Posted: March 14, 2013
Two special or by-elections have been held here since the last major election cycle in 2011/2012 and pro-democracy candidates have lost them both. These two latest defeats have occurred at the District Council level, one last November and the other last Sunday. They follow pan-democrats’ disastrous overall performance in the 2011 District Councils general election that saw loyalists increase their margins to dominate all 18 of Hong Kong’s local councils (Nov. 14, 2011 post). Many reasons can always be identified for these losses including especially well-endowed loyalist election coffers and organizational leadership orchestrated by the main pro-Beijing political party and trade union federation. But one common thread running throughout, reinforcing the effect of these loyalist advantages, is pan-democrats’ fatal attraction to each other … meaning to run against each other in the same constituency. Since their opponents are invariably united, feuding democrats invariably lose.
THE SHATIN BY-ELECTIONS
As it happened, the two vacated seats were both on the Shatin District Council, now a stronghold of the loyalist camp. This is thanks in large part to the grassroots organizing work of Lau Kong-wah [劉 江 華] and his political/social action group Civil Force [公民力量]. It was founded by Lau in the early 1990s and has always been based in the suburban New Territories district of Shatin, just north of urban Kowloon. Lau began his political life as a democrat but soon moved on. He joined the main pro-Beijing political party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong or DAB) in 1998 and served as one of its vice-chairmen for several years, until his appointment last December as deputy minister in charge of the Hong Kong government’s Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Bureau.
Among the 36 directly-elected Shatin District Councilors, 27 are pro-Beijing or pro-establishment conservatives; only nine are pan-democrats. There might have been a tenth democrat on this council after last November’s by-election, had not three-way factional rivalry grown so intense during the contest for this seat that DAB candidate Alvin Chiu won by just 45 votes. Key players in that On Tai [鞍泰] Constituency drama were: (1) the Democratic Party, (2) Neo-Democrats or the New Democratic Alliance, and (3) People Power/Frontier.
The Democratic Party was then (and is still) smarting from all the flak it has had to take for its 2010 decision to “capitulate” and compromise on the government’s political reform package. The other two were and remain “radical” critics of that decision. Neo-Democrats are actually an offshoot of the DP who decided to split off and go their own way after the 2010 decision. But the mischief-maker in the pack seems to have been a third democrat who ran as an independent in November 2012. He had been People Power’s candidate in this constituency during the general 2011 election. On election night 2012, after the results were announced, the Democratic Party’s Helena Wong posted an angry message accusing her erstwhile Neo-Dem colleagues of being in league with their common DAB adversary. She did not mention People Power and its seeming behind-the-scenes role in the strange realignment of voters that had occurred, and which has yet to be explained (Nov. 8, 2012 post).
Fast forward to March 10, 2013 and all the same players returned for an encore in the Tin Sum [田心] Constituency by-election, although they were arranged in somewhat different order. This seat was vacated by Lau Kong-wah himself. He had parachuted into the constituency at the last minute in order to qualify as one of the DAB candidates for the linked Legislative Council seats added as part of the 2010 decision. But unlike all the other many parachuters in the 2011 District Councils general election, Lau knew he was returning “home” to a safe seat. He then failed to win one of the linked Legislative Council seats … to the cheers of local democracy activists … but their celebrations were short-lived.
In what has become an in-your-face official habit here, loyalists who are defeated in partisan altercations with pan-democrats can expect compensatory rewards. As deputy chief of the Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Bureau, Lau will be one of the principal authorities to figure in the next stage of political reform negotiations and with whom pan-democrats will be obliged to work.
Meanwhile, back in Shatin, the already-declared Civil Force candidate who had gallantly stepped aside (to make way for Lau Kong-wah and facilitate the DAB’s 2011 election strategy) returned as the loyalist by-election candidate. Had pan-democrats learned from the experience? It would be “naive” to think so, said one Ming Pao Daily account. The Democratic Party declared its intentions in January, and so did People Power. Since the constituency was known as a Civil Force “domain,” contesting the seat would be good experience, said People Power. Winning was not important. But would that not simply hand another victory to loyalist forces? No matter, said People Power chairman Christopher Lau. Since pan-democrats still did not have a common political platform, there was no point in working out a common election strategy (Ming Pao, Jan. 18, 2013).
Sure enough, support teams for Democratic Party and People Power candidates were elbowing each other for the best curbside campaign spots, while Civil Force supporters were putting on an unhindered show of strength, filling all their allotted public space just across the street. The Democratic Party nevertheless succeeded in mustering a much broader than usual supporting cast of radical and moderate political leaders. Those who came out to campaign for its candidate included Ronny Tong and Joseph Cheng of the Civic Party, Charles Mok of Professional Commons, Lee Cheuk-yan and Fernando Cheung of the Labor Party, and veteran moderate Frederick Fung. People Power’s only party supporters were from the Neo-Democrats.
Turnout was high for a by-election, at 45% of the 8,091 registered voters in the constituency. The results:
Tin Sum Constituency By-election, March 2013
affiliation candidate votes received
|Civil Force||PUN Kwok-shan||2,432|
|Democratic Party||TING Tsz-yuen||675|
|People Power/Frontier||LAM Hong-ching||531|
|Youth Democracy||SO Pui-lam||23|
TO THE STREETS: OCCUPY CENTRAL
Loyalists are now behaving as though pan-democrats are in a state of terminal electoral decline and maybe they are. Back in the 1990s when pro-Beijing candidates first ventured out to contest elections, they said it was just a learn-by-doing exercise since they had no hope of winning. For that reason they insisted on proportional representation after 1997, in hopes of seeing at least some return for their efforts. Now they are so confident that they are openly speculating about a return to the Anglo-American style winner-take-all election districts and it is pan-democrats who say they are not running to win but only for the exercise.
