Posted:  Sept. 14, 2010


If the last summer weekend of 2010 is any indication, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp is learning to put its disunity and disagreements to productive good use in anticipation of more to come.  It follows that loyalists and conservatives who looked on with glee as democrats split over the government’s political reform package might want to scale back their expectations and recalculate political strategies.   Across the partisan divide, those who lamented the heightened factionalism among democratic politicians can follow their lead and adapt accordingly.

Democrats have not laid their disagreements to rest by any means, and nothing about the Democratic Party’s “moderate” compromise on the government’s political reform package last June is either forgiven or forgotten by its critics.  But just as every crisis contains opportunity and danger, so Hong Kong’s protracted political controversy comes with the same potential for gain and loss, and events on September 4-5 showed democrats to be clearly focused on both.  The result was an important debate on the future shape of the election system — with everyone taking time off from their arguments to campaign for a most unlikely candidate in yet another by-election.

The Saturday afternoon event brought representatives from all the main democratic groups and factions together for a public stock-taking.   Specific points for discussion were the operational details of the political reform package that the Democratic Party (DP) brokered in June (June 26 post), and ways to make the Chief Executive Election Committee (July 23 post) more representative.  Only Civic Party leader Audrey Eu was missing from the line-up.  She had to cancel at the last minute due to a “problem” connected with the Sunday event:  her party’s candidate in the September 5 District Council special or by-election had just been arrested on an assault charge!


The forum was hosted by the Community Development Initiative and several other groups that were active throughout the 2009/10 political reform and referendum campaigns.  Follow-up argument is now focused on the details or how to squeeze maximum democratic advantage from the DP’s compromise breakthrough.  These details are to be formally debated after the Legislative Council (Legco) returns from its summer recess and they will determine how the compromise works in practice.

To recap the agreement, Legco will be expanded in 2012 from 60 to 70 seats.  The 10 new legislators are to be equally divided between those directly elected by Hong Kong’s five geographic constituencies (to make 35 such seats); and five new Functional Constituency (FC) seats.  The government and pro-Beijing partisans wanted the new FC legislators to be indirectly elected by the 400-plus members of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils (to make a total of 35 indirectly-elected legislators).  Loyalists and conservatives now dominate the District Councils with majorities on all but two.   The DP compromise allows these five new FC seats to be directly elected on a one-person-one-vote basis.

Pan-democrats see the compromise as a wedge that can be used to transform the entire council into a directly-elected body.  Loyalists and conservatives want these five seats to retain as much of their original intent as possible.  This was to eliminate all the current special-interest FC seats and replace them with equally “safe” legislators indirectly-elected of and by District Councilors.

The current arguments over the five new FC seats may seem arcane to outsiders, but the distinctions obviously have important implications for Hong Kong’s political future.  The distinctions between radical and moderate democrats were also obvious as soon as the eight political representatives began their presentations.  Actually, radical and moderate are not the best descriptions since they come with political baggage that is not particularly appropriate, especially after Beijing began its publicity blitz against “radical” referendum supporters last spring.  But there are few better words to describe the distinction between those who see risks in open-ended agreements made without clear firm definitions, and those who don’t.   Such differences are also not neatly contained within the groups so labeled.  The two clearest alternative statements at the forum were made by two leading members of the DP itself.

A DP vice-chairman, Sin Chung-kai, seemed to epitomize the laid-back style that has come to be associated with his party’s moderation.  Since the Chief Executive Election Committee was “transitional” and would be used again only in 2012 (a fact yet to be determined), there was little point in saying much about it. Since the five new FC seats were officially supposed to retain their original District Council-dominated intent, candidates and nominating procedures could remain tied to the District Councils.  That their candidates would have to undergo the test of popular election by all voters was enough for him regardless of who the candidates are or how they are nominated.

In contrast, Howard Lam was the most forceful of all eight presenters.  He declared himself to be a loyal radical member of the DP, with no intention of quitting the party as some among its estimated 20% dissatisfied minority have done.  But he remained angry both at the compromise the party’s three-member negotiating team had struck with Beijing, and the way they had proceeded … since they had no mandate from anyone to reach the decision they did.  He also said it was not enough to focus only on the details of an election system.  Establishing a democratic political culture was just as important. By that he meant taking the issues to the public, explaining fully and warning voters about the implications of decisions made ostensibly in their name.

The one point all eight presenters agreed on was their demand to eliminate the practice of appointing some District Councilors.  This colonial custom was abolished in the 1990s, but then reinstated.  About 20% of all District Councilors are appointed by the government and all have been conservatives since appointments were resumed in 1997.  But Howard Lam was the most outspoken, saying abolition should have been used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.  As a result, the opportunity had been lost since the government only agreed to abolition but without any commitment as to how or when, whether all at once before 2012 or gradually thereafter.

Convener of the moderate Universal Suffrage Alliance, Fung Wai-wah, came under fire yet again for the basic decision to accept Beijing’s concession without a clear definition of  universal suffrage or a promise to abolish all the old special-interest FCs.  On the defensive, he protested for the umpteenth time that they had not abandoned those goals but were still fighting for them.  He also tried to establish his ecumenical moderate credentials by noting that every group represented at the forum (except the League of Social Democrats) had affiliated with the alliance.  The DP had nevertheless been its dominant member and final negotiations were conducted, with alliance approval, by party leaders alone.

