Posted:  Dec. 5, 2011


Of all the post-mortems conducted after the November 6th District Councils election, none have been more painful to watch than those done on the Civic Party.  Painful not because party members fared so badly because they really didn’t, except in contrast to expectations that they naturally did nothing to discourage among candidates and supporters beforehand.  But those expectations were not the only reason for the barrage of criticism and mockery leveled at the party afterward by friend, foe, and fellow party members alike.  It makes for a cautionary tale that says more about the pressures re-molding Hong Kong’s democracy movement than about the Civic Party’s failings.

The party was set up in 2006 and contested its first District Councils election the next year.  Among 42 candidates in 2007, eight won.    A special election and new members boosted its number of local councilors to 12.  The party has grown in size from 100+ members to over 400, but was able to field only the same number of candidates, 41, seven of whom were successful (Nov. 14 post).   Not a great record but not surprising either.   Party members are mostly lawyers, academics, and other professionals who don’t have a lot of time to spend on grassroots social services and community politicking, which is what District Council constituencies are all about.  Party people said beforehand that their goal was to retain the 12 seats.  Perhaps 20 candidates had a chance of winning; the others were testing the waters for some in-service training.

Yet the media focus on Civic Party candidates both before and after November 6th  was out of all proportion to its small size and modest street-level ambitions compared to those of others in the pan-democratic camp.  For reasons that had nothing to do with those particular ambitions, the Civic Party was transformed during the course of the election campaign into a lightening rod that served to channel the pro-establishment camp’s entire litany of grievances against pan-democrats.  The really radical bad boys and girls of the campaign (People Power and League of Social Democrats), who never tired of denouncing Beijing’s one-party dictatorship, were more or less ignored as they played out their quarrel with the Democratic Party, which also got off relatively lightly.

That left the Civic Party to bear the brunt of their common opponents’ wrath.  The tone was set by a relentless mainland-style political struggle barrage that continued in the pro-Beijing press for months, aided and abetted by Hong Kong government officials and all their party allies.   The assault came in two waves.  One peaked before the election, the other followed afterward when it was compounded by recriminations from pan-democrats as well.

At first it seemed like over-kill for a party that was unlikely to win more than a dozen of 412 seats.   By Election Day, however, the aim of this targeted campaign seemed clear:  to discredit the most authoritative of the defiant voices remaining within Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp.   Radical People Power and LSD appeal is limited by their confrontational theatrics and the Democratic Party’s anti-establishment defiance has long since dissipated.  But Civic Party lawyers and academics could not be faulted on either score as they proceeded with their various projects designed to set legal precedents and entrench democratic practices in the name of Hong Kong’s long-term political development. 

             As a result, they have learned an old lesson the hard way about the contradictions between activist campaigning and winning elections.  If they insist on trying to do both  —  especially  now that the full force of the establishment can be mobilized against them  —  they will need more political dexterity and better communications skills than they were able to muster for the 2011 District Councils election.   By the end, they were sounding more and more like a team of talented amateurs who hadn’t quite realized which league they would be playing in or what they were up against.


          The origin of the pro-Beijing press campaign extends back several years and it was only an unlucky coincidence of timing, aided by the plodding pace of the judicial calendar, which brought two high-profile court cases into public view just ahead of the election.  The two cases were judicial reviews that concerned environmental standards and the right of foreign domestic helpers to apply for permanent residence.  The Civic Party did not directly sponsor either review but was supportive and party member lawyers represented plaintiffs in both cases.

The bridge linking Hong Kong with the former Portuguese colony of Macau and points west has been controversial from its inception decades ago when the economic case could still be made for its construction (May 13 post).   Now it has become primarily a multi-billion dollar prestige project symbolizing Hong Kong integration with the mainland (and helping speed tourists on their way across the water to Macau’s gaming tables).  A judicial review was allowed on the pretext of environmental concerns and a decision was announced last April upholding one count in the case against the standards used by the government to approve the bridge design.

