Posted: Feb. 14, 2011
All things considered, Hong Kong hardly seemed in need of any more political groups and parties, but it now has at least five that did not exist a year ago with more yet to be announced. In the 1960s, a member of the British Parliament came to town with some well-meaning advice for the multiplicity of small social group leaders who turned out to greet him. They were agitating for some kind of elected representation in government and did not lack for energy, enthusiasm, or opposition. If you want to have any impact, he told them, unify yourselves and work together for the common cause. Everyone knew he was right; many were saying the same thing themselves. But the small-group style of personalized leadership, rooted in traditional patterns of local self-management, was too strong and larger political incentives were too weak.
Today, even though incentives are much stronger, the same small-group style remains the norm all along the political spectrum — except for one large pro-Beijing party that provides cover for the local branch of its mainland communist parent. Instead of working through disagreements and differences for the sake of common political aspirations, the more common result is for one small circle of like-minded friends to grow even smaller — by splitting apart and forming yet another group in the name of those aspirations!
THE LOGIC OF POLITICAL DIVORCE
Setting up a separate stove, as the Chinese saying goes, is not necessarily a bad thing. Extended families split, domestic tranquility is restored (for awhile), and both branches have a better chance of prospering. Hong Kong’s fractious political arena and its division of constituency labors have evolved in the same way. Electioneering plus the struggle between dictatorship and democracy now provide incentive and focus. But the participants still see no long-term need to unify or short-term urgency (actually, there is such a need but only the pro-Beijing party is thinking long-term). Instead, groups live or die for the moment, depending on the supporters they can inspire and attract. The aim, leaders always say, is to grow their individualized constituencies and hope springs eternal since the untapped pool of potential political support is great. No more than just over half of Hong Kong’s three million registered voters have ever turned out on Election Day and not all those eligible are registered.
Potential costs are as great as benefits, of course. Danger lurks when one group grows at another’s expense. In this case, the circle of political participants can remain static and a divided pro-democracy vote, for example, gives anti-democratic candidates better odds than they would otherwise enjoy. In a worst case scenario, infighting can become so intense that onlookers turn away in disgust and constituencies shrink. Such are the prospects pro and con that now loom for pan-democrats after all their recent splits and mergers (Jan. 24 post).
Far from lamenting the departure of its most active members, Democratic Party leaders are looking forward to a more unified toned down approach that can tap new sources of previously uncommitted support. In the Hong Kong Island constituency, one of the territory’s five election districts, party leaders calculate that they have already lost most of their old voters to more energetic pan-democrats (now represented by two Civic Party incumbents: Audrey Eu, Tanya Chan; and one independent: Cyd Ho). The aim is to compensate by attracting heretofore silent centrists. Whether an uninspiring Democratic Party can build a new constituency in this way — among people who have until now remained unmoved — remains to be seen. The six Legislative Council seats in this district are currently occupied by four democrats, one conservative independent, and one pro-Beijing party man.
The League of Social Democrats was well on its way to building new constituencies among young people and lower-income workers. But since neither had been reliable sources of pro-democratic participation, the LSD’s split seems calculated to do more harm than good. Party chairman Andrew To fears this result. The breakaway faction led by former chairman Raymond Wong does not. He proclaims the benefits of outspoken opposition worth the risk of trying to defeat Democratic Party candidates, even if their pro-government opponents are the beneficiaries. And sure enough, a brand new pro-government party has arrived on the scene just in time to reap any rewards that might accrue from Raymond Wong’s dare-devil strategy.
REGINA IP AND THE NEW “CENTER-RIGHT”
Leader, founder, and chief organizer of the New People’s Party [Xinmin dang] is none other than the once fearsome Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee [Ye Liu Shuyi]. Trained as a career civil servant in colonial days, she was Secretary for Security during the government’s ill-fated 2002-03 campaign to win passage of national security legislation. More than any other, hers was the hard-line uncompromising face of the government’s drive. She resigned and left town in disgrace soon after at least 500,000 people took to the streets in protest on July 1, 2003.
Determined to regain the status she had lost, Regina Ip returned to Hong Kong in 2006 with a Master’s degree in political science from Stanford University and presented herself as a changed woman. Gone were the sarcastic retorts about democratic panaceas, Adolf Hitler’s electoral precedents, the Holocaust, and so on. She admitted she had made mistakes (without going into detail), accepted Hong Kong’s evolution toward some form of elected government, and decided to stand as a candidate herself. Her old Friends of Regina fan club revived and helped set up a policy-oriented think tank, Savantas, to further her ambitions. The fan club had begun in 2003 by promoting her as a conservative choice for Hong Kong’s top office.
