The future is uncertain: issues and decisions facing the HK pro-democracy movement after its defeat of fake suffrage
This piece was originally part 3 of a longer essay, “A tribute to all the people of the HK pro-democracy movement”. For a discussion of the wider context of the issues discussed below, in particular the groups involved, please see part 2 of that essay.
Across the broad spectrum of the pro-democracy movement, one of the few things we all agree on is that we don’t know what the future holds. I ask people that question all the time. More often than not, the response is a shrug: Who knows?
We’ve fought so hard to gain so little. Indeed, at most, with the defeat of fake suffrage, we’ve prevented the worst, and only for the time being, in a most provisional way.
We live in limbo under a creeping shadow and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. There are 32 years to go before the end of the 50-year one-country-two-systems period, but the CCP is trying to end the game long before then.
Joshua Wong has set the tone in saying the defeat of fake suffrage is not really a victory and not cause for celebration. (He’s right, but, c’mon, Joshua, we have to at least congratulate ourselves a bit after all that resistance.)
He goes on to say that we need to be thinking about what happens after 2047. Again, I concur. It is essential to have a long-term perspective, to think in terms of what our ultimate goals are, and to devise a long-term strategy accordingly. We can’t just keep dealing with matters as they arise. While we are indeed in an era of resistance, we have to also think about how to aim for what we really want. That’s certainly what the CCP’s been doing all along, and so much of our work up to now has concentrated on reacting against the CCP or calling for ultimate demands to be met, such as genuine universal suffrage, without having a clear long-term strategy for advancing that cause.
And what do we want? Well, of course, different people in the pro-democracy movement want different things, including some who say their ultimate aim is independence, but it’s safe to say that there is general consensus on the desire for real democracy and real autonomy. In addition to that, it is safe to say that there’s agreement on the aims of greater economic and social justice.
It is also very difficult to strategize in the long term with such a shifting array of characters. The people in the Legislative Council who blocked fake suffrage are the old guard, and they will be moving on before long. The people outside the Legislative Council demonstrating are the ones who represent the future.
Outside of Legco, people, young people, were holding debates on revising the Basic Law or drawing up a whole new constitution. It’s important to stress that this is the extent to which the CCP’s refusal to honor its legal obligation to HK or address the demands of the people of HK in any serious way has essentially torn up the implicit social contract between the CCP and HK. People are now saying 1) the CCP simply didn’t honor the Basic Law, so why should we? 2) Anyway, it’s proven deficient in protecting the interests, rights and autonomy of HK. 3) And on top of that, we never had any say in it anyway. So either you amend the articles that are sticking points in fulfilling the rights of the HK people and guarding HK’s autonomy, or we go back to the drawing board and we draw up a constitution that is the people’s constitution and we put it to a referendum.
Indeed, one of the basic issues of debate within the pro-democracy movement at the moment is whether to work within the current system or reject it. Those who say we should work within the system say the problem isn’t the Basic Law per se as the CCP’s attitude. We won’t get a better deal than the Basic Law, at least in the short term, and in many ways, it has worked effectively to protect the interests of the HK people most of the time up to now. The response to that is that the recent debacle has shown clearly the limitations of the Basic Law. Up to now, HK people have patiently abided by the Basic Law, though they had no say in drawing it up and have never given any formal approval of it. They did so in the expectation that one day, their demands for rights promised in the Basic Law would be met, but they have not, and with the social contract represented in the Basic Law broken, it’s time to start all over. Anyway, the whole system represented by the Basic Law is rigged, and the CCP has shown no inclination to begin un-rigging it any time soon, by allowing universal suffrage for Chief Executive and the Legislative Council. So we should start on that process ourselves, not in the expectation that the CCP will suddenly see the light before long but with the understanding that we must first articulate our goals and then work toward them over a longer period of time lasting probably decades.
Much of how the pro-democracy movement develops from this point on will revolve around how this debate plays itself out.
It’s worth noting that most of the political parties represented in Legco — with the exception of People Power, the independent Wong Yuk-man, and possibly the League of Social Democrats (a total of five of the 27 pan-democratic legislative councillors) — have affirmed allegiance to the Basic Law even as they voted down fake suffrage. They basically say the Basic Law is o.k. but the interpretations of the provisions related to universal suffrage by the CCP and the HK government are incorrect. (A very good example of this is the excellent speech against fake suffrage given by Civic Party member and representative of the law functional constituency, Dennis Kwok).
Meanwhile, outside of formal politics, it appears more and more opinions are drifting toward less acceptance of the Basic Law as a sufficient basis for the governance of HK. Joshua Wong of Scholarism raised eyebrows when he spoke in favor of re-examining the Basic Law and the need for amendments of those parts of it which the CCP and HK government have interpreted in such a way as to deny HK people the basic right to be elected. This appeared to be a departure from the position held by Scholarism up to then. If indeed it is, that means that most of the leading pro-democracy groups which don’t participate in formal politics and contest elections are taking a far more skeptical attitude toward the Basic Law. Even the relatively mainstream Civil Human Rights Front is jumping on the “amend the Basic Law” bandwagon, making that demand one of two key themes of the upcoming July 1 march (the other being restarting the electoral reform process after the defeat of fake suffrage).
Upcoming District Council elections in November and Legislative Council elections in 2016 will likely sharpen the point of these differences. Do you take part and strive to do as well as possible, or do you say, That’s a rigged system and I refuse to legitimize it by taking part in it?