Rather than comply with the ruling, which would have been easy enough and quicker, the Hong Kong government appealed the original judgment.  This was duly overturned.  Construction is now proceeding full speed ahead.  But the government and pro-Beijing forces were not content to leave it at that and have supplied the media with a steady stream of information aimed at discrediting the Civic Party for its alleged behind-the-scenes role in promoting the judicial review.  Officials never miss an opportunity to remind everyone that the delay will add another HK$6.5 billion to the price tag and also left bridge builders idle for months.  Legal costs will add another $1.5 million to the bill.  The press campaign, ongoing since April, accuses the party of using its legal expertise to sabotage Hong Kong-mainland integration and block economic progress.

All of this escalated after the original judgment was overturned on September 27.    An elderly woman who served as plaintiff in the case, already identified by pro-Beijing papers as a Civic Party neighborhood volunteer, was now free to speak.  Granny Chu told interviewers she understood nothing about the environmental issues and would never have agreed to participate had she known that workers might be deprived of employment.  These drove the point home by organizing street protests to advertise their loss of work.  Angry citizens staged photo ops outside the Civic Party office, their placards denouncing the “black hand” disrupting Hong Kong’s stability.

No serious attempt was made by anyone to prove or disprove the cost and unemployment allegations, but they continued to be made throughout the weeks preceding the election while an even bigger uproar was underway over the rights of Hong Kong’s 290,000 imported domestic helpers.   According to Article 24 of the post-1997 Basic Law constitution, which follows pre-1997 colonial practice, all non-native born non-Chinese residents who have lived here for seven years can claim the right-of-abode or permanent residency.  Along with that privilege, granted at the Immigration Department’s discretion, come the right to vote, to be treated in public hospitals, qualify for social welfare, and so on.  All non-native residents, that is, except Hong Kong’s live-in low-wage domestic helpers.  Virtually all are women and most come either from Indonesia or the Philippines.   Besides serving the rich they make possible the maintenance of a middle class life-style for many thousands of working families.

Many thousands have also been here in service for over seven years but are routinely denied permanent residency by the Immigration Department.  Judicial reviews were allowed and the first decision was announced on September 30th, with prominent Civic Party founding member Gladys Li representing the maid.    Judge Lam ruled that the Immigration Department’s practice of denying the right of residency just because people worked as servants was unconstitutional.

A gift, gloated New People’s Party leader Regina Ip after the election (South China Morning Post, Nov. 20).  She was referring to the additional anti-Civic Party campaign issue that had been created over night and this one resonated with voters across the economic divide.  Her party strongly opposed the ruling as did the pro-business Liberal Party.  They spoke for the employers of maids concerned about disrupting their household arrangements.

The pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions organized street marches and workers protested that the maids, once free to leave domestic service, would be competing for jobs as well as low cost housing and other benefits.  Hotel workers said their jobs would be lost to the maids who typically speak better English and are well educated. Alarming headlines proclaimed the “floodgates” opening after government officials helpfully estimated that about 120,000 foreign helpers had been working here for at least seven years.  The women were caricatured breaking into the Immigration Department and the New Territories Association of Societies claimed to have collected 160,000 signatures on its protest petition.  A favorite placard read “Don’t vote for the Civic Party that has sold out Hong Kong” (Wen Wei Po, Oct. 24).

Candidates who supported the maids’ right to apply for residency mostly all lost or their parties did badly:  People Power, the Civic Party, and Confederation of Trade Unions candidate Lee Cheuk-yan, who is still scheduled to head up a new group that will call itself New Labor.  The Democratic Party along with pro-Beijing and pro-government parties declared themselves against the right-of-abode for domestic helpers.


Opponents are already anticipating the obituaries they will write for a crusading party they say is down and done for.  Their charge sheet on the causes of death will begin with the bridge, the maids, and last year’s referendum campaign.  More important for the party’s future direction were the verdicts of friends and fellow party members.  Some also criticized its leaders for the stands they had taken and causes promoted.  Others targeted their ineffective response to the crisis.

During a morning-after press conference, current party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit (梁家傑) could not help venting his frustration and anger.  Discussing the losses, he blamed Beijing’s local liaison office for its well-known election strategizing and pro-Beijing parties for the equally well-known year-around gratuities they provide.  The usual polite term for this district-level party politicking is “small favors and benefits” (小恩小惠).  Leong used the more explicit “snakes, veggies, cakes, and dumplings”  (蛇齋餅粽)  to describe the low-cost seasonal treats that have become part of the pro-Beijing network’s neighborhood social services:  winter-time snake soup feasts, vegetarian dinners, moon cakes for mid-autumn, and Dragon Boat Festival dumplings in summer.

