathers plucked in Beijing.  The (pro-Beijing) DAB may be shameless but the Democratic Party is the “lowest of the low,” read one sign; “sell-out,” proclaimed many others, plus much worse.  And following close behind bringing up the rear was the radical League of Social Democrats (LSD) with the largest loudest most critical contingent of all.

Finally, collection boxes reinforced the message.  These events always double as fundraisers with stalls set up by different groups and parties all along the route.   The Democratic Party’s share was down 85%:  HK$45,000 compared to $300,000 last year.  The LSD took in the most: $260,000; its Civic Party ally, $200,000, both up over 2009 (Apple Daily, July 3).  Money boxes, of course, point the way forward and so did the morning-after editorial in the conservatively democratic Hong Kong Economic Journal:  “Don’t Curse the Democratic Party; Teach It a Lesson at the Ballot Box.”   More ominous for the movement as a whole, however, turnout reflected the general sense of disappointment and defeat.  By the organizers’ estimate, marchers were down from 76,000 in 2009, to about 52,000 this year.

 THE PARTY’S MISCALCULATION

            Of all the Democratic Party’s mistakes and misfortunes since 1997, this is surely the worst because its leaders  —  and 80% of the 300+ voting members at the June 21-22 general meeting that approved acceptance of the government’s amended reform package — seemed genuinely perplexed at the outcry their decision provoked.  Defensive and unrepentant, they rejected the charge of betrayal by reminding everyone of their lifelong devotion to the cause.  It was the same flaw first noticed a decade ago:  the party’s apparent inability to think beyond the number of seats it could win at the next election, firm in the belief that what was good for the party was good for democratic development.

Increasingly out-of-touch with the popular movement it once led, Democrats not only refused to participate in the five-district referendum campaign but then, like the government, failed to appreciate the popular support it had generated — until too late.  By the time referendum leader Audrey Eu won an overwhelming vote of public confidence in her June 17 debate with Chief Executive Donald Tsang (June 18 post), the Democratic Party had already conceded all but one of its original negotiating positions.  Included among them were the demands, common to all pan-democrats, for some proof that Beijing meant to allow genuine universal suffrage and abolition of the Functional Constituencies.

In fact, the party had just renewed its pledge along with the others in a June 4 decision:  all 23 democratic legislators would veto the government’s package if those conditions were not met along with one additional modification (South China Morning Post, June 5, Ming Pao Daily, June 8).   But on the day of the debate it was reported that Democratic Party leaders had just decided they were prepared to jettison everything except the one modification:  to expand the electorate for the five new Functional Constituencies in the government’s plan.  (Ming Pao Daily, HK Economic Journal, June 17).   Instead of being nominated and chosen by the 400 District Councilors from among their own number as the government proposed, the general public would be allowed to vote on the District Councilors so nominated.

Hence when Beijing leaders did their U-turn the day after the debate, they were conceding only that one point.   As it happens, the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and its allies now have majorities on all but two of the 18 District Councils. The original government proposal had been designed to benefit these majorities.   Among pan-democrats, however, only the Democratic Party has a substantial representation at this level.   Yet party members keep asking what they have sold out, seemingly oblivious to their own original demands, the popular expectations that had built up around them, and the self-serving nature of the bargain they struck.

Even so, their about face might not have provoked so much anger  had party leaders and members responded, dare we say, more democratically.  Instead they dismissed the initial outcry as if they were already part of the ruling establishment and could scarcely care less what anyone else thought.  They did not even bother to clarify the specifics of their final negotiating position until after the June 23-25 Legislative Council motion debate (June 25 Q & A press release, Chinese only, http://www.dphk.org/?p=5894).   And only after being forced to run the four-hour gauntlet of verbal abuse on July First did the Democratic Party finally promise to issue a report on its negotiations with Beijing in order to answer the charge of undercover deals reached behind closed doors.

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

        Eventually it should be possible to piece together a more coherent picture of what was in Democratic Party minds when they made their decisions. The party’s 45-page report, released on July 8, is essentially a chronicle of meetings with mainland officials that have already been widely reported in the local press (Chinese only, http://www.dphk.org/?p=6034).  The moderate Alliance for Universal Suffrage is also preparing an account of its work.  The full transcript of the June 23-25 Legislative Council debate will soon be uploaded on the council website (first in Chinese and later in English translation http://www.legco.gov.hk/general/english/counmtg/yr08-12/mtg_0910.htm#100623).   Since party leaders continue to insist that they will continue to work for universal suffrage, it will be up to them to explain how they plan to do so.

