Posted: Jan. 9, 2013
January First is not a major marching day on the local democracy movement’s protest calendar. Demonstrations are organized or not if everyone can agree that circumstances demand, but the tradition began long ago … before the 2003 watershed year that concentrated minds and revived pre-1997 political concerns. The late Szeto Wah [司徒華] had a habit of “taking a walk” on New Year’s Day and fellow activists joined him or not as they chose. Since 2003 when popular opposition prevented passage of the Hong Kong government’s Article 23 national security legislation, political tensions have risen and the walk has taken on more focused dimensions.
In 2010, marchers converged on Beijing’s representative Liaison Office to protest the imprisonment of mainland dissident Liu Xiaobo. Nothing special was planned for 2011 and 2012. This year the event was something different altogether … more like a two-part mirror-image reflection of the popular partisan conflicts that have been growing throughout the past year. Not only did the two main pro-democracy divisions rally separately, but for the first time they all had to share space with a multitude of purpose-built pro-Beijing groups that until recently have kept to themselves. Now they are being mobilized for their own demonstrations to counter those of pan-democrats. The police could almost be forgiven for the way they went about their thankless task of making a place for everyone and keeping everyone where they were supposed to be.
Themes for the day were set well in advance by pan-democrats and their Civil Human Rights Front coordinator. This multi-group coalition is best known for its leadership, since 2003, of the annual July First protest marches. Hong Kong’s newly installed Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, was the main New Year’s Day target. Lead slogans called for his resignation on grounds of dishonesty, and secondarily for genuine universal suffrage democratic elections. All pro-democracy factions agreed to the demand for Leung’s resignation, and all 27 pan-democrats in the Legislative Council had agreed to support a symbolic motion debate, originally scheduled for January 7, calling for his impeachment. The debate will take place today.*
Loyalist sympathizers responded with counter rallies and marches supporting Leung and the livelihood issues he has pledged to address. Marchers adopted a new line, first heard last summer. They said they were speaking up for the “silent majority” or all the Hong Kongers who are never counted because they never come out to join pan-democrats’ demonstrations. Unfortunately for the loyalist side, they made some serious beginners’ mistakes that not only marred their effort but, if not corrected, can set a dangerous precedent for Hong Kong’s marching tradition overall.
SUPPORT THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE
There were always many arguments against introducing political reforms here but after 1949, the most basic was fear of importing “civil war” politics into an otherwise stable community. Communists and anti-communists would be fighting each other at the ballot box or worse, warned old-timers and ex-governors … even after British colonial Hong Kong finally took the plunge in the 1980s. Sure enough, since then those adversaries have taken to fighting it out at the ballot box but despite much verbal violence the contestants have remained peaceful, orderly, and law-abiding … at least until recently.
The ghosts of governors past hovered during a warm-up rally and march by pro-Beijing partisans on Sunday December 30. Its organizer was a new loyalist group called Caring Hong Kong Power. Local journalists are always thick on the ground at such events and work the crowd with their standard who, what, when, where, and why questions. But the participants were mostly middle-aged or beyond and obviously unused to so much attention. They were also spoiling for a fight and got off to a bad start by assaulting two television reporters in Victoria Park as the march was getting underway. Photographs showed one taking blows to the head from a tough-looking 60-year-old.** Later the target was a roadside heckler carrying a colonial-era flag, one of Hong Kong’s new protest symbols. Journalists reported altercations all along the route and the organizer was unapologetic. She blamed the media, saying its biased reporting had provoked loyalists beyond endurance (Apple, Ming Pao, HK Economic Journal, South China Morning Post, Standard, Dec. 31).
