Posted: June 14, 2011
Probably the best way of reconciling the contradictions in Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho’s political thinking (June 1 post) is not to try. This is because Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been reinvigorated in recent years by an influx of young people who are moving on and leaving him to adapt or not as best he can. In any case, the concerns about “revolutionary-type mass movements” that featured in his May manifesto seemed the last thing on anyone’s mind as another huge crowed gathered for the candlelight vigil commemorating Beijing’s June Fourth crackdown that put an end to China’s own democracy movement in 1989. The Hong Kong event has been held annually in Victoria Part for the past 22 years, making this the only place in China were public commemoration is allowed.
SOME JUNE FOURTH CONTRADICTIONS
One difference to note by comparison with years past is the size of the crowd. Attendance last year was unprecedented as something like 150,000 people turned out in unspoken tribute to the terminally ill Szeto Wah, who had insisted on keeping the event alive even as attendance fell below 50,000 and the resolve of others faltered. Mr. Szeto passed away in January. But this year, there was no special reason to explain the equally large turnout except for the steady stream of consciousness-raising political debates and controversies — both here and elsewhere, in both the Chinese and non-Chinese worlds. The police also seemed to defer to last year’s special circumstances by allowing their estimate (113,000) to reflect that of vigil organizers (150,000). This year, the police reverted to their habit of underestimating by about half what experienced observation indicates. But the spillover crowd filled all the soccer pitches that accommodate 80,000, plus close to that same number in all the same empty park spaces and side streets just like last year.
Perhaps the Democratic Party’s new-found concern about revolutionary-type mass movements was responsible for moving the most “subversive” anti-communist slogans and banners off center stage. But they were all still there somewhere including the controversial “end one-party dictatorship,” and center stage was provocative enough with its giant demand to “reverse the verdict on June Fourth; build democracy.” Yesteryear’s firebrand, Emily Lau, could not resist a daring photo-op pose beneath the banner calling on heaven to “destroy the Chinese communists” (Apple Daily, June 6). Lau is now, since 2008, a DP vice chair and many have yet to forgive her sudden about-face on last year’s political reform package.
Along with the increasing number of young people in attendance was the increasing number of mainland visitors. Preliminary estimates by Hong Kong University pollsters suggest that the 15-30 age group accounted for over half those attending this year’s vigil. Last year they were estimated at 40-50%. As for mainlanders, the only way of estimating their numbers is by examining the contents of the fund-raising money boxes afterward. Vigil organizers say they collected HK$1.3 million, which included RMB 16,000 in mainland currency, up from RMB 7,500 last year.
If Albert Ho wants any of these people to take seriously his puzzling new critique of revolutionary-type mass movements, he will have to do a much better job of reconciling his new ideas with the subversive June Fourth movement that he and his friends have kept going since 1989. All the main debates and controversies that have marked political life during the past year — both here and elsewhere — have been about spontaneous popular resistance to authoritarian rule. Since Ho continues to champion the goals of building democracy in Hong Kong and on the mainland, a goal that Beijing continues to regard as subversive of its authority, he needs to explain how those goals can be achieved without a popular protest movement. In particular: he needs to explain why it is O.K. when tens of thousands of Hong Kongers demonstrate under banners calling for an end to the Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorial way of governing and suppressing mass protests; but it is not O.K. to agitate for local universal suffrage elections here just because Beijing regards them as contrary to its way of governing!
A TEN-POINT REBUTTAL
Political critic Wong Ngon-yin (Wang Anran 王岸然) used much sharper language. He said Albert Ho’s political manifesto was “shameless” on 10 counts and lamented such thinking from the leader of what is still Hong Kong’s most influential pro-democracy political party. Among pan-democrats, the Democratic Party occupies the largest number of seats in Hong Kong’s legislative and district councils. Ho’s essay was published in Ming Pao Daily News, May 10, 11, 12. Wong’s critique appeared in the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal, May 18.
In Wong’s view, the 10 counts add up to a prescription for indefinite surrender. Otherwise, why use the old feudal concept of an encircled city with a politically apathetic population that will cold-shoulder “revolutionary-type” political reform? Wong calls this a sell-out to the pro-Beijing line. Point four on his shameless index blames Albert Ho for invoking the specter of mass movement violence (when Hong Kong’s own democracy movement has been totally devoid of violence). Point five targets his casual dismissal of the Middle Eastern jasmine revolutions because they anticipate the rise of new dictatorships, “pouring old wine into new bottles.” Point six concerns Ho’s misreading of Hong Kong’s new post-80s youth protests and increasing civil society activism — confusing this direct political participation with some sort of revolutionary takeover-from-below.
