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Why a New Level of Social Consciousness is Not Enough to Save Hong Kong

January 28, 2015

Editor’s note: This article was completed on December 7, 2014, four days before the Hong Kong police carried out the final clearing of the main protest in Admiralty.

What’s next for the Umbrella Revolution? Therein lies the strength of a post-modern political movement: Success is no longer defined by results, but by social awakening and transformation of the collective consciousness. A new way of life has already coagulated in Hong Kong, and a whole generation of young citizens have woken from their existential slumber. Above all, a new Lion Rock spirit[1]  has taken hold, one that is based on social justice and civic participation instead of hunkering down for trickled-down economic benefits.

This is the argument my friend Jason Y. Ng made as we sat slurping noodles and debating the Umbrella Movement in a ramen bar a block away from the Rockefeller Center when we met in New York in November. I admit I like his sentiment and agree that the social awakening we have seen among the Hong Kong population is at least half the battle. But I can’t help feeling that there will never be a better opportunity for the new politically conscious society that the Umbrella Movement has helped spawn to make political gains. I believe it is a case of now or never, as I fear that, without concrete political gains, this newly politically conscious society will be suffocated as the Communist Party of China increasingly exerts its control over Hong Kong.

It is imperative that the movement does not give up despite the intractability of the Hong Kong and central governments. If the Umbrella Movement runs out of steam before making concrete political gains, it may well, somewhat counterintuitively, engender further losses for the pro-democracy parties rather than gains at the 2016 Legislative Council, or LegCo, elections.

Extract of “Lessons in Dissent”
(2014) directed by the author. 

Many of the young activists in Hong Kong featured in “Lessons in Dissent,” the film I made about the 2012 anti-National Education campaign, think of the Legislative Council and, in particular, the pro-democracy Legislative Councillors, as useless for effecting change. And with Hong Kong’s Chief Executive-led political system, this view has a lot of credence. After all, this is a legislative body where, in the 2008 LegCo elections, the pro-democracy camp received 57 percent of the popular vote but won only 38 percent of the seats.[2] But equating poor election strategies among the pro-democratic hopefuls and their resulting weak LegCo presence with the usefulness of the legislature itself is short-sighted; and dismissing the veto power that comes with one-third of the seats in LegCo has potentially dangerous repercussions.

Let me paint a scenario of a Hong Kong in which the pro-democracy parties make up less than a third of the Legislative Council:

The Legislative Council passes a security law under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, making it easier for the government to prosecute individuals for acts of treason or subversion. And it passes the Chief Executive’s proposed electoral reforms, which essentially permit only pro-Beijing candidates to stand for both the 2017 Chief Executive and the 2016 Legislative Council elections. Hong Kongers come out in protest and are charged under the security law for working with foreign forces to subvert state power. 

If this sounds rather Orwellian, it’s because it is. The only thing standing between Hong Kong and the Orwellian vision outlined above are the 27 Legislative Councillors who currently represent pro-democracy parties and occupy one-third of the LegCo seats. Together, they can block changes to the Basic Law, as a super-majority of two-thirds is required to make such changes. If they lose this veto power, the Legislative Council will become nothing more than a rubber stamp chamber and discussion on the direction of political reforms in Hong Kong will end.

The problem is: the pro-democracy parties only need to lose four seats to fall below the one-third threshold.

Unfortunately, under Hong Kong’s proportional representative electoral system across five geographic constituencies, the pro-democracy parties may increase their proportion of the popular vote without gaining any additional seats in LegCo—in fact, they can even lose seats while increasing their portion of the popular vote, as was illustrated in the 2012 elections for representatives from the Kowloon East district (see below).  The changes taking place within the pro-democracy movement, of which the Umbrella Movement is a manifestation, are increasing the likelihood of this scenario. These changes are:

  • the weakening of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s oldest pro-democracy party
  • the increasingly fractious nature of the radical pro-democracy camp
  • the rise of non-incorporated political parties (Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students)
  • demographic changes among the general population (old moderates vs. young radicals)
  • a lack of "ground game"[3] and poor election strategy among the pro-democracy parties

Since 1998, the Democratic Party’s share of all the pro-democracy votes cast has shrunk dramatically from 64.8 percent to only 23.8 percent in 2012. Much of this is due to infighting and the proliferation of pro-democracy political parties since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China.

