Posted: April 14, 2014
Hong Kong democrats just ceded another election to their pro-establishment rivals. It was a minor matter, already last month’s news, such as it was. No one but the actual participants and a few thousand voters paid any attention. But more than most such off-year elections to fill vacant constituency seats on Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils, this one reflected all the major political currents and side-currents here. It also illustrated the logic of defeat that has captured some imaginations within the pro-democracy camp, drawing players into a self-destructive cycle that allows them to claim victory by defeating not their pro-establishment opponents but each other! Still, the logic is easy enough to follow … since it suggests how an irrational election strategy in a lost-cause arena might be turned to rational activist ends.
The Democratic Party suffered the greatest indignities from start to finish due both to the reason the seat was vacated in the first place and the result of the by-election afterward. The seat had been vacated by one of its own, Andrew Fung Wai-kwong 【馮煒光】, who applied to work for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying soon after he took office in July 2012. But Fung had done so without notifying his party, evidently trying to have it both ways since he wanted to wait until he knew whether his application had a chance of succeeding. Journalists discovered his secret, provoking cries of betrayal once he was outed … which pretty much guaranteed he would be approved for hire given the partisan interests at play (Apple Daily, Oct. 11, 2013).
Fung was a founding member of the Democratic Party in the early 1990s and a member of its leadership committee, which had agreed after CY Leung took office that as a matter of principle party members would not serve in his administration. Fung’s reward was a plum post (outrageously over-paid at public expense) that added further insult to injury. He is now information coordinator, spin doctor, and political strategist for the democratic camp’s number one nemesis Leung Chun-ying. Fung left the Democratic Party after his application was discovered in 2012 but did not resign from his District Council seat until the appointment was confirmed a year later. He joins other leaders from the late colonial era democracy movement, most notably Anthony Cheung Bing-leung and Christine Loh Kung-wai, whose activist voices have gone silent. Both are now leading members of Leung’s Administration．
The by-election was held on March 23 in South Horizons West【海怡西】, one of 17 constituencies that make up the Southern District Council on Hong Kong Island. Partisan divisions after the last, November 2011, general election were: 6 pan-dems (five Democratic Party, one Civic Party); 11 others (eight independents, two pro-Beijing, one pro-business Liberal Party).
November 2011 was when Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man, founder of People Power, led the way with what he later admitted was a failed strategy. He parachuted his unknown untested party members into District Council constituencies territory wide, but especially those where Democratic Party candidates were also running. His aim was to teach the party a lesson for its failure to hold the line against the government’s 2010 political reform package. But the Democratic Party also parachuted into several unfamiliar constituencies claiming the “star power” of some of its best-known members could carry the day. Ronny Tong Ka-wah of the Civic Party did the same. Ultimately their greatest success was in provoking local voters who seemed to resent the interlopers. In any case, pro-government loyalists and conservative independents turned out in such numbers that even the votes of all democratic candidates combined would not have been enough to win a single seat in any of the contested constituencies. The net result among the winners: 93 pan-dems; 319 pro-government others (Nov. 14, 2011 post).
Still, hope springs eternal and the same strategy played out again in South Horizons West last month … to the same effect. South Horizons is a massive high-rise development project built in the 1990s on the west coast of Hong Kong Island, located near the site of its original pre-colonial harbor now known as Aberdeen. The project is private not public and its middle-class apartment dwellers are represented by two seats on the Southern District Council. South Horizons West has 7,566 registered voters, some 54% of whom turned out on March 23. The election generated considerable interest since that’s close to the uppermost turnout rates here. The results:
Democratic Party (moderate democrat), SIN Chung-kai: 920 votes
People Power (radical democrat), Erica YUEN Mi-ming: 1,083 votes
New People’s Party (pro-government), Judy CHAN Ka-pui: 2,023 votes (elected)
An objective outsider would have counseled Sin Chung-kai 【單仲偕】 not to run. He is a 1990s founding Democratic Party member, veteran of the pre-1997 democracy movement, a moderate’s moderate, and currently one of Hong Kong Island’s directly-elected Legislative Councilors. But everything was wrong for him on March 23, reflecting his party’s inability to accommodate the changes in Hong Kong’s electoral landscape … although members should understand by now why they have been losing votes steadily for over a decade. At least neither he nor his party had learned the lesson of November 2011. He was among the veterans … not to be confused with People Power’s novices … who had parachuted into District Council constituencies on the assumption that their territory-wide reputations would be enough to see them through.
