Posted: Oct. 29, 2012
Soon after the September 9th Legislative Council election, Tam Yiu-chung who heads the main pro-Beijing political party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB) took a victory lap around his New Territories West constituency. DAB candidates had won more seats in that district than in any other, and pan-democrats lost more. The Democratic Party was especially hard hit. Tam rubbed salt in the wounds by declaring that he and his allies would use their combined Legislative Council majority to change the rules. Their aim: to block pan-democrats’ newly mastered filibustering skills used during the last session to compensate for their minority status.
With typical bravado, People Power legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip who led the filibuster effort last May said in effect so what: if filibustering was banned they would find other ways to disrupt council business (Sept. 18 post). But legislators have just been sworn in for the new 2012-16 term and the consequences of their election cannot be dismissed so easily. Pan-democrats immediately found themselves up against a solid block of opposition determined to curb their limited margins for maneuver.
SPOILS OF VICTORY
However powerless the Legislative Council might be, its approval is needed for all government bills. These can be subjected to indefinite delays at the committee stage and it is at this stage that conservatives are now determined to make their influence felt. The DAB, its Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) partner, and conservative business allies joined in some hard-ball winner-take-all maneuvers that jettisoned the customary genteel arrangements designed to share the fruits of electoral victory.
“In the past,” complained the Democratic Party’s Emily Lau Wai-hing, “Legco members from the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps were able to work out a roster in which they took turns to chair the various panels and committees.” But not this time. Of the 20 Legislative Council panels and sub-committees, pro-Beijing members and their allies had just divvied up 16 chairmanships among themselves, leaving pan-democrats with only a few crumbs of comfort. Pan-democrats had already been eliminated for the three most important Legco posts: that of president plus the Finance and House Committee chairmanships. In her “Letter toHong Kong” broadcast, she railed against such an “arrogant” attempt to “seize control” at the committee level, while pan-democrats could still claim to represent a majority of the voting public.*
On September 9, pan-democrats won 27 of Legco’s 70 seats; the combined forces of the opposition won 43. Their 61% seat majority thus became an 80+% win of the total 22 committees and panels. In terms of direct popular representation: pan-democrats won 18 of the 35 Geographic Constituency seats with 56% of the popular vote. Additionally, three of the 27 seats won by pan-democrats were of the hybrid experimental super-seat variety elected by everyone’s second vote. The three pro-democracy candidates won with 51% of the ballots cast for these five super-seats.
Why did pro-establishment legislators use their committee majorities to elbow out pan-democrats in so deliberate a fashion? The aim is to nip in the bud filibusters and all such delaying tactics at the committee level. Attempts to do so can be approved there by simple majorities in individual committees, without going to Legco as a whole where the “two-house” voting mechanism would give pan-democrats veto power.
In fact, the Legislative Council president who is again DAB founder Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, serving in the position at Beijing’s behest, has the power to cut off debate within the chamber as a whole at any time. This new tactic is aimed at sparing him the opprobrium and challenges that would come from invoking that power, which he did finally use to end Albert Chan’s filibuster last spring. Pan-democrats asked for a judicial review but the court rulled against them and in Tsang’s favor.
Among the first motions in the new Finance Committee was one raised by DAB member Ip Kwok-him to amend the procedures. This committee is gate-keeper for all funding proposals submitted by the government that must ultimately be approved by Legco. Ip wants to make filibustering impossible in this committee by allowing each member the right to table only one motion on any single funding proposal. People Power legislator Albert Chan responded with a threat to filibuster indefinitely by moving amendments to Ip’s proposed amendment before it can be put to a vote. Voting has now been postponed until Nov. 2 (see update).**
PERSONALITIES IN THE CHAIR
The reasons for Emily Lau’s anger were two-fold. One was the committee power grab itself; the other added insult to injury since the pro-Beijing camp had deliberately pre-selected some especially provocative candidates for the panel posts. This is a new Beijing-inspired practice that Hong Kong has now seen at work several times. Whenever pan-democrats succeed in making a political point and winning an argument, ways are found to counteract the victory by re-appointing their target to some equally prominent post. In this way, the public is reminded that Beijing’s authority must be seen to supersede that of local actors whose political initiatives and victories must not be allowed to stand unchallenged. The re-emergence of politically disgraced former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa as a top advisor to Beijing’s top leader Xi Jinping is the most recent case in point (Oct. 9 post).
Among others are the legislators tapped to lead Legco’s most important panels plus one of its two main standing committees (Finance and House). The Finance Committee is now chaired by the Liberal Party’s Tommy Cheung Yu-yan who is a Functional Constituency legislator representing the catering industry. This seat was last contested in the 2004 Legco election when he won with all of 2,488 votes. He has held it, uncontested, ever since.
A man of ample girth, Cheung is most famous for his determined fight against a minimum wage. During the 2008-12 legislative session he made headlines with his suggestion that if the rate was set higher than HK$20 per hour, many of his restaurant owner constituents would be forced out of business and unemployment would rise. After years of agitation, a minimum wage was finally fixed at HK$28 per hour with no adverse effects whatever on Hong Kong’s low 4% unemployment rate. Now he is arguing against any further upward adjustment.
Legco’s order-of-business is set by the House Committee. Its new chairman is Functional Constituency legislator Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen who belongs to the Liberal Party’s conservative breakaway offshoot, Economic Synergy. He seems never to have stood in any kind of a contested election including either that for the House Committee chair or his seat in Legco, which he has held since 2004.