Next, Wong cites Ho’s failure to check the facts before drafting a sketch of Hong Kong’s colonial history that is skewered to serve his political argument. But misrepresenting the past pales, in Wong’s view, beside Ho’s use of mainland terminology to characterize Hong Kong as an anti-communist base because anti-communist opinions are openly expressed here. Ho accepts Beijing’s logic without argument, citing his own June Fourth movement as a source of such anti-communist opinion, and commending Beijing’s tolerance. The aim of such thinking and the bargain Ho struck over political reform last year must be to abandon the struggle for democracy in favor of long-term accommodation with autocrats, at the expense of Hong Kong’s popular movement. Finally, Wong marvels at Ho’s confidence in making all these points — without a word of doubt, introspection, or qualification.
Perhaps because of this critique, when Albert Ho presented the same ideas in English at Baptist University on May 31, he emphasized his commitment to carry forward the struggle for democracy along multiple fronts. He also avoided using the mainland term “masses,” and referred to them in the Hong Kong way as people, citizens, voters, and so on. The case against mass movements that featured in his manifesto (and read like it was written by one of the mainland scholars with whom he said he remains in contact) was also absent from his presentation. But he repeated the encirclement analogy, expanding on Hong Kong’s historic role as a place of refuge from the dangers of mainland political life. That experience, he said, had created a tradition of political avoidance shared by the population as a whole.
This is the old British and conservative Chinese fall-back excuse for not introducing political reforms here throughout most of Hong Kong’s colonial history. Beijing adopted this argument, citing it repeatedly during the 1990s to explain why Albert Ho and his new activist friends were out-of-step with politically apathetic mainstream society. Yet Ho not only persists with this argument but anticipates that his party will be rewarded during the coming elections for trying to appeal to these conservative popular instincts in ways its previous message has failed to do.
During the past year, individual Democratic Party members have also rationalized Albert Ho’s political reform compromise in this way and described their aim of political realignment in similar terms. Ho’s manifesto reaffirms those off-the-cuff explanations more systematically for presentation to the public at large. It follows that he is also trying to reorient Hong Kong’s democracy movement, or at least his party’s version thereof, in a way that will make it more acceptable to Beijing.
Whether Albert Ho succeeds in raising his party’s profile among the “masses” remains for the 2011/12 elections to decide. What Beijing thinks of his efforts also remains to be seen. Local “traditional leftists” have always thought he was “alright,” as democrats go, because of his patriotic attachment to many nationalistic causes. They still say so among themselves. But in public and in print, they are not convinced.
Pro-Beijing commentator Lau Nai-keung (Liu Naiqiang 劉廼強) knows Albert Ho well. Their political lives began together at the same point, in the early 1980s, when both were part of Hong Kong’s nascent democracy movement. But Lau soon turned against the idea of Western-style democracy and became one of the few early activists who crossed over to the other side. If anyone could recognize a genuine conversion, it would be Lau but he sees no such thing. He mocked Ho’s great work calling it an anti-communist tract and the best that could be expected from the “dragon’s head” or lead organization among what leftists call the “opposition” pro-democracy parties.
Like Wong Ngon-yin, Lau highlighted Ho’s assertion that since 1997, China had been especially tolerant and avoided interfering in Hong Kong. But unlike Wong who scoffed at Ho’s acceptance of the official Beijing line about non-interference, Lau targeted Ho’s double standards: Beijing is not supposed to interfere in Hong Kong, but he still thinks Hong Kong can become a model for building democracy in China. At least, wrote Lau, Ho has finally acknowledged the Democratic Party’s secret mission: they really do plan to use Hong Kong as a base for turning China upside down (Hong Kong Economic Journal, May 31).
Although he did not mention Ho’s manifesto directly, pro-Beijing writer Zhou Bajun (周八駿), also dismissed the Democratic Party’s attempt at political realignment. Why did the Democratic Party’s approval ratings go up last year? Because, said Zhou repeating official interpretations, the party had dared to compromise for the sake of promoting democratic political reform. Now, less than a year later, its approval rating had fallen from 15% to 8%. Why? Because the party’s realignment was not genuine. Albert Ho’s political reform compromise was only a tactical ploy, not a strategic shift. The party’s basic standpoint and orientation toward Beijing has not changed. This was demonstrated by the Nobel Peace Prize (awarded to mainland dissident Liu Xiaobo). The Democratic Party joined with all other pan-democrats in celebrating the award and joined them on other issues as well.
Zhou then moved beyond official spin to explain the Democratic Party’s difficulty in locating a new “moderate” middle ground. The party remains the most influential of all the pan-democratic groups and factions but the others — the Civic Party, League of Social Democrats, People Power, New Democratic Alliance — are now setting the pace. The Democratic Party cannot move too far from the others without losing even more of its waning influence to their growing strength. As it faces the coming elections, concluded Zhou, the Democratic Party must strive both to consolidate its fractured internal ranks and expand its constituency externally. Party leaders will not be able to stray too far from the political line and tactics of the movement as a whole if they hope to maintain their dominant position within it (Wen Wei Po [Wenhui bao], May 19).