Posted: April 27, 2011
With Hong Kong’s democracy movement currently adrift between last year’s fractious political reform struggle and the coming 2011-12 election cycle, activists have energy to burn and are putting it to use in a multitude of ways both productive and otherwise. The pro-establishment and pro-Beijing opposition looks on with a mix of mockery and apprehension, eager to exploit the disarray yet mindful of the political spirit that no one in Beijing or Hong Kong has yet been able to subdue.
The most pressing question for pan-democrats now is whether they can pull together in time to keep from being overwhelmed by their well-heeled, well-organized, and more numerous opponents in the coming District Council elections where the next chapter of Hong Kong political tug-of-war will be written. Toward that end, the most urgent need is for coherent economic thinking and political foresight since their opponents have both along with the other advantages.
CIVIL DISRUPTION AND DISOBEDIENCE
Radicals are making the best of a bad situation created by the break-up of last year’s high-flying League of Social Democrats. The remaining majority of LSD members seem bent on compensating for their lost momentum by orchestrating ever more defiant stunts for their frontline political action team to perform. These are designed to disrupt public events, and narrow the distinctions between “radical” behavior and violence. We disavow violence, they continue to insist, but we have been marching and petitioning for years to no avail. In an undemocratic system we must do what we can to make our voices heard. There is no sign yet of a reconciliation with the breakaway People Power (Renmin liliang) faction led by Raymond Wong. Its activists are less visible along the police barricade lines but he remains determined to teach the Democratic Party a lesson for its capitulation on political reform last June.
All the main pro-democracy parties now have youth wings, following from last year’s sudden emergence of the angry young post-1980s generation. And all are now thinking in terms of civil disobedience inspired by the example of the Middle Eastern Jasmine Revolutions. Civic Party activists helped orchestrate the first episode of what they call a Mahatma Gandhi-style Satyagraha campaign. This may have been non-violent but it did little to endear them to shoppers at one of the ubiquitous Park n’ Shop supermarkets. Several activists filled shopping carts and waited their turn in separate lines only to announce on arriving at the checkout stands — after everything had been rung up and bagged — that they had changed their minds and didn’t want to buy any of the items after all http://hongkong.geoexpat.com/forum/84/thread186809.html .
We have nothing against the supermarket, they later explained. Their target was Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, who is also its most diversified property developer. We don’t have anything against him personally either, they said. But his conglomerate owns the Park n’ Shop chain and they followed up their March 26 protest against collusion between government and big business or “property-developer hegemony” with a camp-out two weeks later in front of his downtown Cheung Kong Center headquarters.
Young Civics leader Philip Tsang was happy to elaborate. Hong Kong’s political system is dysfunctional, he said during an April 17 ATV Newsline interview. Chief Executive Donald Tsang is being sidelined and lacks the power to govern. When the tycoons want something they by-pass him and go straight to Beijing for approval. Dramatic stunts might seem futile, but ordinary people had no other means of making their influence felt in protest against the many resulting injustices.
Li Ka-shing made a good target personifying as he does the unfair advantages enjoyed by vested interests within Hong Kong’s political system. The logic was clear even if the effect was not, which was more than could be said for the Democratic Party’s March 30th leap into the sea. Four Young Democrats donned lifejackets and alerted emergency services personnel before jumping into the harbor. The protesters refused to be rescued until they had unfurled their banner targeting the cancellation of an underutilized ferry route between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
Distracted by the new-found enthusiasm for civil disobedience, activists also bungled what was to have been the culmination of their effort against this year’s budget. The campaign that began with a well-attended rally on March 6 (March 10 post) was supposed to end with a big march on April 10. The budget was scheduled for final Legislative Council debate on April 13-14. Sponsors again included all the pro-democracy parties but no one seems to have been paying much attention since their required request for an official notice-of-no-objection estimated attendance at 15,000. Police put the turnout at 360; organizers claimed 800, handing their opponents the perfect pretext for proclaiming victory in the battle of the budget.
LONG-TERM VISIONS: AN ECONOMIC PLATFORM IN THE MAKING?
Asked what might satisfy them, young activists say it would take a budget with long-term vision designed to address Hong Kong’s long-standing social, economic, and environmental needs. Yet the government has no plans for the future, said Philip Tsang, except to continue selling land that only the big developers can afford to buy and allowing them to continue accumulating wealth while only those with means can afford to buy the properties thus developed.
Land and tax policies need major reform but in the meantime, ordinary people need something more than one-off cash handouts and community care charities. Specifically, activists and politicians are now calling for a resumption of the old Home Ownership Scheme that subsidized the sale of low-cost housing; a universal pension plan; and 15 years of public education (through college instead of just the present nine years through junior middle school). But can pan-democrats come together and draft an economic platform the government might feel obliged to take seriously?
Independent corporate governance critic David Webb recently looked at the major parties’ balance sheets highlighting what everyone knows: the 15,000 strong pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) has more members and more money than all other parties combined. But Webb in his March 7th post blames democrats’ failure to produce economic platforms worthy of the name on their hand-to-mouth existence (http://webb-site.com/articles/partyfinance.asp ). Probably it’s the other way around: the failure to think seriously about economics is reason enough to keep contributors at bay. Sympathetic pro bono lawyers can always be found to defend the few democracy activists who end up in court and local universities have more than enough economic talent to provide the necessary help if only politicians felt the need to ask.