The small District Council constituencies are now dominated by local neighborhood types that political parties with big budgets can afford to maintain in shop-front offices with full time staffers doing good works for the neighbors on demand. Sin Chung-kai is an information technology man by profession and moved from his bank job as an IT project manager to the Legislative Council after winning a seat on Hong Kong Island in the 2012 Legco election. In years past he had occupied the IT Functional Constituency seat. Community service was where his political career began but that was long ago, back in the 1980s and 1990s, and his campaign reflected the disconnect between then and now. Nor could his party even impose enough discipline to keep its internal disagreements out of sight for his benefit on the campaign trail.
Erica Yuen Mi-ming 【袁彌明】was also out of place, but for different reasons. She is the glamorous young new face of People Power, elected as its leader in a party shake-up after the dramatic damn-you-all departure of party founder Raymond Wong Yuk-man last year. They still want to be known as tough fighters for democracy but with a toned-down version of the angry-old-man image he likes to project. They now want to be known as reasonable radicals. The message was right for some young people in South Horizons, which is home to the two teen-agers featured in “Lessons in Dissent,” a just released documentary film about Hong Kong’s contemporary social movement activists. The two are middle school student Joshua Wong, who founded the group that spearheaded the anti-national education drive in 2012; and middle school drop-out Ma Kai, a member of “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung’s League of Social Democrats. By coincidence, the film premiered just days after the by-election, but it probably wouldn’t have done much to help People Power’s candidate.
Erica Yuen also parachuted into South Horizons West, and her campaign was essentially a mirror image of Sin Chung-kai’s in that they ended up confronting each other as radical and moderate over Hong Kong’s current big territory-wide political issues … instead of standing as champions of the fight for local amenities. Specifically, People Power and her campaign surrogates were re-fighting the battle of 2010 and the Democratic Party’s capitulation. One of her surrogates was Andrew Cheng Kar-foo 【鄭家富】. He had resigned from the Democratic Party in 2010 to protest its decision on political reform and his presence did what it was meant to do by reminding voters of the resentment many felt over that decision.
The issue could not have been more timely since Hong Kong is in the middle of another big political reform debate and the Democratic Party looks like preparing to revisit its 2010 compromiser’s role. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into votes for a local council seat and Erica Yuen didn’t come across as someone with a passionate interest in bus routes and commuter parking spaces, which seemed to be the most pressing constituency problems.
In contrast, the third candidate was tailor-made and groomed for the role that has been carefully crafted to focus on local neighborhood issues … albeit with an agenda that includes beating the drums when called upon for all government political initiatives including political reform. Actually, the third candidate Judy Chan Ka-pui 【陳家珮】had also parachuted into South Horizons, but her move was well orchestrated and probably with foreknowledge as well. Her mentor is none other than Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee …. famous as the Secretary for Security who created such resentment over her campaign to impose Article 23 national security legislation in 2003 that she had to resign. Ip reappeared three years later with a Master’s Degree from Stanford University and a desire to serve Hong Kong as an elected Legislative Councilor. She now has her own well-funded New People’s Party and has just linked up with Civil Force, a New Territories suburban ally of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB). Civil Force specializes in community work and has won control of the Shatin District Council in that way. It was there that Ronny Tong met with defeat after he unwittingly parachuted onto a patch of Civil Force home turf in 2011.
