Posted: Jan. 24, 2011
Fallout from the June 2010 political reform compromise is phasing into preparations for Hong Kong’s 2011-12 election cycle. This new “party updates” column picks up where “Politicking Hong Kong Style” (Nov. 15 post) left off, to track the changing scene as political players re-group and adapt. Pro-Beijing partisans will be under-reported but only because they run a tighter ship than others, and talk less about themselves in public.
The trials and tribulations of two pro-democracy parties dominated political headlines in December and January. Politicking carried on as usual although at a more subdued pace during the first days of mourning for democracy movement icon Szeto Wah. His death on January 2nd marked a sad start to the New Year, made sadder by the political disarray that all his bedside admonitions could not arrest. The Democratic Party suffered one fracture along an old fault line plus another exacerbated by the 2008 merger with Emily Lau’s Frontier fighters. Not to be outdone on this score, the high-flying vanguard League of Social Democrats seems set to crash and burn before any of its rising political stars have even begun to shine.
DEMOCRATIC PARTY DEFECTORS
In Oslo, local democrats stood together on December 10 in solemn celebration of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to imprisoned mainland writer Liu Shaobo. Days later, back home in Hong Kong it was back to basics. Far from fading away, the disagreements that emerged during last year’s political reform debate — between activists and moderate compromisers — have hardened into factional realignments and competitive campaign strategies. Party chairman Albert Ho may have been Hong Kong’s most honored guest at the Oslo City Hall ceremony, but that was for his role as a leader of Hong Kong’s human rights defenders. In Hong Kong he is now also known as the person most responsible for brokering the dubious electoral reform compromise with Beijing last June and his party is suffering the consequences.
Last October, Democratic Party (DP) dissidents unhappy with the June compromise formed a separate group they called NeoDemocrats (or New Democratic Alliance, in Chinese: Xin minzhu tongmeng). With about 20 members, this group wanted a more clearly defined political reform agenda but soon gave up trying to work toward that end within the party. Its “reformist” members have long been at odds with the DP’s “mainstream” over various issues. Now 30 in number, they resigned on December 19th, renewing the process that has shaped both the party and Hong Kong’s democracy movement for the past decade. The so-called “Young Turks” move on while the parent party grows ever more “unified,” moderate, middle aged, and risk averse.
True to form, party leaders shrugged off the defections saying their departure would have little impact since the trouble-makers represented “less than 5%” of the DP’s total membership. This has been bolstered by 70 new people enrolled after the June compromise. The party now has 600-700 members. But on January 15th a dozen more members resigned and the departures are not quite as inconsequential as leaders suggest.
Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections take place within five districts and proportional representation is calculated separately within each district. The DP defections have almost all occurred within one of these districts, New Territories East, decimating its party branch there, which was until now home to the largest concentration of the DP’s remaining “radicals.” But this hotbed of rebellion included several founding members of the DP, a former vice chairman (Chan King-ming), and at least seven elected District Councilors (including Gary Fan Kwok-wai). This is also the branch most affected by the resignation last June of the DP’s senior legislator in the district. Founding member and long-time activist Andrew Cheng Kar-foo [Zheng Jiafu] was one of the few strong leaders remaining from the party’s 1990s glory days. Cheng resigned immediately in protest against the political reform compromise negotiated with Beijing, which he said did not guarantee universal suffrage elections and violated the promise he had made to his constituents.
Finally, this is also Emily Lau’s district and her move into the DP has not had a pacifying effect. A majority of her old Frontier fighters, just over 60 in number, refused to follow her and they nurture grievances of their own (Nov. 15 post). The 30-40 who moved with her did not join the DP as individuals but as a bloc and they must be accommodated as such. At a forum last fall, one old DP member remarked on the party’s current difficulties among which he included the need to “consult the Frontier” before any important decision could be made.*
Now the latest batch of DP defectors has specifically named Lau as one major reason for their departure. They call her “domineering” (badao zhuanheng), which is no surprise. But they also say she is too keen on inserting her own Frontier people into district positions. This follows the creation of a new district organization led by Lau and DP moderate Wong Sing-chi to replace the old branch. As an added consideration, everyone remembers that in the last, 2008, Legislative Council election Lau received fewer votes than any of the five democrats who won in that district. She has held her seat there since the early 1990s when she was attracting more votes than anyone else in the city. Those were the days when she liked to boast that she could win in any district, but no more. In those days she also won acclaim for talking back to the British and to Beijing. Dissing old comrades and new adoptive partners for purposes of self-preservation is something else again.
LEAGUE OF SOCIAL DEMOCRATS: FRATRICIDE
Contrary to local headlines that initially focused on the sex-capades of yesterday’s hero Edward Yum Liang-hsien [Ren Liangxian], the key figure in the LSD’s meteoric rise and fall is its founding chairman Raymond Wong Yuk-man [Huang Yumin]. Now 60, Wong was born into a working class family with colorful connections that he has never denied but does not go out of his way to discuss. His own stock-in-trade is journalism and he worked as a teacher, publisher, and talk show host before moving onto the front line of local politics in 2006, as the LSD’s lead organizer.
