Posted: Nov. 15, 2010
Everyone knew it was too good to last. A new day seemed to be dawning after the two “radical” sponsors of last May’s protest referendum settled a potential point of conflict with scarcely a murmur of discontent. At issue was candidate selection for the special District Council election on September 5th. The League of Social Democrats (LSD) including members both young and old agreed to let their favored candidate stand aside in deference to the Civic Party’s Paul Zimmerman who succeeded in taking the seat vacated by a conservative councilor (Sept. 14 post).
The LSD’s favored candidate was rising star Edward Yum Liang-hsien, aka Victoria Park Brother. He made a name for himself last spring by shouting down a group of retired leftist workers, known as the Victoria Park Uncles, who had for years disrupted the Sunday noontime forum in Victoria Park. Edward Yum bested the old hecklers at their own game and provided a welcome well-informed alternative. Now he is better known by his Facebook name, Mudgrass Ma (after the satirical mainland protest against censorship), and leads a radical Young Turk faction that has disrupted life in the radical LSD for months. He also has his eye on a much bigger prize than the District Council seat he wanted to contest last summer.
LEAGUE OF SOCIAL DEMOCRATS
All the parties are now working their way through the fallout from last June when Democratic Party leaders reached their grand compromise with Beijing and then voted to endorse the government’s political reform proposals (June 26 post). Next up on the political calendar will be the 2011 District Council elections and pan-democrats have already devoted many months to the contentious matter of candidate selection. Since 2003 the job has been easier thanks to a “coordination mechanism” intended to keep fractious pan-democrats from the temptation of contesting seats in the same constituency, thereby ensuring that conservative and pro-Beijing candidates walk away with the prize. A group of political activists have dedicated themselves to the task of mediating among competitors. But most members of the group, Power for Democracy, allied with moderates during the political reform saga last spring and supported the compromise solution.
The LSD’s current infighting stems from a decision made last July to participate in the mechanism, which means the party must coordinate with moderate democratic candidates. Agreeing to tradeoffs with its Civic Party ally is one thing; cooperating with hardcore moderates is an issue tailor made to bolster radical fighting spirits. Edward Yum took the lead in agitating against the decision on grounds the party would compromise its identity as radical standard bearer and lose votes among core supporters. At stake are the 400 small constituencies into which the electorate for the 18 District Councils is divided. Unfortunately for pan-democrats as a whole, their cavalier approach toward these constituencies before 2003, and even afterward, is partly to blame for their current minority status within the councils.
The argument festered for months while LSD leaders, under pressure from within, tried in vain to force various concessions from their Democratic Party counterparts. Matters came to a head with Edward Yum’s radicals concentrating their ire on LSD leaders responsible for making the decision to coordinate. Chairman Andrew To Kwan-hang, has been in office for less than a year and is part of the successor generation groomed by elders “Mad Dog” Raymond Wong and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, who founded the party in 2006. A general meeting had to be called to settle the matter and Andrew To survived the impeachment motion by 170 votes to 111 with 10 abstentions.
No stranger to radical politicking himself, Chairman To knows how difficult his life is going to be. As one of the Democratic Party’s Young Turks a decade ago he created many such headaches for its elders Martin Lee and Szeto Wah. Not only did about 40% of those present at the LSD’s November 7th general meeting support the motion to impeach Andrew To, but the motion NOT to work with moderate democrats on their 2011 District Councils election campaigns carried by 210 votes to only 29 in favor of such cooperation. This is payback to moderates most of whom refused to help out when LSD and Civic Party candidates were campaigning ahead of their protest referendum last spring. Fortunately for the larger picture, candidate selection was mostly completed while the LSD was arguing and it is in any case only a minor player at the District Council level.
Rather than quit the party after their challenge failed, however, Edward Yum and his fellow radicals are all vowing to continue their struggle from within, which is where their real interests lie. Among his next targets is a new LSD district office to be set up on Hong Kong Island ahead of the 2012 Legislative Council election. In 2008, LSD candidates contested seats in all five of Hong Kong’s legislative electoral districts but won only three. Hong Kong Island was not among them and whoever is assigned to head the constituency office will no doubt be tapped as the 2012 candidate as well.
Party elders kept a more-or-less low profile and let the successor generation sort matters out on their own. Raymond Wong dismissed the squabbles as party “growing pains.” But he also made no secret of his dislike for the decision to coordinate candidates with a party that trusted “Beijing communists” and bargained away Hong Kong’s political future “behind closed doors.” If rumor and the internet traffic among LSD members are any indication, Wong served as Edward Yum’s back-stage supporter while Long Hair was on the other side. And if mutual insults continue at the current rate, LSD fighters may end up doing more damage to themselves than to their political opponents.
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY AND ITS CRITICS
Despite a decade-long practice of saying good riddance to its own Young Turk radicals, the DP always seems to have a new generation waiting in the wings. Nor are they now all young newcomers. And most are sticking with the party determined, like their LSD counterparts, to try and keep others from succumbing further to the temptations of compromise with the powers that be. Some 20% of its members disagreed with the DP’s moderate decisions during the past year and so far two new intra-party pressure groups have been formed by these dissenters.