Regina Ip is also now a member of Leung Chun-ying’s Executive Council or cabinet and would likely have had some advance knowledge that Andrew Fung’s long-pending 2012 job application was going to be approved. In any case, Judy Chan rented a South Horizons apartment last October about the same time his appointment was confirmed. Her new address allowed her to remind voters of her local roots … and of her opponents’ non-existent local ties. She has also been working, since mid-2013, as a full-time community development officer in charge of the New People’s Party office that Regina Ip opened in South Horizons six years ago. Chan says she doesn’t care about politics but only about helping people solve their problems (South China Morning Post, March 31, 2014).
Except in one tentative respect, South Horizons does not bode well for pan-democrats. The most obvious negative is their penchant for competing against each other. The fault in this case rests more heavily on Democratic Party shoulders since Erica Yuen registered her candidacy first, on February 11. Sin Chung-kai could still have dropped out at that point. He registered on February 17. Underlying his candidacy, of course, is Democratic Party leader Emily Lau’s continued stubborn insistence that People Power is no longer part of the democratic camp because of their open radical hostility to her moderate party. She may want to think so and make decisions accordingly. But most everyone else still seems to regard her critics as pro-democracy partisans.
Afterward, however, People Power and like-minded radicals could not resist gloating that for the first time they had bested the Democratic Party in head-to-head combat … by all of 163 votes … as though one seat more or less didn’t matter since the District Councils are lost to pan-democrats anyway (Ming Pao Daily, Apple, March 25). In fact, so pleased are People Power leaders with the South Horizons result that they are contemplating a repeat performance in anticipation of another Democratic Party councilor’s resignation later this year (Wen Wei Po, March 27).
Worse still is the failure to look ahead and let voters at least gain some understanding about the long-term implications of every vote cast. Seats filled by free-and-fair elections are valuable commodities and there is an attentive well-organized crowd out there with leaders who appreciate the uses to which such seats can be put. They are not just about doing good works for neighbors in need.
The pro-government parties: DAB, Civil Force, Regina Ip’s, and all their local associated allies see the District Councils as building blocks, part of a larger whole that can serve many useful purposes. For example, they can do double duty as the base for indirect elections to the Legislative Council, a proposal that has continued to surface since 2005. They could also serve as conservative ballast for the Nominating Committee that is evidently going to control candidate nominations for Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage Chief Executive election in 2017. Ironically, several pan-democrats’ proposals suggest using District Councilors in this way as an indirect democratic component of the Nominating Committee.
Had District Council constituents been advised in advance that their votes could be used for such big political aims, they might not have been so ready to accept the uniform campaign calls from the DAB, Civil Force, and now Judy Chan to vote for them because politics is not what they are about and livelihood issues are all that matter.
District Council voters might also have been advised that indirect election to the Legislative Council was a DAB-backed proposal and that the mainland people’s congress pyramid is built upward, from a base of small directly-elected constituencies, via indirect elections for all the tiers and levels above. British colonial reformers were not alone in appreciating what they liked to call the “safe” results that such carefully crafted indirect elections can produce.
Yet despite all the negatives there remains to consider how so irrational an election strategy might be turned to rational activist ends. Sin Chung-kai is as moderate in manner and commitment as a Hong Kong democrat can possibly be. Erica Yuen’s team campaigned on the assumption that he would be among those willing to give way before Beijing’s demands when final decisions are made on the 2017 electoral reform proposals. As a Legislative Councilor he will be called upon to vote up or down and all the government needs to guarantee a conservative result will be the votes of a handful of moderate pan-democrats to pass the necessary legislation. The council already has a conservative majority although not quite the two-thirds needed to pass a political reform bill.
But there he was, sharing the spotlight with radical favorite, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung on an April 6 Newsline TV program. Sin Chung-kai’s manner was subdued as usual but his words were not. “Better no deal than a phony one,” he repeated, suggesting that perhaps this time he learned the lesson People Power has been trying to teach via its wasteful campaign strategy. Maybe he will hold the line while Long Hair and the others agitate for something better in 2017 than a mainland-style managed universal suffrage election reinforced as all elections are here with inbuilt colonial-style safety checks.