Memories of the old warnings were also revived by Hong Kong’s first direct experience with cash-and-carry “money politics.” In this case, it wasn’t dollars for votes but for feet-on-the-ground … the resource pan-democrats have always enjoyed for free and that their adversaries are now trying other means to emulate. Journalists discovered the operation advertized on-line and so were able to provide a photographic record of the scheme as “workers” stamped people’s hands beforehand and then handed out HK$ 250 to the stamped hands that presented themselves for payment at the end of the event. This included a short New Year’s Day morning march from the downtown financial district to government headquarters where a rally rounded out the celebration in support of CY Leung (Wen Wei Po, Jan 2). Marchers complained about pan-democrats’ disruptive behavior in the Legislative Council and championed the cause of Article 23 legislation to safeguard national security. Another group calling itself the Voice of Loving Hong Kong rallied at government HQ in the afternoon.
The morning event’s high-profile formal co-sponsors naturally claimed no knowledge of the payout scheme, which seems to have accounted for fewer than 200 young people among thousands of mostly middle-aged and elderly marchers. But whoever organized the side-show was clearly oblivious to the questions pan-democrats were raising about Leung’s integrity. In any case, it was a major embarrassment for two of his leading backers who headed the sponsoring organizations: Cheng Yiu-tong [ 鄭耀棠 ] a member of CY Leung’s Executive Council cabinet and long-time pro-Beijing labor leader; and especially Chan Yung [ 陳勇 ].
Chan Yung (known as Brave Chan in English because that’s what his name means in Chinese) is a newly-elected member of Hong Kong’s delegation to the National People’s Congress (Dec. 27, 2012 post). He is also chairman of the New Territories Association of Societies, part of the pro-Beijing organizational network that now blankets all of Hong Kong. Among other things the Associations sponsor and help finance candidates, especially for District Council elections. Chan is also a District Councilor, appointed not elected, to the North District Council in the northern suburbs where conservative constituencies predominate. Journalists traced the payout scheme to the murky interface between New Territories politicians and business people, specifically associates of the New Territories General Chamber of Commerce (Apple, Jan. 2, Ming Pao, Jan. 3). CY Leung was embarrassed by association with a similar New Territories combination once before, during his election campaign last year (March 21, 2012 post).
Loyalist rally organizers are also obviously unfamiliar with the evolving ritual of turnout claims. The police now routinely under-estimate and rally sponsors try to compensate. But this exercise should at least remain within the realm of reality. Caring Hong Kong Power claimed 30-40,000 for its Sunday event; police put the number at 2,600. Cheng Yiu-tong, who led the morning march on January First, claimed a turnout of 60,000; police estimated 8,000.
DOWN WITH CY LEUNG
The Civil Human Rights Front calculated a turnout of 130,000 for pan-democrats’ main afternoon march. Police estimated 26,000. Neither figure seems to have included the People Power/Frontier contingent that marched separately and claimed 10,000 more (police: 2,500). The democracy movement, always fractious, is now moving into uncharted territory with People Power continuing to try and chart its own course despite the losses suffered as a result during the past two elections. People Power legislator Albert Chan [陳偉業] explained their reason for not joining the January First main march. Its demand was only secondarily for universal suffrage elections, whereas People Power wanted CY Leung to step down, followed immediately by a universal suffrage election to chose his successor. In fact, both demands are only declarations of intent and frustration since neither is a likely prospect any time soon.
Organizers initially feared that pan-democrats might create trouble among themselves. Moderates and radicals have been engaged in some serious bickering for over two years and all were scheduled to marshal their forces in and around Victoria Park at the same time. That problem was solved when People Power marched out early, so far ahead that everyone lost track of them until hours later … after they arrived to set up an occupation camp around the Chief Executive’s residence. Later still they were joined by others for an impromptu confrontation with police downtown that continued until almost midnight. Traffic was blocked for hours. Hundreds were involved and nine were arrested for disorderly conduct including Albert Chan (Ming Pao, Jan. 3). This “radical” habit of marching last or separate from the main crowd began a couple of years ago, to avoid disrupting the line of march. People Power and the League of Social Democrats claim they are not violating pan-democrats’ commitment to non-violence but only experimenting with increasingly physical forms of civil disobedience to make their presence felt and put their message across.