Among the 20 panels and sub-committees, the most important for pan-democrats are Justice/Legal Services and Constitutional Affairs. Civic Party veteran Margaret Ng had long chaired the legal panel and her long-standing retirement plan came with two worries: finding a pro-democracy candidate to succeed her as legal Functional Constituency representative and leaving Legco’s legal panel in safe hands. Her candidate, fellow Civic Party member Dennis Kwok, ultimately won the seat with votes to spare but her legal panel objective failed spectacularly.
Pro-establishment legislators succeeded in thumbing their noses at the prevailing pro-democracy concerns of Hong Kong’s legal community by electing Priscilla Leung Mei-fun to head the legal affairs panel. She comes across as the most inarticulate and least thoughtful of all Legco’s pro-establishment members and was one of the two nominally independent candidates whose pro-Beijing ties were “outed” by Ming Pao Daily just before the September 9th election (Sept. 7 post; Ming Pao, Aug. 27, 28).
Leung was a candidate in Kowloon West. The other nominal independent was Paul Tse Wai-chun in Kowloon East. After he won his seat, he admitted he had received backing from Beijing’s Liaison Office here and from Beijing loyalist networks in the district. He acknowledged further that he had decided to run for a directly-elected seat so as to be in a better position to defend small-circle Functional Constituencies (South China Morning Post, Oct. 3). He had occupied one such seat during the 2008-12 term. He also said he was liaising with the DAB in hopes of winning a panel position and in this he also succeeded, which was another reason for Emily Lau’s chagrin.
After losing the Finance Committee chair she had held through two Legco terms, Lau tried to head the Constitutional Affairs panel but lost to DAB chairman Tam Yiu-chung. She then lost again to Paul Tse who was elected vice-chair of the panel. This places him just where he wanted to be … in a good position to defend Functional Constituencies when they again come up for debate, which they are scheduled to do during the present 2012-16 term.
Heading the Development panel is Lau Wong-fat who cannot be dislodged from his sinecure Legco seat representing rural indigenous landowners. Heading the Security panel is DAB hardliner, Ip Kwok-him, who also occupies one of Legco’s most secure sinecure seats. DAB stars and stalwarts also head Financial Affairs, Transport, and Public Works. Welfare Services went to FTU veteran Chan Yuen-han and Regina Ip heads Public Services. She is remembered fondly in pro-Beijing circles for her promotion of Article 23 national political security legislation in 2003. The four chairs left to pan-democrats were Information Technology and Broadcasting, Manpower, Environmental Affairs, and Food Safety.
THE BLAME GAME
Have pan-democrats learned any lessons from the loss of Legco seats due to their own lapses and the consequent loss of influence in Legco? If so, the losses might have served some useful purpose but the answer so far is no.
In her “Letter to Hong Kong,” Emily Lau said the pro-Beijing camp’s Legco power grab “shocked the community.” It certainly shocked her. Her loss to Paul Tse in the Constitutional Affairs panel was especially galling because she had taken credit, along with Albert Ho, for the Democratic Party’s 2010 compromise on political reform. At the time she had been happy to receive the thanks of pro-Beijing partisans. And this was her reward two years later! Meanwhile, within the pro-democracy camp there was neither forgiveness for the Democratic Party’s “capitulation” in 2010, nor any move toward reconciliation.
“If the Democratic Party admits that it made a mistake in supporting the political reform, there may be a chance of cooperation between us,” said newly-elected People Power legislator Raymond Chan (SCMP, Sept. 11; Apple, Sept. 12). No way, said party leaders in response. Emily Lau blamed the party’s failure to explain its political reform decision to the public (Ming Pao, Sept. 11; SCMP, Oct. 3). But instead of trying again, she ended her “Letter to Hong Kong” with another blast at everyone.
The challenge from Raymond Chan came with an extra sharp edge because he had been among the majority of her original Frontier fighters who refused to follow her 2008 move into the Democratic Party. She had also tried to prevent them carrying on without her but they ultimately joined People Power as a group, which allowed them to retain their separate identity. Consequently, Raymond Chan campaigned wearing her old distinctive Frontier logo, ran for a seat in her New Territories East constituency, and won a thousand more votes than she did.
Faced with so much official hostility, she said, “some commentators urge the pro-democracy camp to unite.” Actually, just about everyone is except for pro-Beijing mischief-makers. But to no avail. Pan-democrats “competed very hard against each other,” lamented Lau, and the pro-Beijing camp also gave no quarter. “Thus we have to face attacks from all sides” … with no solutions anywhere in sight. In an October 28 Newsline TV interview she was more blunt. How can we work with them, she said contemptuously, when they have abused us in so ferocious a fashion.
For their part, her one-time pro-Beijing admirers could not even resist gloating over her “embarrassing outburst” after losing to Paul Tse. “Judging by their performances in the Legco panel and subcommittee chair and vice-chair selections, as well as in District Council elections and Legco elections in recent years, the opposition parties are still fixated with petty profits …” and should not even think about trying to govern (China Daily, Oct. 20).
Unfortunately for pan-democrats, if present trends continue … from above, below, and within … they will never have a chance to govern. Their only option will be to abandon open advocacy of all controversial political issues and join the governing establishment on its own terms as 1990s liberals Christine Loh, Anna Wu, and Anthony Cheung have already done.
* Emily Lau, “Letter to Hong Kong,” Oct. 21, 2012: http://programme.rthk.org.hk/
** Update, Nov. 5: November 2nd came and went without a vote … postponed to the next Finance Committee meeting … pan-dems now say they will filibuster forever if need be to block the attempt to block filibusters.