Posted:  Feb. 25, 2016


Election campaigning runs on counter-intuitive cylinders here and unintended consequences are not the only thing to note. Another is when statements are intended to have an effect opposite to what is said. Or maybe not intended but only inevitable. So how can people keep their heads clear and values in tact when deciding how to vote in next Sunday’s New Territories East by-election?

Beijing has denounced whoever was responsible for the 12-hour riot in Mong Kok on February 8-9 at the start of the Lunar New Year holiday (Feb. 19 post). Their new designation: “radical separatists inclined to terrorism”【激進分離勢力恐怖傾向】. The charge is serious.   Hong Kong agitators are now akin to national security risks in Beijing eyes … almost as bad as Tibetans loyal to the Dalai Lama and Moslem troublemakers in Xinjiang province. Only one step removed in fact, because the label is not yet firmly attached (Wen Wei Po, Feb. 15).

But among the ringleaders of the New Year riot was Edward Leung Tin-kei 【梁天琦】, a philosophy student at the University of Hong Kong. He and his friends in the new group Hong Kong Indigenous 【本土民主前線】probably intended their initial Facebook call to protect street hawkers in Mong Kok not as a call to arms but as a campaign event designed to gain some much-needed publicity for the candidate and his cause. Leung was then … but is no longer … among the least known of the seven candidates in the New Territories East by-election to be held this coming Sunday.

The special election was called to fill the Legislative Council seat vacated by Ronny Tong Ka-wah 【湯家驊】. He resigned from the council and from the Civic Party last year in protest over pan-democrats’ failure to reach agreement with Beijing on political reform. He regarded them as too stubborn and Beijing as too intransigent and is now searching for the ever elusive moderate “middle way.”

Beijing no doubt meant to discredit the Mong Kok perpetrators by labelling them incipient terrorists. And Beijing’s candidate does stand to benefit most … but in the perverse way of local politics, not because more people will vote for him and against Leung next Sunday. Just the opposite. The extra votes Leung is going to receive will probably ensure not his victory but that of Beijing’s candidate!

That end is likely because, in now familiar Hong Kong style, pro-democracy candidates usually include too many people who refuse to use elections for what elections are intended to do. Candidates run for the experience of running or for other reasons and don’t care whether they win or not. In contrast, their main pro-Beijing competitors use elections for only one reason: to win. As a result, they have won majorities that already allow them to dominate all of Hong Kong’s elected councils and are now on track to win another important contest.

The candidate list for the February 28 by-election proves the point yet again. The list includes: two genuinely unknown independents with conservative leanings and no prospect of making an impact; two moderate middle-way types with democratic leanings who are trying to build their voter base for future use; and Edward Leung plus the one democrat who had been tipped to win, namely, the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu 【楊岳橋】.   Ronny Tong has declined to endorse anyone despite his middle-way inclinations or the nod he initially seemed to give Alvin Yeung.

The one and only pro-Beijing candidate is Holden Chow Ho-ding 【周浩鼎】, vice chair of Hong Kong’s largest political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).

New Territories East is a strongly pan-democratic district, at least in terms of the Legislative Council electorate. In the last, 2012, election only three of the district’s nine Legislative Council seats were won by pro-establishment candidates including two DAB and one pro-business conservative. In that election, close to half-a-million people voted. Registered voters in the constituency now total 940,000. Votes are calculated proportionally for all candidates within each district. Since this by-election is to fill one seat only, it will be a winner-takes-all result.


Pan-democrats do try to overcome their inclinations. But Edward Leung refused to participate in their pre-election candidate coordination efforts saying he wanted to use the election campaign to publicize his cause. And so he has, to a far wider audience than he is now saying he had ever dreamed possible. Up until February 8, the group’s main public platform was Facebook. Now he has learned the lesson of violence … to what end Hong Kong has only just begun to contemplate.

Leung was arrested during the riot and formally charged with rioting on February 11. If ultimately convicted he could face a long prison sentence. In the meantime he is free to contest and campaign. And he is making full use of the opportunity.

Leung explained himself at a February 16 media gathering. He was unapologetic about the violence, saying his group had no bottom line in that respect. They would use any means to defend themselves against oppression, just as their motto proclaims: “Local Values, Valiant Resistance”【本土價值 勇武捍衛】.*  But he said they had not come out on February 8 to foment a separatist rebellion. They had intended only to protect the Mong Kok street hawkers. He blamed the police for pushing back with force.