Otherwise, the main march proceeded in the usual orderly way. Last year’s Pinocchio poster was redesigned for the occasion and everyone was there: political parties, social action groups, student heroes of the anti-political education campaign, the well-rehearsed Fa Lun Gong marching band, and many people … with no placards or banners … out for their New Year’s Day stroll in the old original way.
Rough rule-of-thumb turnout estimates are becoming harder to calculate due to the large numbers that have begun waiting in side streets to join as marchers pass by. Hong Kong’s two new “autonomy” movement groups, distinguished by the old blue colonial flags they carry, were waiting their turn to join in this way. Police had initially banned the long-standing custom of fund-raising stalls set up along the route, but everyone agreed to “civil disobedience” and refused to obey. The stalls remained, over 20 in all, with police keeping close watch to prevent “obstruction.” This event, too, ended with a rally at government HQ.
THE POLITICS OF FRUSTRATION
More than most forms of political expression here, the pro- and anti-Leung New Year’s Day demonstrations were exercises in artful allusion … expressions of dissent with a range of possible meanings that people could adapt or not as they chose, and no means of redress. For pan-democrats, Leung has become a symbol of the growing mainland presence here that is both widely resented and seemingly unstoppable. They know he will not resign nor will Beijing remove him without cause. Yet they also know their New Year’s Day charge sheet hardly measured up. Its one and only point was the issue of integrity, specifically concerning household renovations he had made without the permission of building inspectors.
This is a common sin here, given Hong Kong’s arcane building regulations, but Leung had accused his opponent, Henry Tang, of the same offense during last year’s Chief Executive election campaign. Then, after they were discovered, Leung spent months trying to deny that he too had “unauthorized building works.” For political reasons of his own, ex-Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho went to court with the same argument in an attempt to have the election annulled (Oct. 9, 2012 post). That effort failed but the accusation stuck along with its open-ended implications. If he lies about one thing he’ll lie about another, said protesters, like maybe his repeated denials about being a communist party member. The impeachment motion was confined to the same issue. Hong Kong’s Basic Law (Article 47) says the Chief Executive must be “a person of integrity.” Leung was clearly not such a person. No problem with the logic but only with the disconnect between means and aims, and the potential damage it can do.
Anson Chan [陳方安生] spoke to this concern soon after the march. Now retired, she was a top civil servant and has become a respected figure among pan-democrats. CY Leung is six months into his first term and has little to show for it, due in part to the constant distractions. His ambitious plan to begin his tenure with a bureaucratic overhaul had to be shelved after pan-democrats’ filibustering disrupted the legislative calendar. Albert Ho’s court case was followed by failed attempts to pass a no-confidence motion and open a special inquiry. They have succeeded in discrediting and delegitimizing him but cannot remove or replace him, and the business of government continues to drift as it did for years under his predecessor. Anson Chan said, in effect, it’s time to back off because Beijing won’t remove Leung until he has had a chance to demonstrate whether or not he can actually govern (Ming Pao, Jan. 4).
The second danger is to the democracy movement itself as it continues to fragment and degrade and lose seats that its candidates could have won at election time. Meanwhile, the public remains fearful of losing its rights and freedoms but their champions seem to be losing the ability to provide the clear arguments needed for effective protection. This might not matter if only pro-Beijing partisans had not built an effective electioneering machine of their own … and now they’re learning how to compete for street-level attention as well.
* The debate could have initiated formal impeachment proceedings had the motion passed. Since it came from the floor rather than from the government, voting was subject to the Legislative Councl’s “two house” rule. Directly-elected legislators voted for the motion, 18:14. Functional Constituency legislators were able to defeat the motion by voting it down, 9:23.
** He was arrested immediately, pleaded guilty to assault, and ordered to pay HK$2,500 in fines and compensation. But he emerged from court flashing the victory sign and saying he was happy to have struck a blow for Hong Kong (Apple, SCMP, Jan. 9).
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