Posted:  June 1, 2011


Albert Ho Chun-yan [何俊仁], Legislative Councilor and current chairman of the Democratic Party, is no stranger to controversy.  After he was bludgeoned in the face and nearly blinded a few years ago, the police tried to explain their difficulty in apprehending the assailant.   They said that since the lawyer-activist-politician had a habit of “lighting fires everywhere,” investigators needed time to figure out which one might have provoked the attack.  This time, however, the source of the verbal abuse aimed in his direction is known to all.   Recriminations are still continuing from his decision last June to renege on pan-democrats’ pledge to reject the government’s political reform package if it could not offer credible universal suffrage guarantees.  With eight DP members in the Legislative Council, his decision gave the government sufficient votes to win approval of the package.

Albert Ho and other DP leaders have since promised repeatedly to continue working for universal suffrage elections.  They also promised last summer to show how the government’s plan that they accepted, with one revision, could be transformed into a system for direct Legislative Council elections by 2020.   But so far no such formulas have been advanced.  With the first phase of the 2011/12 election cycle fast approaching, Albert Ho has made a major effort to placate his erstwhile comrades and current critics.  Whether he has succeeded seems doubtful.   But his effort, a three-part 7,000-character essay published in Ming Pao Daily News (May 10, 11, 12), helps explain the thinking behind his contradictory behavior as a dedicated human rights campaigner and vacillating politician.


Entitled “Struggling together along many roads toward the gradual achievement of democracy,” he began his essay with the same words the government uses, referring to his pro-democracy critics as “radicals” who had “besieged and vilified” his party all last summer.  They had, he wrote, put him under greater pressure than he had experienced in all his 30 years of political activism.

Still, he has no regrets and can see no error in his decision that others have called a betrayal of their movement’s goals.  Why?  Because he believes that the Democratic Party can uphold democratic ideals and at the same time make sober responsible decisions.  Why sober and responsible?  Because they are based on its grasp of the objective situation’s limitations, and because the party’s experience allows members to understand the hopes and feelings of the great majority.  His controversial decision, he maintains, thus succeeded in breaking an impasse, promoting Hong Kong’s political development, and facilitating the political movement’s forward advance.

Whatever their views of the political reform package itself, he continues, some people think it came at a heavy price because his decision has led to the current split in Hong Kong’s democracy movement.  Ho rejects this suggestion because Hong Kong’s democracy movement has long been “walking along two paths” and people can disagree without carrying it to extremes.  Blame for the extremes he places squarely on the League of Social Democrats and the Civic Party, targeting specifically their  decision to launch the May 2010 five-district referendum campaign for universal suffrage.

The two parties raised the banners of people power to challenge autocratic authority  —  especially that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)  —  turning Hong Kong’s political movement into a form of ideological and moral struggle.  The five-district referendum and various street campaigns aimed to generate popular support with wave after wave of attacks on the Hong Kong government.  The objective, he says, was to undermine its authority and wear down its will to govern, and in this way force acceptance of democrats’ demands.  He thinks this kind of “pressure from below” is really based on “revolutionary thinking.”  Although promoters hope their non-violent mass movement can have a “revolutionary-type result,” the special characteristics of such thinking and the action it inspires can have only two ends, both negative.

First, although the mass movement begins as non-violent action, it can escalate into civil disobedience, citizen protest, and the obstruction of social order.  The government may then respond forcefully, eventually leading to violence, arrests, and imprisonment.  Secondly, as a mass movement accelerates so do the demands, making it increasingly difficult for dialogue and compromise with neither side willing to give in.   Because the authorities often will not retreat, revolutionary-type mass movements whether non-violent or not can have tragic results.   The revolutionaries end up “fighting with their backs to the river,” that is, willing to die for a righteous cause but achieving nothing.

Alternatively, whether the revolution is violent or not, if the movement escalates to the point of overthrowing power, establishing a new order is something else again.  When the old order falls quickly and revolutionaries take over, it can become a case of old wine in new bottles and blood can be spilled for nothing.  People who precipitate revolutionary actions must consider this.

In any case, struggling for democracy through revolutionary-type action by relying on the masses alone will end without result here.   This is because, given Hong Kong’s constricted political space, most people lead comfortable lives and sense their lack of political power.  During a speech at Baptist University on May 31, Ho explained this point saying that Hong Kong had always been a place of refuge from the uncertainties of life in China.  This gave people here something like a “state of siege” mentality.  They will struggle for economic security and well-being but their pursuit of happiness has never included politics.  It follows that Hong Kong is not like Egypt or Tunisia.  The scope for political movements here is limited because Hong Kong is not independent and people realize that attacking the Hong Kong government is futile as long as Beijing remains unwilling to accept change.


          Still, all is not lost.  But before deciding on future political reform strategies and electoral arrangements, Albert Ho advocates deeper understanding in order to grasp the larger objective situation.  His thumbnail sketch of political developments during the colonial era is not error-free or particularly relevant to his main arguments.  But his point is that historically, Hong Kong’s colonial rulers were always mindful of official Chinese sensitivities and China reciprocated by respecting Hong Kong’s separate status.