The protesters had attacked journalists, especially those with cameras. He said the media should not be suppressed because they represented the Fourth Estate. But things happen in chaotic situations. Difficult to prevent. Unavoidable. In effect, when covering a riot journalists should look out for themselves.

He explained his group’s localist perspective as identity politics spanning all aspects of daily life: politics, economics, and culture. Protecting hawkers is part of the struggle. So is protesting the disruptions caused by cross-border traders … who buy Hong Kong’s untaxed goods to sell across the border at a profit.  But unlike other localists, he had decided that street politics and protests are not enough. Necessary maybe, but not sufficient.

The culture of resistance should be brought into the Legislative Council. In this respect, he praised the disruptive example set by filibustering bottle-throwing Legislative Councilor Raymond Wong Yuk-man 【黃毓民】. Social movements and council politics should work together. Violence is justified for use against repression.

Asked if he appreciated the risk of losing a Legislative Council seat … not to the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung but to the DAB arch enemy … he said he did. Holden Chow’s victory would be the worst possible result of his candidacy. But it was a risk worth taking. Pan-democrats had refused to acknowledge that moderation and non-violence were getting them nowhere. Hence they had failed Hong Kong in its aspirations for democracy (Feb. 17: Harbour Times, Ming Pao, SCMP).

He also complained that the Registration and Election Office was hindering his campaign because they were refusing to send out his campaign materials, which they are supposed to do. They said they must seek legal advice since his materials contained statements that seemed to violate Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution. He had used the words autonomy, and self-determination, and violent resistance in ways the office found questionable (Apple, Feb. 17).

THE NEW WAVE          

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Chinese University of Hong Kong held its student union election last Sunday and it was the first contested such election in years. Two groups had formed, one calling itself Spark, the other Illuminant. Spark won by a 60% landslide even if turnout in student union elections is usually less than spectacular. The vote: 2,372 to 1,541. Turnout: 23%.

One of Spark’s members had been arrested in Mong Kok and charged with rioting. But the group, like Edward Leung, is unapologetic. Its leader, Ernie Chow, now CUHK student union president-elect said forceful resistance is O.K. His group ran on a localist platform. Their focus is on protecting Hong Kong values meaning its rights and freedoms. They also say Hong Kong resources should be used for Hong Kong people … rather than for ostentatious transport links like the new high-speed cross-border rail project and the Hong Kong-Macau Bridge that Hong Kongers don’t need and don’t want.

These student activists are so alienated from Hong Kong’s post-1997 one-country, two-systems relationship with Beijing that they want to consider all the alternatives including independence, genuine autonomy, and even a return to British rule … although they should probably consult with Britain before starting an agitation on that point.

The new student union president at the University of Hong Kong is also a localist. Her election a few weeks ago was uncontested. Althea Suen does not advocate pushing the boundaries on violence. But she is an advocate of non-violent civil disobedience and thinks independence could be a viable option to consider for Hong Kong. Meanwhile, her first priorities are to protect the interests of Hong Kong people and defend their core values.


Not much time for polling, and predictive value is doubtful since the most controversial candidate was largely unknown before February 8. But for what it’s worth, two small polls conducted during the past two weeks have the DAB and Civic Party candidates running almost neck and neck with a slight edge for the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung (HKFree Press, Feb. 23; Standard, Feb. 24).

Edward Leung has half the support of the two leading contenders. But he and one of the democratic-leaning moderates together are polling the same as Yeung, suggesting a substantial dilution of the democratic vote. The moderate is ex-Democratic Party member Nelson Wong Sing-chi 【黃成智】 who was expelled from his party for breaking discipline over the political reform controversy in 2014. Like Ronny Tong, Wong is now in search of a middle way.

More competition is being chalked up in their rally turnouts and endorsements. The energy is for Leung; the big names for Yeung. Calculating Leung’s supporters online is easier than estimating rally attendance. His Facebook followers are up 70% over pre-riot days.  For his first rally last Saturday, police had specified a crowd limit of 100. Organizers said a thousand people gathered outside Shatin’s New Town Plaza   Journalists covering the event estimated 600 (Apple, Feb. 21).

Leung said again that their struggle had no bottom line and he called the February 28 by-election a revolution of our time. He also said his group had no connection with the vested interests of Hong Kong’s existing system. Some of his lines have a familiar ring … like maybe he’s been listening in on U.S. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ stump speeches. Except that Sanders is not talking about revolutionary violence.