Several District Councilors are among the 20 founding members of NeoDemocrats (which calls itself the New Democratic Alliance in Chinese — Xin minzhu tongmeng). They want to focus on district-level work and articulate a message different from that of party leaders who are accused by many of betraying its original democratic ideals. NeoDemocrats aim to concentrate on expanding support at the social movement grassroots level, which they say DP leaders ignored while discussing political reform last year. Their separate platform will aim to prove that all DP members should not be tarred with the same brush. Another group, Young Democrats, is for party members and non-party activists under the age of 40. Members are looking to expand support among younger people by putting some distance between their group and the decisions of the older DP leadership whose age and experience are beginning to seem a handicap.
And then there is one more group, outside the DP, that aims to do all of the above and more. Power Voters (Xuanmin liliang) wants to put some bite in its bark by specifically targeting moderate DP candidates in the coming District Council elections. How they are going to do this without risking the losses of pre-2003 days (when pan-democratic candidates often ran against each other) has yet to be revealed but group members say they are working on it. The group’s spokesman, Jeff Au (aka Dr. Stardust, because he studied medicine before turning to politics), also says that if DP dissenters really want to help the movement they should demonstrate some courage along with their convictions and quit the party altogether.
Sixty of Emily Lau’s old Frontier fighters did just that. Only about half her hard-line political action group followed their leader’s moderate metamorphosis by joining the DP in 2008. Angry then and angrier now at the consequences of her shift, members are reorganizing under the same name and with a motto that aims to revive their original 1997 spirit: “struggle first, electioneering second.”
TWO CIVIC PARTY DISSENTERS
All things considered, the Civic Party is navigating these stormy waters with relative ease. Its moderate-radical line remains intact and unshaken either by serious internal recriminations or external opposition (except the usual from pro-Beijing partisans). Dissenting opinions are nevertheless reflected in the loss of one founding member, Fernando Cheung, and the near loss of another, Ronny Tong.
Known for his work on social welfare issues, Cheung found himself odd man out of the Civic Party’s 2008 electoral strategy, which built on the party’s natural base of support among upper-middle-class professionals. LSD leaders tried to tempt him a few months ago but he declined their offer before finally leaving the Civic Party in October. Now he and three others are discussing the old dream of setting up what they call a center-left democratic labor party to represent the underprivileged.
Building new blue-collar constituencies would be an important means of expanding the democracy movement, which is still based largely on middle class support. The pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions can boast only about half the number of affiliated workers claimed by the 60-year-old pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions. But if Cheung and his friends do succeed, their new party would probably have little initial impact on the overall political power balance since the other three — Lee Cheuk-yan, Leung Yiu-chung, and Cyd Ho — are veteran legislators who already have well-established if relatively small grassroots constituencies of their own. All are moderate political radicals and voted with the Civic Party against the DP’s political reform compromise.
Ronny Tong was the most outspoken among Civic Party members who had reservations about its “radical” decisions to support the LSD’s referendum campaign and oppose the DP’s compromise solution on political reform. He joined the moderate Universal Suffrage Alliance in its search for compromise solutions, and would probably have left the party but for a strong personal attachment to his friends and their ideals.
Because he is so outspoken, Ronny Tong provides insights into moderate thinking that others fail to articulate. For example, he shares with DP chairman Albert Ho an instinctive aversion to mainland curbs on the freedom of political expression. But their ideas about mainland and Hong Kong political evolution reflect no such clarity.
Tong’s focus remains on the here and now, confined to Hong Kong’s post-1997 one-country, two-systems design and the Western-style democracy he wants for the Hong Kong half of that equation. He seems genuinely oblivious to the growing pressures here for something else. As a British-trained lawyer, he is just now discovering his Chinese roots. But he has yet to learn about the institutions and mechanisms of communist party rule either in China or Europe, where they have a long history of adapting to Western-style elections — exactly as the local pro-Beijing party and its allies are doing here now. Hence he did not calculate the risk of accepting an ill-defined political reform package designed to benefit pro-government candidates — who are all committed to passage of the national security legislation that will impinge on Hong Kong’s freedom of political expression!
As a result, Ronny Tong and a few of his new DP friends are now surprised to discover how little their compromise achieved. This realization dawned suddenly when the Hong Kong government announced, on October 30, the practical details that will give effect to the electoral compromise DP leaders brokered in principle last June. Admitting that his old friends are now saying we told you so, Tong also admits that the new 2012 electoral arrangements will “not only preserve, but enlarge the political advantage” of pro-government parties. “In one stroke,” he said, “the SAR Government is threatening to demolish completely what little hard earned mutual trust we had built up in the negotiation for the reform package,” leaving the promise of democracy for Hong Kong “as illusory as it always was.”*
(Feature photo on the main webpage: LSD chairman Andrew To)
* Ronny Tong, “Letter to Hong Kong” broadcast, Nov. 7, 2010, http://www.rthk.org.hk/rthk/radio3/lettertohongkong/