Since 1997, Hong Kong’s space for political expression has remained basically free despite pressures from invisible “united front” hands.  Every year, the June Fourth candlelight vigil commemorating the 1989 crackdown against China’s own democracy movement continues to be held.  Its sponsoring organization  —  Albert Ho is a leading member  —  carries on as well.  This is the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China and its activities, which would be illegal in China, continue without restriction.  The Fa Lun Gong religious sect that is banned on the mainland also works openly here.  All of this makes Hong Kong the freest place in China, even though Hong Kong in its thinking and speech remains an anti-communist place where people oppose dictatorship.

Beijing tolerates what is, by its standards, a “subversive” society because of Hong Kong’s economic value to China as an international financial and communications center, and also because of the one-country, two-systems promises made to Britain for the post-1997 transitional period.  But democrats need to understand that their opponent in the struggle for democracy is not the Hong Kong government.  Rather their adversary is the communist party and the central government its leads in Beijing.  To behave otherwise is to be “divorced from reality.”

The necessary conditions for Beijing’s decision-making power over all aspects of political reform here are contained in Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution, the full significance of which has only become apparent through practice since 1997.  In reiterating these well-known Basic Law powers, however, Albert Ho encounters a contradiction when he comes to the government’s 2003 attempt to introduce the Basic Law’s Article 23 mandate for national political security legislation.  He acknowledges that the July First 500,000-strong mass march was responsible for blocking the legislation in 2003, and for Beijing’s later decision  to remove Hong Kong’s then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa after another huge march on July 1, 2004.

Ho nevertheless maintains that the 2003 upsurge of people power was in response to a direct threat to Hong Kongers’ prized freedom of political expression.  “From this we know that Hong Kong people have a certain power to influence.  But this is limited to concrete local policies.  It has no effect on changing the Special Administration Region’s constitutional power structure and cannot diminish Beijing’s power to rule Hong Kong.”

Political movements all have their convictions but these are only necessary not sufficient.  He contrasts what he calls the ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility and argues that movements must have both if they are to achieve anything. “Movement leaders must exercise rational political judgment and deal with concrete matters such as the organizational capacity of the masses for the long term benefit and aspirations of all.”  He therefore feels that in this historically small and politically encircled place, the use of mass movements to struggle for revolutionary-type political reform will have negative consequences because mainstream society will grow weary and the masses will cold-shoulder democracy.  Instead, he says, we must fully understand people’s commitments and the limitations of the situation and only then can we hope to struggle for victory.


Toward this end, Ho lists nine prescriptions to guide the formulation of strategy and tactics:

1.)  Prepare for a long struggle.

2.)  Such a struggle is not the same as short bursts of revolutionary energy.  A long-term struggle needs firm political commitment plus steadfast courage, determination, rational judgment, and a sense of responsibility.

3.) Long-term strategies mean using the combined strength of organizations and the masses, plus pressure inside and outside representative assemblies, while striving for concessions and compromise with the authorities.

4.)  Avoid one-dimensional demands.

5.) This leads to the controversial political reform plan he endorsed.  Admitting there is still no roadmap to universal suffrage elections, he nevertheless maintains that the revised arrangements for the coming election cycle can give democrats the opportunity to increase their representation in the Legislative Council.  This should give them more influence in future dealings both with Hong Kong’s chief executive and with Beijing.

6.)  Think in terms of the entire mainland as well.  Hong Kong’s democracy movement is now a part of the national movement and national development.  Hong Kong’s political fate is basically at one with that of the mainland and we are now part of the struggle to open the larger door to Chinese democracy.

7.)  Avoid one-dimensional strategies.  By multi-dimensional, he means peaceful rational non-violent activism in society outside the Legislative Council; uniting with pan-democrats inside the council to pressure the government; striving for dialogue between Beijing and the Hong Kong government based on compromise and concessions to achieve democracy.

8.)  Never forget that with each forward step, Hong Kong is carrying a burden for all China.

9.) If the central government continues to argue that an elected government for Hong Kong cannot be tolerated by the structure of the national constitution, then Beijing will not be able to achieve  peaceful unification with Taiwan because Taiwan’s government is already democratically elected.   For the future development of China and peaceful unification across the Taiwan Strait, plus long-term peace between Hong Kong and the mainland, all China must follow the path to democracy.

After reinforcing his arguments with a lengthy discussion of Western writers and references, Ho concludes as he often has during the past year by pleading for time and tolerance.  In such a complex environment with so many constraints and expectations, Hong Kong’s democracy movement must adopt multiple strategies:  struggle, compromise, and dialogue.  At any given time, one or the other should not be a matter for short-term judgment.

Albert Ho’s challenge has so far provoked little public commentary.  One exception is the political critic Wang Anran [王岸然] who publishes regularly in the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal.    He organized his May 18th response to Ho around 10 counts of “shameless-ness.”  But that can wait for another day …

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