In attendance Saturday evening was Edward Leung’s hero, Raymond Wong, as well as godfather of the localist movement, Horace Chin Wan-kan, also known as Chin Wan【陳雲】.  Chin has been a leading inspiration for the localist movement that dates roughly from 2011 when his first book was published. He makes the case for genuine autonomy or some sort of city-state arrangement rather than Hong Kong’s current one-country, two-systems status. An academic at Lingnan University, his case is adding fuel to localist fires. He has just announced that his contract will probably not be renewed … due no doubt to political pressure from on high (SCMP, Feb. 25).

Also attending Leung’s rally were Civic Passion’s Wong Yeung-tat; out-going University of Hong Kong student union president Billy Fung, famous for his struggles on the HKU governing council; and people from HKU’s student publication Undergrad, famous for articles on Hong Kong “independence” that provoked Chief Executive Leung Chu-ying’s ire (Feb. 21: Apple, Ming Pao, SCMP).

Alvin Yeung reportedly drew a bigger crowd the next night and he has certainly attracted more big names. For once almost everyone in the pro-democracy movement, including those who until now have been regarded as radicals themselves, are speaking out in recognition of the crisis at hand.

They have all condemned the February 8-9 violence. But they trace its cause to the government’s disregard for local interests and sensibilities, always in deference to those of Beijing.

Confronting the real possibility of losing a Legislative Council seat to the DAB next Sunday, however, pan-dems think the risk is not worth taking … especially if it means embarking on the dead-end road to violent resistance. That end, they argue in unison, is sure to turn the wider public against them and the international community against them as well.

Speaking for Yeung: Emily Lau, Democratic Party; Cyd Ho, Labour; Raymond Chan, People Power; Gary Fan, Neo-Democrats; and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung … plus Martin Lee from the founders generation, and the three originators of Occupy Central (Apple, Feb. 22).

“Long Hair,” who has had his share of run-ins with law enforcement, was the most scathing.  He blasted Edward Leung for violating Hong Kong’s unwritten code of eithics that has governed street protests and electioneering since the 1980s, when it all began in earnest:  by provoking violence and mass arrests as a campaign stunt.   Only “Long Hair” didn’t say it quite like that.  He used an old more explicit turn-of-phrase dating back to a time long before there were election campaigns … about eating steamed bread soaked in the blood of others【人血饅頭】.

Mainstream democrats are also explaining the danger in terms of the basics: the consequences of losing a seat, and of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council itself, designed as it is to check and block all initiatives from directly-elected legislators.

Martin Lee is sounding the loudest alarm in this respect, reminding voters of what the DAB candidate is promising his supporters. Holden Chow says he will make it his first priority to end democrats’ ability to delay legislation by filibustering, which is virtually the only means they have left to pressure the government short of mass resignation. Lee reminds voters that “a vote for Edward Leung is a vote for the DAB.  And a DAB victory on Sunday would give pro-establishment legislators a majority in the half of the council that matters most (Apple, Feb. 24).

The Legislative Council’s 70 members are divided into two parts, with 35 each elected by the Functional Constituencies and by the general public. Any initiatives from the floor, by legislators themselves, must be passed by a majority of each section voting separately.  Amending the Rules of Procedure to block filibustering would be a complicated procedure in itself. But pan-democrats are using that threat from the DAB to emphasize just how little room for maneuver they have left in the Legislative Council.

They occupy only 27 seats total in the full chamber. Conservatives and pro-Beijing legislators dominate the Functional Constituencies. Within the Geographic Constituencies, pan-dems held a bare majority, 18:17, of the directly elected seats until Ronny Tong resigned. Should Holden Chow win his seat, the balance would shift to the pro-government side.

It would also mean only four more seats to fill in the Legislative Council general election next September. That would give pro-government legislators the two-thirds super majority they need within the council (voting as a whole on a government initiative) to pass Beijing’s 2015 political reform proposal.

A champion of the filibustering tactic, Raymond Wong, is nevertheless unmoved. He says amending the Rules of Procedure could not be done so easily even with Holden Chow winning the seat.  Wong is also the master champion of using elections for reasons other than winning them.  And he’s probably responsible for losing more seats to the pro-establishment camp than any other member of the pro-democracy camp.

For his part, Nelson Wong seems to be enjoying the attention. His new group, Third Side 【新思維】, commissioned an opinion poll in New Territories East that showed him in second place, after Holden Chow (Ming Pao, Feb. 21).


* For an English translation of their charter:

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Posted by Suzanne Pepper on February 25, 2016

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