The streets still belong to pan-democrats, however, and even though loyalists are now trying to organize demonstrations of their own, protecting rights and freedoms are the issues that continue to bring out tens of thousands … far more than Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing political managers can hope to match. The Tin Sum by-election campaign offered some clues as to how pan-democrats might pull out of their demoralized dive, and so does a new idea that has attracted much greater interest.
People Power chairman Christopher Lau had said there was no point in working together on the Tin Sum by-election campaign because pan-democrats had yet to agree on a common program. But Civic and Labor Party leaders had all disagreed with then Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho’s decision to compromise on the government’s 2010 political reform package. Yet they all decided to rally round and help out a young Democratic Party candidate in his hour of need even though he was bound to lose. Only People Power and the Neo-Democrats refused … and now there is a new idea they might actually like.
Even better for the move toward common ground: Albert Ho has had a change of heart. He led his party in its resistance to the “radical” 2010 protest referendum and a year later he was still struggling with the whole idea of trying to conduct “civil disobedience” campaigns here due, he wrote, to the peculiar mentality of local people (June 1, 2011 post). To everyone’s surprise, he has now suddenly done a 180-degree turn … almost. Like all good politicians, he will not admit he was wrong before. Instead, he still insists he was right THEN but aims to do better now! And the spark of inspiration for this new mood also comes from an unlikely source … within his own moderate 2010 brain trust.
University of Hong Kong law school professors are usually not so adventurous but Benny Tai Yiu-ting [戴 耀 廷 ] hit upon an idea calculated to bring together the two, radical and moderate, wings of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Titled “Civil Disobedience as the Most Powerful of Weapons,” the proposal was first presented in his regular Hong Kong Economic Journal [信報] column on January 16. Tai’s article struck an immediate responsive cord (among pan-democrats) and he has since contributed several more (Jan. 30, Feb. 6, 28, etc.).
Another moderate professor followed in kind. Chinese University sociologist Chan Kin-man [陳 健 民] declared that he and other academics had acted in good faith before, believing their Beijing counterparts and the soft-sell counsel of compromise from everyone in 2010. Now Chan and many others were looking back on those discussions as little more than a Beijing-led exercise in procrastination. The next phase of Hong Kong’s political reform evolution is beginning and Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive has begun by seeming to carry on with the same sort of procrastination. Beijing has promised that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive “can” (not shall or must) be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, and the Legislative Council in 2020. Hong Kong democrats worry that any Beijing approved electoral reform design will be like the 2010 plan: called “universal suffrage” in name but not allowed in fact. Says Chan: more determined methods must be used to put the point across, namely, that Hong Kongers will settle for nothing less than the genuine product (Ming Pao Daily, Feb. 13, March 4).
Weeks of discussion have led to the creation of a four-step strategy built around Professor Tai’s civil disobedience idea that he adapted in turn from the street theatre antics of Hong Kong’s most radical radicals. During the past two years, Long Hair Leung Kwok-hung (of the League of Social Democrats) and Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong (founder of People Power) have led the way with increasingly disruptive tactics. These are non-violent, say the perpetrators, but deliberately physical and forceful. Activists from these groups have taken to staying behind after major demonstrations and blocking intersections in the downtown central district. They confront police and dare arrest and the police are increasingly happy to oblige.
Professor Tai is suggesting instead a deliberate downtown blockade with 10,000 people, all pledged to peaceful resistance but also daring arrest. Now dubbed the “Occupy Central” movement, his idea has evolved to become the course of last resort, or final step in a four-stage effort combining the full range of tactics that pan-democrats have tried in recent years: public consultations, virtual online referendums, resignations and real ballot-box by-elections, and street demonstrations.
In this case, the new plan is to begin with widespread public consultations that will produce some agreed-upon election reform designs. Next, Robert Chung, director of Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program will contribute his recently honed skills in organizing city-wide on-line voting so the public can register its preferences for these designs. Then, depending on Beijing’s reaction to all this, the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho has agreed to do what his party refused to have any part of in 2010. He says he will resign his Legislative Council seat in order to trigger a by-election to elect his successor … and to double as a public protest referendum. Finally, if all this fails, Professor Tai’s civil disobedience Occupy Central campaign will kick in (Apple Daily, March 8). The aim is “genuine” election reform based on accepted international standards of universal suffrage that give equal weight to all voters and allow for the equal right to nominate and be nominated.
No one doubts the ability of pan-democrats to carry out this ambitious plan since there have been many trial runs for each step all along the way. The question is whether it can achieve the desired result and herein lays the greatest challenge for pan-democrats. Their failures to date have not been due to any lack of popular energy or activism. Rather they seem to derive from a continuing inability to see their main DAB opponent as the electoral wing of the local branch of the Chinese Communist Party. It follows that they have also failed to foresee its long-term “one-country, one-system” evolutionary strategies, and to appreciate the ease with which Beijing can promise “universal suffrage.”
A kind of universal suffrage is now being practiced all over China and that same design (of grassroots party-dominated direct elections with indirect party-controlled elections above) would have been introduced here via the government’s 2010 “District Council model” of indirect elections to the Legislative Council. Yet Albert Ho and Emily Lau made their 2010 compromise decision without clarifying even to other leading members of their own party that the right to nominate and be nominated for the new reformed Legislative Council seats was still restricted to District Councilors.
In fact, Hong Kong was being asked to accept a “People’s Congress” model of political reform, while DAB and government leaders kept its provenance to themselves, democrats for whatever reason did not discuss, and the voting public was none the wiser. Hopefully those same kinds of mistakes will not be repeated and pan-democrats can at least avoid a system of universal suffrage elections built on the District Council base that Lau Kong-wah and the DAB have so successfully established.