The main pro-Beijing political party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB) helped out as well, supporting her bid for the Legislative Council seat left vacant on Hong Kong Island by the death of DAB chairman Ma Lik in 2007. Unhappy rumblings within the DAB reached ears outside, but the party’s storied discipline won the day even if it did mean relinquishing one of its two seats in the district. She lost the by-election to a democrat, but went on to win a full four-year term in 2008.
This is the seat she is now preparing to defend in the coming 2012 election with the help of her 266-member New People’s Party launched on January 9th. She, too, will present herself as a moderate centrist, albeit one who still insists that the national security legislation must be passed, presumably in the form she originally championed. And although she votes with pro-government conservatives on major issues, she has also learned how to milk a Hong Kong audience for applause with smoothly delivered phrases about responsive government, public participation, environmental protection, etc. Her presence suggests that on Hong Kong Island at least, the Democratic Party’s lackluster moderate incumbent will have to do a better job of differentiating himself and articulating his message if he really means to tap those elusive sources of “silent majority” support they both seek.
But beyond ensuring her re-election and keeping her name in contention for the Chief Executive sweepstakes, her party’s prospects seem limited by the cramped space it must occupy between the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps. Her transformation from haughty civil servant to directly-elected legislator is nevertheless a measure of Hong Kong’s slow political progress — and so is her new party because it seems set to crowd out the most prominent occupant of that same limited space.
Regina Ip calls her NPP “center-right” and says it will have a broader appeal than the pro-business Liberal Party, which currently serves primarily individual business sector interests. She has also begun not only by trying to woo its supporters but by poaching its talent as well, further decimating ranks already weakened when it split apart after a disastrous showing in the 2008 Legislative Council election.
Founded in the early 1990s by Allen Lee and other business leaders, the Liberal Party’s main strength has always been in the indirectly-elected Functional Constituencies. Its founding chairman tried to break free and he plus two others, James Tien and Selina Chow, succeeded in wining directly-elected Legislative Council seats but failed to keep them. In 2008, all the party’s candidates lost including incumbents Tien and Chow. Disagreements over who should succeed them as leaders ended with the creation of a breakaway faction that calls itself Economic Synergy. The two groups currently occupy a total of seven seats, all representing Functional Constituencies where the demand for their permanent retention is strong (Oct. 8, 2010 post). Liberal Party members nevertheless seem to have retained a greater residual interest in direct elections than their former colleagues.
By an ironic twist of fate, it was the unexpected defection of James Tien and the Liberal Party that forced withdrawal of Regina Ip’s national security legislation in 2003. Today she is posing a greater threat to what is left of his party than to anyone else. One of its key members who broke away to join her is his younger brother Michael, who claims to have done so because of Liberal Party reservations about the new minimum wage law. It was precisely because of his wider concerns that brother Michael was being groomed to help revive Liberal Party fortunes on the direct election circuit.
Instead, Regina Ip and her vice-chairman, Michael Tien, have scooped the Liberal Party’s 2012 election strategy with a conservative political platform that also contains several attractive liberal features designed, they say, to appeal especially to middle class professionals and civil servants. Conservatives will be happy to hear that she does not advocate abolition of Functional Constituencies. But she does say they must be reformed and she does now accept that universal suffrage elections are here to stay. Trying to have it both ways, she is writing and speaking about the need for legislative checks and balances or two kinds of constituencies, to serve as protection against the dangers of populist excess that one-person-one-vote elections can precipitate.
All of this will be music to conservative business ears, as will her desire to retain the DAB as a “strategic partner.” The old Liberal Party tried to maintain such a posture without actually admitting as much. What the business community will not appreciate are her economic prescriptions that seem designed to give her message a distinctly populist appeal, the very thing conservatives fear most from pan-democrats. She wants to promote economic restructuring through technology and innovation. But she also uses the phrase “redistribution of wealth.” Government thinking, she says, is still dominated by the old mentality that cares mainly about balancing the books and fears entitlements – regardless of huge surpluses and accumulating reserves.
Overall, Regina Ip has done a good job of retooling her image and her arguments will add a gloss of intellectual respectability to the business community’s self-serving demands for permanent retention of its Functional Constituencies. Some rough edges nevertheless still lurk not too far beneath the surface giving democrats plenty to work with if ever they can put their own house in order and start thinking more about defeating conservatives than each other.
In a recent commentary elaborating her concept of “quality democracy,” she couldn’t resist mocking her old nemesis and fellow legislator Margaret Ng for believing that only by “giving the masses a say in governance” could “real protection for human rights against an authoritarian government” be guaranteed.* Regina Ip still seems not to understand the political dangers posed by the nearest authoritarian government to hand. She also likes to recall her past as a top civil servant and her experience in “handling crises” when asked about her qualifications for higher office. The newly-minted politician seems to have forgotten her very considerable role in bringing half-a-million people out onto the streets and provoking the single greatest crisis that Hong Kong has experienced since reverting to Chinese rule in 1997.
*South China Morning Post, Feb. 6, 2011.