A drop of 10.8 percent in support among the pro-democracy votes for the Democratic Party between 2008 and 2012[4]—costing the Democratic Party its position as the biggest pro-democracy party to the Civic Party—is widely believed to have been caused by its decision to negotiate with the Hong Kong government and back the 2010 political reform package. On the surface, this reform package appeared to increase democracy but, in the small print, it actually introduced a candidate screening mechanism. It was believed that, during its negotiation with the government, the Democratic Party either failed to keep the other democratic parties in the loop or actively kept them in the dark (depending on whom you speak with). This resulted in a distrust of the Democratic Party among the other democratic parties and open hatred by People Power, a radical democratic party.   

Concurrent with the Democratic Party’s decline has been the rise of the Civic Party, founded in 2006, which won six seats during the 2012 LegCo elections, the same number being held by the Democratic Party. But together, these two moderate[5] pro-democracy parties polled only 48.8 percent of the pro-democracy votes in 2012.

Though the center-left (also called “radical”) pro-democracy parties—most notably the League of Social Democrats and People Power—are gaining popular votes in recent years, they remain fractious. As pro-democratic voters move away from the moderate parties, their votes are being spread thinly across multiple radical parties, leading to a loss of seats for the pro-democracy block as a whole. A prime example of how this has hindered their chances to win Legislative Council seats was the battle for the East Kowloon constituency in the 2012 Legislative Council elections. In 2008, Andrew To Kwan-hang, of the League of Social Democrats, was the only “radical” pro-democracy candidate running in the East Kowloon geographic constituency. He received 28,690 votes but did not manage to win a seat. Four years on, he ran again for the League of Social Democrats, polling 27,253 votes; and Wong Yeung-tat ran for the newly-formed People Power and received 36,608 votes. With their votes combined, they more than doubled the 2008 radical pro-democracy votes in East Kowloon. But due to the split, neither was elected—they lost to pro-Beijing Paul Tse Wai-chun, who was elected with just 38,546 votes.

A weakening Democratic Party combined with a fractured radical camp is a recipe for pro-Beijing success at the ballot box. This problem is likely to be worsened by the rise of non-incorporated political parties, i.e., Scholarism and Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS).

Many of those camping in Admiralty are doing so in support of Scholarism and HKFS. They are political organizations running a political movement and yet they are not official political parties, and many of their members will still be under 21 years old in 2016 and therefore will not be able to stand for election. This then poses the question: Which of the official political parties will Scholarism and HKFS’s supporters vote for? Despite individual members overtly supporting the League of Social Democrats in 2012, Scholarism, as an organization, did not come out and officially endorse a political party in 2012, and it is just as unlikely to do so in 2016.[6] The effect of this may well be that many of these newly politically conscious young people will choose not to vote at all; they have, after all, seen in the 2012 anti-National Education campaign that amassing large crowds of protesters on the street is more effective in changing government policy than exercising their right to vote at the ballot box.

Another cause for concern among those Legislative Councillors looking to cling on to their seats in 2016 is the demographic changes taking place in Hong Kong. If those young people camped out on the streets of Admiralty do decide to vote in 2016, it’s a fair bet that they will be voting for the League of Social Democrats or People Power rather than the Democratic Party or Civic Party. When I was filming Avery Ng, who ran for LegCo in 2012 as the League of Social Democrats candidate, and Ma Jai, an activist and League supporter, for “Lessons in Dissent,” it was very obvious that those who did support them were almost uniformly under 30 years old. The generation gap in Hong Kong is not as simple as “the old are moderates and the young are radicals,” but certainly support for the radicals is much more prevalent amongst the young. This is a problem for the moderate pro-democracy Legislative Councillors: their voter base is dying but not being replenished by new voters turning 18.

