Posted: May 30, 2013
Elections are always held on Sunday here and so are most street demonstrations, but May 26 was unusual since one of each took place on the same day. Both were low-key routine events, for the voters and activists directly involved, with little advance publicity addressed to the public at large. Maybe that’s why the day provided such a perfect illustration in miniature of Hong Kong’s partisan political development to date.
Amid all the factionalism and peripheral noise, two main political forces are now vying for influence and positions of authority. Pan-democrats still prevail in the realm of street-level popularity, but pro-Beijing loyalists are gaining ground fast at the ballot box. This last is an ironic twist since initially, in the early 1990s, what used to be known as the patriotic community had to be coaxed to contest elections and some scoffed at the very idea. Those were also the days when pan-democrats could scarcely be bothered to consider their competition. Now they must … but maybe it’s already too late. Their political negligence has at least cost them any hope of influencing the lowermost tier of Hong Kong’s elected councils. Last Sunday’s events did not vary from the developing norm. Pan-democrats organized another important street demonstration, and pro-Beijing loyalists registered one more victory in yet another District Council election.
The expression of defiance came from pro-democracy activists warming up for their big signature event: the June Fourth candlelight vigil that has been held in Victoria Park every year since 1989. The memorial has been a thorn in Beijing’s side and was meant to be so from the start. But officials have hued to their one-country, two-systems promise and the vigil has been allowed to continue. All their “soft-power” pressure tactics have not been enough to persuade Hong Kong activists to abandon their commemoration of the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square that ended China’s own democracy movement on June 4, 1989. Its adherents have been regarded ever since as subversives, enemies of the state.
Commemorative events here have been organized since 1989 by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China [支聯會 ]. Founded by Martin Lee Chu-ming [李柱銘 ], and Szeto Wah [ 司徒華 ] in 1989, the Alliance was headed by Szeto until his death in early 2011, and has since been led by the Hong Kong Labor Party’s chairman, Lee Cheuk-yan [ 李卓人 ]. Most pro-democracy parties, groups, and university student unions continue to affiliate with the Alliance. They all support its demand to reverse the official verdict of subversion maintained by the Chinese government against the 1989 democracy movement (http://www.alliance.org.hk , Apple Daily, May 24).
It has become customary to hold a series of preparatory activities including a march along the usual route (from Victoria Park to Hong Kong government headquarters downtown) when key slogans are unfurled for the main event. Marchers are never very great in number. The most in recent years was estimated at 8,000 ahead of the 20th anniversary in 2009. Two-thousand is more usual. Organizers this year estimated 1,600. I counted a thousand heading out of the park and estimated maybe another thousand walking behind them. The police estimated 1,200 at the “height” of the march whenever that was supposed to be.
The defiance this year was reinforced by the slogans themselves, deliberately drafted to reject Beijing’s insistence that “patriotic” criteria be part of the political reform debate. Beijing official Qiao Xiaoyang had flown all the way from Beijing to deliver the ultimatum in person. Whatever else they might do, he said, Hong Kong’s Chief Executives must be patriotic … the term he used is “love the country” but it doesn’t just mean that … it also means not opposing Beijing’s brand of one-party rule (April 2 post). The debate he reignited about that definition of patriotism has been raging ever since. June Fourth slogans this year reiterate mainstream democrats’ unwavering response: “End One-Party Dictatorship,” “Build a Democratic China,” and more.
The lead banner proclaimed “Loving the Country and Loving the People is the Hong Kong Spirit” [愛國愛民, 香港精神 ].* In case any onlookers might have missed the point, one English subtitle read: “March for Democracy in China.” A public discussion meeting in the park before marchers set out was devoted to the proposition that “Reversing the Verdict on June Fourth and National Identity Are One and the Same” [平反六四與囯民身分認同 ].
Nor were those formal slogans the sum total of defiance. A new more radical line of thinking has taken hold, urging Alliance supporters NOT to participate in its events. This is the argument coming from a far-out periphery of pro-democracy dissent now being advocated by a few intellectuals … mostly on their Facebook pages. For want of a better term, this inclination has come to be known (and can be Googled) as the “Hong Kong autonomy movement.” That is: autonomy, NOT independence. It means returning to the definition of “one-country, two-systems” that many people (both here and elsewhere) assumed was going to prevail here after 1997.**
These ideas have gained several outspoken adherents in addition to small contingents of young people who like to carry the old blue colonial Hong Kong flag on demonstration days. But as a deliberate gesture of protest against the June Fourth protest, they were no where to be seen on May 26. They reason that Hong Kong democrats should abandon the commemoration of June Fourth along with demands for redress of that grievance because to do so only lends legitimacy to the regime responsible for perpetrating it.