Ten years ago the Democratic Party was still known by its 1990s reputation as the standard-bearer for Hong Kong’s democracy camp. It was during the economic downturn following the 1998 Asian financial crisis that opponents’ mockery about “one trick political ponies” began to resonate. Democrats know nothing about economics, railed the tycoons, as DP leaders floundered amid the waves of stock market speculators, negative equity householders, and so on.
Today its standard-bearer image is long gone but the power of incumbency has left the DP, among pan-democrats, with the largest number of elected seats on the district and legislative councils. Yet the party remains no closer to economic coherence than before. Young Democrats sea-jumping protest was meant to dramatize their only proposed solution: a government subsidy to maintain the ferry route that most commuters have abandoned and few tourists use. Nor have party leaders thought enough about one of their new signature demands — for a universal pension plan — to keep from contradicting themselves in public about its viability.
A recent eye-catching newspaper ad signed by “a group of middle class professionals” warned that “Hong Kong is moving left.” Their complaint was the new pan-democratic pension plan demand, which they said would bankrupt the economy (Hsin Pao–Hong Kong Economic Journal, April 12). Among the first responders was DP legislator Wong Sing-chi [Huang Chengzhi], the party’s social welfare spokesman. He declared the ad a “conspiracy” probably paid for by the government to discredit pan-democrats (SingTao Daily, April 13). More likely the ad was inspired by another of David Webb’s posts. He ran the numbers on population trends and likely costs and concluded that providing pensions for all citizens would put Hong Kong on the road to “fiscal hell” (http://webb-site.com/articles/pensioncost.asp ).
Legislator Wong also seemed unaware that one of his own DP vice-chairs, Sin Chung-kai [Qin Zhongxie], had just published two articles in the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po [Wenhui bao], of all places, where he said the same thing. He wrote that pensions for all would create a “bottomless pit” and questioned Hong Kong’s ability to sustain any such scheme (March 21, April 2). Whether or not a conspiracy has been perpetrated against the White Pigeon Party is not really important, wrote one critical commentator. The real question is what its leaders think they are doing and what direction they aim to take (Hsin Pao–HK Economic Journal, April 14).
AND NO SIGN YET OF POLITICAL PLANNING FOR FUTURE USE
The critical comment was as much about the DP’s political direction as its economics but the political reference was, as always, oblique and indirect, implied rather than specified. In the same way, young politicians are beginning to speak out in terms of long-term economic needs and solutions, leaving long-term political thinking and contingency planning to remain in the realm of aspiration. Worries and concerns are expressed on a daily basis in a multitude of ways but are never articulated as the starting point for long-range concrete solutions.
This makes for some oddly disjointed political discourse between the two sides of the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing political divide. Only the latter are thinking long-term and working toward full political integration by 2047 when the “two-systems” experiment is scheduled to end. Only pro-Beijing politicians have an institutional plan already designed to accommodate that end with personnel moving into place accordingly — as has been mentioned many times before in these posts. It follows that pro-Beijing editorial writers love to mock pan-democrats for their fear of that future, whereas democrats only allude to the unmentionable and never project their ideals in terms of contingency plans for a 2047 safe landing. When asked why, Anthony Cheung said it was hard enough getting the public to focus on 2020; 2047 was too far away. Cheung was a core DP member in its 1990s heydays but left the party some years ago and is now a member of Donald Tsang’s Executive Council cabinet. Why pro-Beijing loyalists can concentrate their minds on 2047 while no one else can is never discussed.
Nothing worries more people more than Article 23 of the Basic Law. This requires Hong Kong to pass national political security legislation against treason, secession, subversion, sedition, theft of state secrets, and ties with foreign political organizations. Hong Kongers are following the current Middle Eastern uprisings against state-directed suppression of dissent, and identify its jasmine revolutionaries with those in China who fall afoul of similar mainland political security restrictions.
Newspapers and websites regularly publicize the fate of mainland dissidents who try to promote reform, and last summer those same sources were reporting on the Hong Kong government’s plan to reintroduce the same Article 23 security legislation that provoked massive protests here in 2003. The legislation was only put back on the shelf for fear of influencing the coming elections. Yet pan-democrats are not drafting contingency plans or preemptive arguments against the reintroduction of that legislation.
Nor did Ming Pao Daily’s editorial writers see fit to challenge directly the source of all fear in their commentary on the April 3rd detention of mainland artist Ai Weiwei. Instead of targeting the logic of the mainland’s political security regime, with its open-ended definitions of subverting state power, the editors offered a homily exhorting mainland authorities to treat critics “generously” and “resolve differences through dialogue rather than repression” (April 7). Only a few young protesters and graffiti artists articulated the connection. It could happen to us here, they say. This is about all of us, not just Ai Weiwei, because we are part of China now. But plans to prevent “it” from happening here remain as nebulous as the DP’s promise to continue working for universal suffrage elections.