Meanwhile, what few statements they have made suggest they were thinking about much more than the government’s political reform package.  They were thinking major political realignment and it was a calculated decision.  Democratic Party Vice-chair Emily Lau, for example, had built her 20-year political career on open defiance of Beijing.    So clear was her stand that everyone just assumed when she joined the Democratic Party in late 2008 that she would provide its middle-aged overweight leaders with a much-needed boost of political energy.   She also lived up to expectations at countless events during the past year where she always forcefully declared her determination to fight for universal suffrage guarantees.

After the decision to support the government’s reform package was announced, however, she did a 180-degree turn and told startled journalists:  “We are urging the public to place our trust in Beijing” (SCMP, June 21).  Later, in her Legislative Council speech on June 23, she did at least acknowledge the turnaround and accepted responsibility for supporting a reform package that contained no guarantees.  But then she went on to issue a perfunctory apology and invited all who didn’t like it to vote for someone else in the next election (Ming Pao Daily, June 24). 

            On the same day, she also made a point of greeting pro-government supporters who had been bused in and provisioned for a three-day occupation of the garden area behind the Legislative Council building while the June 23-25 debate continued.  The aim was to deprive pro-democracy protestors of access to the site where Lau welcomed the cheers and thanks of their opponents for abandoning her erstwhile supporters’ demands (Ming Pao Daily, SCMP, June 24).

After the July First march, Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho spoke at some length as if to confirm his about-face for those who still could not believe it.  He used the stock government phrase that democracy is about more than just one-person one-vote, called for tolerance, accused his critics of dogmatism, and said he wanted no part of such illiberal democracy.  He said the party had changed its strategy and expected to lose some voters, but the aim was to expand democracy’s base of support by appealing to the silent middle-ground majority. Nor did he hesitate to acknowledge the specific advantages he hoped to gain.  He anticipated that the changed political landscape would produce dividends for his party in the coming 2011 District Council elections (Apple Daily, SCMP, July 3; HK Economic Journal, July 2, 3-4).

In any event, his party’s money problems are now over because the new strategy will take him to a place of limitless supply.  Thumbing his nose at critics who gleefully reported the party’s meager take from its July First collection boxes, long-time legislator Lee Wing-tat announced that upon reading the reports one sympathizer wrote a check for HK$155,000 to help make up the shortfall.    Now that the pressure for Functional Constituency reform has eased, there will be plenty more big-check rewards where that first one came from.  Democrats will be able to travel comfort class along with Liberal Party members and pro-Beijing loyalists who are never seen soliciting pocket change at street corner fundraisers.

Update:  Still trying …       While Chief Executive Donald Tsang was mending fences with DAB leaders at a Sunday barbecue, Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho was the target of yet another roasting by angry constituents.  DAB leaders are unhappy about the derailing of their neat indirect election plan that would have allowed District Councilors to leapfrog into the Legislative Council without having to face its wider electorate.

At the other end of the political spectrum, about 50 irate democrats dominated a three-hour question-and-answer session hosted by the Alliance for Universal Suffrage and the Democratic Party.  This July 11 open public forum was the first of several being planned to explain their moderate compromise.  Questioners doubted that the party had ever been sincere in its pledges to achieve the goals of universal suffrage and abolish the old Functional Constituencies.  They also doubted the sincerity of Beijing’s promise to allow universal suffrage elections in 2017 (for the Chief Executive) and 2020 (for the legislature).

Albert Ho was the chief target but he could only repeat his disbelief at the sell-out charge, and reaffirm his commitment to the goals.  When asked how they might be achieved, he repeated the problematic logic of the main moderate plan, which concerns only the legislature.  Accordingly, the number of Legislative Council seats should be increased until those filled by some kind of a wider electorate will be in the majority.  The plan assumes that this majority will then be able, and willing, to eliminate the 30 old Functional Constituencies, which are meanwhile to remain unchanged.  But in order to achieve this goal, the size of Hong Kong’s legislature will have to be increased from the current 60 seats to 100 in 2020, and a two-thirds majority vote will be needed at every step of the way (fullest accounts: HK Economic Journal, Apple Daily, July 12).  Why a city of 7 million people will otherwise need 100 reprentatives in an executive-led system with a largely powerless legislature has yet to be discussed.

 comments, questions:  suzpepper@gmail.com

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