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Hong Kong: A winter
of discontent

A youthful, Internet-savvy ’80s generation is giving voice to frustration over the slow pace of democratisation and the Beijing hand in entrenched functional constituencies.

Hong Kong, February 2011

Young people sign a petition supporting jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong

Young people sign a petition supporting jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong on 10 December, 2010. - Photo: Getty Images

POLITICS and Hong Kong may appear strange bedfellows. Yet, overtly under the “One Country Two Systems” approach and, sometimes, under the radar of newspaper headlines, the city has remained in quiet ferment. Two recent developments could transform the nature of the outcome as this Special Administrative Region strives to find a true representative voice. The first element of change on the road towards Hong Kong democracy is the steady rise of a new and amorphous political movement led by a younger generation. The second is the 2010 rapprochement between Beijing and the Democratic Party that caused internal rifts and the formation of new parties. The combined effect has been to create an element of unpredictability in Hong Kong politics.

In the background is the continuing tussle between a beleaguered political and business establishment versus an emerging social movement for a fairer society. Political debates have taken on a “haves” and “have-nots” dimension and this will likely continue.

Hong Kong’s educated “post ’80s generation” has become more politically active. This youth movement gave birth to the anti-high-speed-rail action in mid-2009 with vociferous campaigns against the HKSAR government’s plan to build a multi-billion dollar railway linking Hong Kong to Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Questions were raised regarding cost, and objections made to the planned razing of the Choi Yuen village and rural areas to create project corridors. In November 2009 there was a sit-in at the government secretariat, and on 18 December, over 1,000 protesters gathered outside the Legislative Council while legislators debated funding. Civic action resulted in the postponement of the debate, which energised the protesters. Although the project was approved in the end, it was evident a new movement had emerged.

Christine Loh

Christine Loh

This youth movement gave birth to the anti-high-speed-rail action in mid-2009 with vociferous campaigns against the HKSAR government’s plan to build a multi-billion dollar railway linking Hong Kong to sister-city Shenzhen and Guangzhou

Since then, urban planning and nature conservation issues have attracted strong followings. For example, the destruction of a scenic site in July 2010 at Tai Long Wan, Sai Kung, when the new landowner started to clear land for construction of a private dwelling, became an instant cause celebre. A new movement is emerging to block the government’s plan to sell off one of its old office buildings in Central’s Government Hill for commercial development.

The activists include among their ranks a high proportion of students and young professionals. While most of them are politically nonaligned, circumstances have drawn them to democratic politicians supporting their cause. With the majority of the functional constituency legislators (largely viewed as pro-Beijing) seen to be not just pro-government but pro-business, younger activists view functional constituencies as a prop for business – rather than public – interest.

With a younger generation taking to the political stage, new social media means, such as SMS, Twitter and Facebook, have been increasingly used to spread messages and rally people. In the Tai Long Wan instance, there were over 80,000 Facebook members.

In 2009 the HKSAR government put forward another electoral reform package (its 2005 initiative had been voted down by pro-democracy legislators). To pass the bill, the government needed a two-thirds majority. The challenge for officials in 2010 was to get 40 out of 60 votes when the pro-democracy camp controlled 23 votes. In other words, they needed to swing at least four votes to gain majority support.

The government’s new proposal included a provision for 10 additional seats, adding five each to the geographical (elected) and functional constituencies. The functional seats would be made up of five new District Council seats. The League of Social Democrats and the Civic Party decided to provoke a by-election, which they argued would be a de facto referendum of the public desire for universal suffrage by 2012. The campaign involved one resignation from each of the five geographical constituencies to test voter sentiment.

The pro-government camp did not field candidates – the chief executive himself came out strongly against the exercise – and unleashed a barrage of criticism at League and Civic Party members for wasting time and public money. Although the various candidates were returned, the by-election was a lacklustre affair with a turnout rate of only 17%, greatly diluting the claim of public support.

The Democratic Party decided not to participate in the by-election, which created a major split and much acrimony within the pro-democracy camp. Instead, the Democratic Party adopted a moderate stance by floating an alternative to the government’s proposal: the five new District Council functional seats should be elected by all 3.2 million voters. This idea was referred to as the “one person, two votes” formula.