The party’s street-protester brand of forthright anti-communist rhetoric is a turn-off for most, but not for a growing constituency of young people who have come of political age since 1997. They are themselves turned off by the new culture of united front posturing to Beijing, and by all the official demands for deference to its norms. The LSD’s role in spearheading last year’s five-district referendum campaign for universal suffrage attracted many of these young people, who accounted for its rapid growth to become Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy party. As of yesterday, it had something over 1,000 members.
Picking up this story where we left off (Nov. 15 post), Edward Yum (aka Victoria Park brother and Mudgrass Ma), aged 31, had just challenged the new LSD chairman Andrew To Kwan-hang [Tao Junxing] with a no-confidence motion. He succeeded Wong in February 2010, and won the motion although not by an overwhelming majority of votes (170 to 111) at a general party meeting. Raymond Wong (aka Mad Dog) stayed more-or-less off-stage where he said he belonged because he wanted the younger generation to learn how to take charge. Like many others he saw in Andrew To the necessary leadership qualities but Wong also saw Edward Yum’s challenge as part of the learning process.
Wong did not like the way Andrew To agreed to cooperate with the DP last summer when the “coordination mechanism” was activated in preparation for this year’s District Council elections. This practice has been followed since 2003, in a long-overdue effort to prevent pan-democratic candidates from running against each other in the same constituency, which contributed to the take-over of the councils by pro-Beijing forces and their allies. The no-confidence motion centered on this important political issue and the teaching lesson was worth the challenge — had the debate not degenerated into personal insults fueled by Wong’s disgust with the DP.
Then in mid-December Edward Yum was arrested twice, once for something that sounds like a case of date-rape and again for an earlier incident that sounds like “date-assault.” Both women lodged complaints and the police, always eager to do their duty when a democracy activist is involved, are still investigating. They have yet to decide how or even if to charge him, a task made more difficult by the speed with which all the principals in both cases publicized their version of the events in question. But they were also too tempting not to exploit, given the personality of Edward Yum. One group of about 30 anti-Yum LSD members were so happy that they posted an on-line picture of themselves at their December 18th barbecue picnic celebrating Yum’s arrest.** Others demanded an open investigation meeting. Having successfully undergone his cataract operations, party elder Wong was taking time off to attend a son’s wedding in the U.S.
On the face of it, Andrew To did the right thing by not openly taking sides while urging party members to stop their on-line bickering. He also decided along with other party leaders, including “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung [Liang Guoxiong], that the party should not take any action for or against Yum until the police completed their investigations.
Thereupon Wong re-entered the scene first on-line and then in person, blasting his successor for mishandling everything, failing the damage control test, and failing to rally the party in a crisis. He is unfit for leadership, wrote Wong. Back in Hong Kong, he said the sex scandals were undoubtedly old-fashioned honey-traps, orchestrated by his communist enemies in collusion with the police. He also suspected party insiders of circulating information about another of his sons who is currently being held without trial by mainland authorities on a cross-border drug rap — allegedly as a means of trying to control Wong.
He was further infuriated when he learned of Andrew To’s preemptive moves in November and December to stop Yum and his friends from staging a rumored coup by formally registering the LSD in their own names. Such maneuvers are easy enough given the Hong Kong government’s peculiar arrangements for keeping track of political parties and action groups. Tensions escalated rapidly after Wong’s return in early January, with Wong and To supporters taking sides to blame each other for splitting the League. Beijing forces will be the only beneficiaries warned concerned onlookers. If Raymond Wong can’t be persuaded to back off, wrote one sympathetic commentator, then Andrew To should take the initiative and retreat. Otherwise, the LSD is finished as an influential pro-democracy force in Hong Kong politics.***
Undeterred, Raymond Wong announced at a raucous January 23rd brainstorming session with 600 supporters that he was quitting the League and taking about 200 other members with him. They include legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip [Chen Weiye] but not Long Hair Leung Kwok-hung. Wong is planning to lead a new alliance with the remains of Emily Lau’s Frontier and other like-minded radicals. Despite the presence of Edward Yum and friends, young people reportedly did not predominate among the 600-strong crowd; To’s supporters were not welcome; and for once Long Hair seemed lost for words. He later said he was neutral in the dispute, felt uncomfortable with such squabbling among friends, and if pressured to take sides might quit the League himself. His younger aides and close associates have also steered clear of the dispute.
Raymond Wong’s reasons were threefold. He disagreed with the coordination mechanism and wants to confront the Democratic Party head on during the coming District Council elections, regardless of the consequences. He was not consulted before Andrew To’s deputies acted to pre-empt a coup by initiating registration formalities on their own. And the new LSD leadership failed to contain factional infighting. Wong has succeeded in thumbing his nose at Beijing, if that was his purpose. But if he carries his defiance into the coming elections, democratic candidates and the rising stars he planned to launch will surely be the losers. Champagne corks were doubtless popping in several official quarters last night but this time glasses were raised inside the gates, not from the streets outside.
* Emily Lau joined the DP in November 2008. At the time, her Frontier group had about 115 members (South China Morning Post, Nov. 24, 2008). Last year when the group announced its revival there were 66 members including two newcomers (Apple Daily, Nov. 9, 2010). The DP is now home to 30-40 (Apple, March 4, 2010), the same number who had voted to join in 2008.
** Featured in SingTao Daily, Dec. 23, 2010.
*** Hsin Pao [Xinbao]/Hong Kong Economic Journal, Jan. 19, 2011.