Prove it, challenged a pro-Beijing newspaper reporter about liaison office involvement.  An insult to voters, railed academic commentator, Ivan Choy (Ming Pao Daily, Nov. 11).  Politics is about more than cut-rate dinner parties, declared the lead editorial in Jimmy Lai’s pro-democracy Next Magazine (Yi zhoukan, Nov. 10).  It noted the constituencies where residents had no need for subsidized provisions yet voted against democratic candidates anyway.

Others criticized Leong and his party for their lawyer-like habits of maintaining a discreet silence while cases are pending and parsing words carefully ever after.  Having stood by Gladys Li in her court case, the party then seemed to equivocate as tensions rose saying the maids must have their day in court but that did not mean the Civic Party supported the right of abode for all of them.  Leong listed, correctly, all the excuses the Immigration Department could still use to deny residency, which failed to impress either those who sympathized with the maids or those who didn’t.  But by then it was too late:  the opposition had seized control of the issue and his response was not strong enough to regain the initiative.

And then there was Ronny Tong Ka-wah (湯家驊):  legislator, barrister, and Civic Party founding member.  He became a dissenter last year over the party’s participation in the referendum campaign that protested the slow pace of political reform.  He wanted to show his support for the government’s reform plan by competing for one of the dual District Council/Legislative Council seats the plan created.   Against his party’s wishes he parachuted into a District Council constituency that rejected him on November 6th.  He called himself “rudely defeated” by an unprecedented 56% turnout that gave him only 1,580 votes to his opponent’s 3,060.

Furious, he lashed out in an open letter blaming the party for his loss.  He blamed specifically its alliance with the radical LSD during the 2010 referendum campaign and the party’s failure to explain clearly its position on domestic helpers.   The Wall Street Journal’s November 8th editorial added insult to injury by celebrating the defeat of so many radicals including him.  Think of it, he fumed, mixing me up with them.  We started out as a party targeting the middle class and professionals “to widen the pool of supporters for the Democratic Movement.”   But “a political party needs to be in tune with the concerns of the majority,” and the fate of the entire movement now hung in the balance.  Either we redefine our party’s direction, he concluded, or we are doomed.*

He was right about the prospects for the movement but wrong about the reasons for its collapse on November 6th.  More than anything else his and Alan Leong’s frustrations reflected their larger failure to acknowledge the challenge that has been building for years.  Pan-democrats have looked upon Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing loyalist minority like a ship passing in the night.  Twenty years ago they could afford that luxury, now they can’t.

Their loyalist opponents have learned enough about electoral politics to win control of Hong Kong’s District Councils and they have done this by using their multi-million dollar budgets to maintain full-time paid staffers in districts everywhere but especially in neighborhoods that appreciate the events they organize and services they provide.  They also run a disciplined operation that not only coordinates candidates with declared allies but with undeclared “independents” as well  —  like those affiliated with the ubiquitous Associations of Societies.  By parachuting into constituencies that had never seen them before, pan-democrats including both radicals and moderates demonstrated their failure to recognize the significance of their opponents’ ground game in setting the standards for community-level political work.   Having failed to calculate the lay-of-the-land beforehand, every single parachuter perished as a result.

Yet Ronny Tong still does not grasp these basic new facts of Hong Kong’s political life, which is why he also does not yet appreciate that those dual use council seats were designed specifically for pro-Beijing candidates.  He thought he could move in and join the Shatin District Council  because he didn’t realize he was invading territory that the loyalist satellite Civil Force has been actively cultivating for over a decade.  Its founder, Lau Kong-wah, now a vice-chairman of the main pro-Beijing party, also parachuted into a Shatin constituency.  But it was occupied by one of his own people who immediately stepped aside to welcome him back and pave his way to the Legislative Council seat that Ronny Tong had hoped to win.

If Hong Kong’s democracy movement is really doomed it will not be just because of bridges and maids and snakes and cakes.  The larger reason will lie in this failure of pan-democrats to acknowledge the strategy of grassroots institution-building that their opponents have perfected and are using to defeat them.

* Letter to Hong Kong, Nov. 13 (

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