Unfortunately for Fung, he was immediately contradicted by Civic Party Vice Chairman Albert Lai, who was standing in for the absent Audrey Eu.  Lai doubles as chairman of Professional Commons, an advocacy group that did associate with Fung’s alliance, which the Civic Party did not.  But Albert Lai went on to explain his and the Civic Party’s differences with alliance views.   Specifically on the new FC seats, the party does not agree that the right to nominate and contest should belong only to District Councilors.  If the entire electorate can vote for these new seats, everyone should be able to nominate candidates and to be nominated.  Nor is the Civic Party willing to wait for Fung’s Universal Suffrage Alliance to produce its promised 10-year plan.

The party advocates solving the old FC problem by requiring these special-interest constituencies to begin merging in 2012, with five old FCs combining into one. Each elector in the combined pool would be allowed to vote for five legislators. The idea is to begin detaching special interests from their individualized privileged status and to familiarize them with the practice of wider representation.  This formula could then be used again in 2016 for another batch of FCs, and by 2020 all would have merged the better to accept direct election by all voters.   The Civic Party also wants the Chief Executive Election Committee to be transformed into a popularly elected nominating body with all registered voters eligible to vote for the electors in what would become a kind of popular primary election.


        The political disagreements among pan-democrats are obviously very real.   The League of Social Democrats is so opposed to the Democratic Party’s compromise on the new FCs that League members have declared a boycott.  They are vowing not to participate in filling the five new seats whether by voting, nominating, or contesting.  But as they prepare for the coming 2011/12 cycle, democrats are also aware of the need to elect as many representatives as possible if principles are to be safeguarded and goals achieved in the face of loyalist plans for a mainland-style political system.

That being the case, everyone trooped off to campaign together for the Civic Party’s candidate in the small upper middle class constituency of Pok Fu Lam.  Its 5,000 registered voters make up one of 17 constituencies with representatives on Hong Kong Island’s Southern District Council.   The seat had been held by pro-government councilor Ronald Chan, who was appointed a special assistant in the office of Chief Executive Donald Tsang last May.  Hoping to succeed him was candidate Ellis Lau who, like Chan, is a protégé of Regina Ip.  She was the official who had to resign in 2003 over her tactless handling of the government’s proposed national security legislation.  After three years studying politics at Stanford University, she returned home a changed woman, albeit still conservative.  She won a directly-elected Legco seat in 2004 and uses her new well-funded Savantas Institute as a political resource base for herself and like-minded aspiring young politicians.

The September 5 election may or may not prove a trend-setter since it was special in more ways than one.  The Civic Party is unique in post-1997 Hong Kong for welcoming non-Chinese members and now for sponsoring a non-Chinese non-Cantonese-speaking candidate.  Paul Zimmerman is a long-term local resident, originally from the Netherlands, who has made a name for himself locally on environmental and heritage conservation issues.  His September 4 arrest also generated more than the usual share of publicity.  There being only one good campaign spot in the constituency, the two candidates’ support teams were vying for space at the same road junction when Zimmerman allegedly touched a Lau supporter on the shoulder.  The young man fell to the ground where he lay motionless while his friends photographed the scene for a YouTube posting.  They also called the police who did their part by arresting Zimmerman for alleged assault.

Voters then responded with a higher than expected 40% turnout, giving Zimmerman 1,183 votes compared to only 792 for Lau.  The constituency has a much higher proportion of registered expatriate voters (about 20%) than is typical.  But despite the high turnout, Zimmerman’s margin of victory was less than that of the conservative candidate, Ronald Chan, who won the seat in 2007 by 1,067 votes to 605 for his opponent.

The novelty of this election aside, its lessons are being studied by pan-democrats and pro-government partisans alike in terms of the changing political dynamics that have followed from the 2009/10 controversies.  First, the unlikely alliance last spring between the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats in launching their referendum for universal suffrage may or may not have been responsible.  But the two parties reached easy agreement over the usually contentious question of candidate selection.

An LSD rising star had declared his interest in the Pok Fu Lam seat as soon as it was vacated, only to see his hopes dashed.   Party leaders did their calculations, concluded that the Civic Party’s support base was probably stronger in that constituency, and the decision was accepted with little apparent rancor at least for the time being. Even the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po, always eager to publicize internecine conflicts among pan-democrats, could find little to report in its July 23 account.

Equally significant was the united front of feuding pan-democratic party leaders who turned out at the Pok Fu Lam intersection for their campaign support photo-ops.  Present and past DP chairmen Albert Ho and Yueng Sum stood side by side with LSD and Civic Party leaders, all happy to demonstrate that their quarrels stopped at the ballot box.  Unlike their loyalist opponents, such smooth cooperation has been difficult for democrats to achieve in past District Council elections and will doubtless not be replicated in all 400 council constituencies next year.  But the stakes have now been raised with councilors’ new role in selecting five legislators and the political community is responding to the challenge.

Loyalists are not happy about being deprived of the neat mainland-style plan to use their District Council majorities as stepping stones into Legco, and will do all they can to maintain those majorities.  At the same time, pan-democrats must cooperate if their nominations and candidates are not to be overwhelmed by their opponents’ district-level advantages.  Among pan-democrats, the continuing debate between radicals and moderates is serving to concentrate attention and keep eyes focused on the issues at stake.  Whether the heightened opportunities and risks built into the open-ended reform agenda can inspire elsewhere the same sense of urgency and discipline that paid off in Pok Fu Lam remains to be seen.  But the precedent has been established and “radicals” have set the pace for those who care to follow.

My thanks to the Civic Party for the photo featured on the main webpage,  Sept. 14 posting.

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