This created the necessary conditions for Beijing and the Democratic Party to have a dialogue. On 24 May, 2010, Li Gang, the deputy director of the Liaison Office, which represents Beijing in Hong Kong, met senior DP members. Few would have thought such a meeting possible. Events moved quickly after that. An agreement was evident: Beijing would accept the Democratic Party’s proposal for the five additional functional seats in exchange for its votes for the HKSAR government’s package covering also the selection method for the chief executive. On 24-25 June, the government’s reform proposals passed with a large majority of 46 votes.

The pro-democracy camp in effect split into a moderate and a radical faction in mid 2010. The Democratic Party suffered internal dissension with many members leaving and forming new political groups. The Civic Party has not been able to expand membership by much and the League has split with Raymond Wong and Albert Yip now leading the new People’s Force with an explicit aim to snap at the heels of the “hypocritical pan-democratic camp”. In 2011, debates over the details of new electoral laws to implement the HKSAR government’s reform package will no doubt be heated, and relations within the pro-democracy camp will be further strained, which will make it harder to reach non-competitive agreements with each other in the next rounds of elections to the District Council in 2011 and Legislative Council in 2012.

The growing discontent within Hong Kong is driven by a sense of social injustice, as rewards are seen to be monopolised by big business headed by politically well-connected tycoons. While the younger activists want to eliminate functional elections, the pro-business elites are galvanising to ensure their retention

Surprisingly, the pro-government camp also witnessed a rift. The usually pro-business Liberal Party saw a highflier member, Michael Tien, leave over disagreement on minimum wage. He joined the New People Party, formed by former government minister Regina Ip, who wants to capture civil servant and middle class votes. The Liberal Party has also had problems expanding its membership and its legislators are all from functional constituencies. Whether they can field credible teams to contest geographical constituencies is very much in question.

The largest party and the one with the greatest representation in the legislature is the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. While it has over 10,000 members and strong election machinery, its image of being pro-government and closely aligned with Beijing is its credibility albatross. Nevertheless, it will likely remain a dominant force in the District Councils and Legislative Council.

Meanwhile, the political establishment as a whole is facing new demands from the public over land use, property development, rural affairs, nature conservation, environmental protection, public health, minimum wage, fair competition, and better social welfare, the response to which would affect many vested establishment interests. The growing discontent within Hong Kong is driven by a sense of social injustice, as rewards are seen to be monopolised by big business headed by politically well-connected tycoons.

While the younger activists want to eliminate functional elections, the pro-business elites are galvanising to ensure their retention. The chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, Anthony Wu, has argued to turn functional constituencies into nomination bodies for selection of legislative candidates and then let the public vote. For the democratic camp, this is unacceptable because it will just entrench functional constituencies and bestow on them a spurious democratic flavour.

Another idea is for the business elites to create charitable foundations so they can be seen to be giving money each year as their way of building social harmony. Former Liberal Party chairman, James Tien, said on a radio programme in June 2010 that this idea had been brewing for some months and he was acting as a middleman in forming such a foundation with property developers and large enterprises. In October, the chief executive, Donald Tsang, announced the formation of the Community Care Fund, to which the government would give HK$5 billion with an equal amount being raised from the business sector. The Chief Secretary, Henry Tang – a former Liberal Party member – heads the fund. Cynics see this as a device to project him as a champion of the poor as part of his campaign to become the next Chief Executive in 2012.

Many on-going conflicts will pitch the established economic and political elites against a generation of socially conscious citizens who are comfortable with more aggressive forms of advocacy and action. Politicians and officials will come in for frequent ridicule, which will strengthen their belief that democratic politics need to be tempered by “sensible people” through retaining functional constituencies.

Hong Kong remains the one place in China where the people can practice freedoms denied to their fellow citizens on the mainland. With the Nobel Peace Prize award given to Chinese activist, Liu Xiaobo, and the passing of veteran Hong Kong political activist Szeto Wah, who played a key role in helping dissidents leave China in 1989, the crowds commemorating June 4th at Victoria Park will likely be large. In highlighting the quest for democracy and universal suffrage, functional constituencies are in line for a loud public scolding.

Columnist, activist, former Hong Kong legislator and founder of the Citizen's Party and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, Christine Loh runs the non-profit Hong Kong-based think tank Civic Exchange.

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aung (1 April, 2011) – thai
in thailand also we are waiting new democracy and is the young people most commit to democracy method. this is because of education, more social media chats. better communcation now and easy to spread news. this helps yuth movement everywhere. it is healthy.
Margaret (30 March, 2011) – UK
I agree completely that young people and not only in HK must take the lead in fighting new battles. They have energy and time on their side.

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