According to this logic, Hong Kong has not done enough to challenge the implications of the one-country, two-systems formula, with its 50-year time limit, and Hong Kong is now paying the price as mainland pressures for cross-border economic, social, and political integration grow. Hong Kong should have concentrated on demanding political autonomy for Hong Kong itself, instead of making futile demands for an end to one-party mainland rule.
This “new” Hong Kong-autonomy theme actually stems from an old idea dating back to 1989 when people were debating whether they should concentrate first on building democracy in Hong Kong, or link their cause to the larger demands of China’s own 1980s democracy movement that was cut short on June Fourth. The latter idea won out with the patriotic nationalistic argument that “Hong Kong cannot achieve democracy unless the mainland does likewise.”
Perhaps if Szeto Wah and Martin Lee had not harbored such grand ideals, the tedious tasks of local democratic institution-building would have received more attention. As it is, their pro-democracy successors are still holding June Fourth memorials in Victoria Park, where mainland visitors are seen in ever greater numbers among the crowd. One even held up a much-photographed hand-written placard last Sunday saying “Thank You Hong Kong, from Mainland Students.” But the main pro-Beijing political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), has all the while been putting down roots in District Council constituencies throughout the city. And these are the same constituencies that pan-democrats would probably have to use in the (unlikely) event that their latest idea for a directly-elected Chief Executive Election Committee is adopted (May 14 post).
Pan-democrats paid for their strategic post-1989 decision again last Sunday with a loss in the Ping Shek [坪石 ] by-election. This constituency is one of 35 that make up the Kwun Tong District Council [ 觀塘區議會 ] in uptown Kowloon. Democrats actually have considerable voter support in the area, which is still home to the great grandmother of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, centenarian Elsie Elliott Tu [杜葉錫恩 ]. Her role is not celebrated because she turned against the idea she once championed, causing Szeto Wah to successfully challenge her popularity in the 1990s. But those days are long gone and the district’s pro-Beijing partisans have, arguably, become the dominate force. The Kwun Tong District Council itself is now solidly pro-Beijing/pro-establishment conservative. Pan-democrats won only two seats in the last, 2011, election; the DAB won 13; “independents” won 20.
Ping Shek is a mostly blue collar public housing constituency. The DAB incumbent vacated his seat to accept a government appointment and his successor, as of May 26, is Chan Chun-kit [陳俊傑]. Chan, too, is DAB and the son of a prominent DAB Legislative Councilor with ties to Kwun Tong’s patriotic community dating back to the days when Elsie Tu was a democrat. The challenger in Ping Shek last Sunday was none other than Hong Kong’s favorite street-theatre personality “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung [ 梁囯雄 ]. Pan-democrats had decided to abandon the seat as a lost cause so Leung stepped in. He said he felt it was wrong for Hong Kong’s elected council seats to become unchallenged hereditary sinecures. Yet what else could this one be?
Long Hair spent most of Election Day way across town on Hong Kong Island, an active participant as usual in June Fourth events. He joined the march as a pall bearer for the mock coffin that is always carried to symbolize those killed in Tiananmen Square and the death of mainland democracy. Despite his working class credentials, it was obvious for all to see that he had little interest in the mundane details of council constituency work. But it was the two candidates’ campaign materials that did the best job of explaining pan-democrats’ district-level problem.
Leung’s flier contained only photos of him in several of his flamboyant street theatre protest poses, taken between 1998 and 2012. The back page was blank. Candidate Chan’s flier, front and back, also featured photos of him … doing good works in the district. These included sanitation, mosquito control, driveway clearance, old folks dental care subsidies, and children’s play areas … to name only a few of his advertised contributions to neighborhood wellbeing. The results were a foregone conclusion: Chan Chun-kit, 2,258 votes; Long Hair Leung Kwok-hung, 1,198 votes.
* The lead slogan was dropped on May 31, after an interesting altercation between Hong Kong Alliance leaders and Ding Zilin [丁子霖 ] of the Tiananmen Mothers support group in Beijing. She collaborates long distance with vigil organizers but is not allowed to travel here. She complained that “loving the country” had been reinterpreted by Beijing authorities since 1989 to mean “loving the communist party” as well as the country. She therefore refused to endorse the slogan .
** The most frequently-quoted advocate of this idea is a university academic whose English name is Horace Chin or Chen Yun [陳雲] in Chinese. He elaborated his views in a 2011 book: 香港城邦論：一國兩制，城邦自治，是香港生死攸關之事 (On the Hong Kong City-State: One-Country Two Systems and City-State Autonomy Is a Matter of Life and Death for Hong Kong) … in Chinese only.