All the problems for the pro-democracy parties outlined above are further compounded by a history of poor election strategy and a serious lack of "ground game." For example, in the 2012 LegCo elections, the Civic Party decided to run one ticket for Hong Kong Island with two candidates on the same ticket rather than two single-candidate tickets. They reasoned that the popularity of the incumbent would help bolster the vote and hopefully get both the incumbent (Tanya Chan, who was placed second on the ticket) and the new candidate (Kenneth Chan) elected. The problem with this strategy is you need more votes to win two seats on one ticket than you do to win two seats on separate tickets. On Hong Kong Island the threshold for winning a seat was approximately 27,000 votes, thus the Civic Party’s 70,475 votes split even across two tickets would have delivered two seats. But as both candidates were on the same ticket they only won one seat. The Civic Party’s decision not to split the ticket seems all the more foolish when one considers that the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) openly admitted that they split their candidates across two tickets for the very reason I’ve outlined above. The Civic Party’s decision reveals that they have no “ground game”—and they know it.

The outcome: pro-Beijing parties cleaned up.

The two CPC proxy parties in Hong Kong, the DAB and Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), have their “ground games” coordinated by the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Of course, the poorly-funded pro-democracy parties cannot compete with the Liaison Office’s well-funded and impressive elections machine. But worryingly, they take this as a given and do not even bother to try to compete. Members of all the pro-democracy parties will argue that the resources required are just too great. Maybe they are. But the apparent lack of determination to fight makes one wonder if the pro-democracy parties are genuinely determined. No one would blame them for being tired and lacking fresh ideas after 30 years of battling the CPC’s United Front. But this battle weariness could have been countered and the pro-democracy parties rejuvenated if they had nurtured a new generation of leaders.

If the Umbrella Movement fails to make concrete political gains, the pro-democracy parties could very easily gain fewer than a third of the seats in the 2016 election.

Increased political consciousness alone is likely to further increase the polarization of society as a whole, and, in particular, increase the gulf between the moderate and radical wings of the pro-democracy movement. The CPC will see the Umbrella Movement as evidence of their long held fear that Hong Kong is a breeding ground for those who seek to undermine the Party’s power. The Umbrella Movement would never have occurred, the CPC and its Hong Kong proxies will argue, if Article 23 legislation was on the statute book and National Education is being taught in the classroom. They will therefore use the Umbrella Movement as an excuse to justify the intensification of their grip on Hong Kong.

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[1] This refers to the yellow banner, “I want real universal suffrage,” that protesters unfurled on the side of a mountain in Hong Kong known as Lion Rock.

[2] In the 2012 Legislative Council elections, the popular vote for pro-democracy parties was 1,036,998 (57.26%) verses 730,362 (40.33%) for the pro-Beijing parties; but the substantial margin of the democratic vote translated to only 27 seats for the pro-democracy parties, and the minority vote produced 43 seats for the pro-Beijing parties.

[3] “Ground game” is the process by which political parties in democratic countries get the electorate out to vote and calculate through exit polling how they are doing at the ballot box throughout election day. This data is invaluable as it enables the party to target its resources where it is most needed, i.e., ensure voter turnout in marginal seats.

[4] In 2008, the Democratic Party received 312,392 votes, 34.6 percent of the total 901,707 pro-democracy votes. In 2012, it polled 247,220 votes, 23.8 percent of the total 1,036,998 pro-democracy votes.

[5] I am not a fan of the terms ‘moderate’ or ‘radical’ to describe the various faction of the pro-democracy movement, but have used them here because of the convenience accorded by using terms in common parlance.

[6] However, many Scholarism members did assist the League of Social Democrats during the 2012 election campaign in a personal capacity. Oscar Lai Man Lok is seen in “Lessons in Dissent” openly campaigning for Avery Ng Man-yuen, and Ivan Lam Long-yin attended some of Avery Ng Man-yuen’s campaign meetings in August 2012.

About the Author

Matthew Torne is the director of “Lessons in Dissent” (2014), a film about the 2012 student campaign against a plan by the Chinese government to introduce “National Education” in Hong Kong. Torne moved from Beijing to Hong Kong in 2003 amid the chaos of the SARS outbreak and the turmoil of the Article 23 controversy. He immediately fell in love with the city and has been studying its politics ever since. In 2010, he completed a Master’s degree at Oxford University on Hong Kong’s post-1997 democratic development. Torne worked as an associate producer on “Enemies of the People” (2010), a documentary about the Khmer Rouge that won many awards, including the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. “Lessons in Dissent,” three years in the making, premiered at the 2014 Hong Kong International Film Festival. It will be released as a two-disc special edition DVD in January 2015. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Torne.)


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