There have been many small pro-democracy movement that have arisen to contest the District Council elections. Up to now, they don’t seem to be gaining much traction, though perhaps it’s too soon to say. Because the pro-#CCP parties are so much better funded than the pan-democratic parties, they have fared much better at District Council elections in recent years. They have a permanent presence in many parts of the city and are hard to unseat without a very well-coordinated, well-organized mobilization effort that the pro-democracy movement hasn’t been able to pull off up to now. Anyway, the argument goes, District Councils are not where the battle should be fought; they don’t do much anyway. Will the pro-democracy movement participate wholeheartedly in the District Council elections; will it not? How well will it do? The fact that there are reportedly 391,277 young people between the ages of 18 and 30 not registered as voters with a deadline of 2 July to register does not bode well.
Then, of course, the Legislative Council elections of 2016 will be as rigged as ever, since the CCP refused to entertain demands to abolish functional constituencies in 2016, saying first fake suffrage for Chief Executive in 2017 had to be passed before reform of Legco elections in 2020 could be entertained. So, again, do you participate in a rigged system or not? There’s probably a stronger argument for doing so. Pan-democratic parties have not done spectacularly well in recent Legco elections, but 2016 represents a real opportunity for them to substantially improve, capitalizing on their success in defeating fake suffrage. If they can’t do better in 2016, then it’s doubtful they’ll ever be able to increase their representation significantly in subsequent elections.
But they’ll have to be much better prepared and, in particular, put up much more appealing candidates than they have recently. The thing is, many of the more charismatic figures in the pro-democracy movement have shown little inclination to enter into formal politics. Even those who believe it’s still possible to work within the system think they can accomplish more personally outside of Legco than inside it.
The pan-dems currently have only 18 of 35 seats in the geographical constituencies (those elected in accordance with the principles of genuine universal suffrage). And with the resignation of Ronny Tong, that number drops to 17, exactly half. That’s hardly an impressive record, and the pan-dems’ underwhelming performance in recent Legco elections is one reason so many pro-democracy activists have started looking elsewhere for initiative, energy, new ideas and leadership and turning their backs on the formal political process. In that sense, 2016 is really a make-or-break election. All of the pro-democracy movement, regardless of attitude toward formal politics, needs to firmly support the pan-dems’ campaigns, but if they don’t manage to substantially improve on their current record, then exactly how the pro-democracy movement participates in the formal political system needs to be re-evaluated. By the same token, the pan-democratic political parties need to be much more willing to listen to their pro-democracy allies than they have been up to now.
The pan-dems hold 9 of 35 seats in the largely rigged functional constituencies. The pro-democracy movement should continue to call for the abolition of all functional constituency seats, but in the meantime, it should hotly contest all where it stands a chance. That means also identifying the currently pro-CCP functional constituency seats that are vulnerable. Because of the Democratic Party’s bone-headed compromise with the CCP on ‘reform’ of Legco elections starting in 2012, functional constituencies are arguably even more deeply entrenched, and we’re stuck with these five weird ‘super seats’, according to which District Councillors elect candidates to five seats in Legco. It’s a terrible set-up, but also one of the main reasons- whatever else you may think of the pro-democracy movement putting its energies into District Council elections or not- the pan-democratic camp needs a savvy and well-coordinated strategy to contest DC elections.
It’s important to remember just how little power Legco has in our so-called “executive-led” system. Legco members can’t even initiate new legislation (unless it costs nothing). That means the best Legco can do is thwart the efforts of the Chief Executive, a role which it has often played well, but which falls short of actually “doing anything”. Indeed, one reason for the support of pan-democratic parties remaining rather limited is that some people look at them and say, What have they done? Of course, the system is designed in such a way that there’s little they can. That goes for the pro-CCP parties as well, but the latter have a better track record of taking people to snake feasts and the like, which perhaps makes it look as if they “do something”, at least in the eyes of some.
At any rate, there’s little that can be accomplished in Legco in terms of fighting for democracy beyond the rearguard actions such as blocking fake suffrage that we have just seen. For precisely this reason, it’s tactically important to do as well as possible in Legco: If the pro-CCP side attains a two-thirds majority and can thus pass constitutional amendments, HK is as good as dead, at least as far as hopes for a more democratic, fairer society go.
Outside of the system, there is discussion of setting up a whole shadow or parallel political system. This could include drawing up a new constitution, holding a parallel election for Chief Executive under rules of genuine universal suffrage in 2017, forming a shadow/parallel government, and so on. There are many interesting possibilities here
Apart from politics, there are many social, cultural and economic issues to be addressed. The anti-parallel trade demonstrations set a good template for that, but keep in mind that parallel trading, as annoying as it is in many places in Hong Kong, as much as it negatively affects the quality of life, is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mainlandization. Could an overall plan be drawn up by groups across the pro-democracy spectrum to combat mainlandization in its myriad manifestations?
One of the most positive aspects of the occupations was that it sowed the seeds for many cultural initiatives. Developing a culture that is independent and promotes self-confidence and strengthens HK identity as separate from that of a mainland under CCP dictatorship is to be encouraged.
In general, there are two particular opportunities for the pro-democracy movement: 1) strengthen a sense of HK identity and 2) point out the connection between lack of democracy and crony capitalism, on the one hand, and the fact that HK is the most unequal developed society in the world in terms of income distribution.
Probably one of the effective bulwarks against mainlandization is the development of an HK identity as distinct from that of the mainland. It is already clear that most young people, especially, think of themselves as first and foremost HK people and identify very little if at all with the CCP-dictated mainland. Many recent controversies, in particular the decisions by the Hong Kong Federation of Students and the Hong Kong University Student Union to not participate in the June 4 candlelight vigil, are about this. And this, in return, is a reaction against efforts by the CCP and the HK government to inculcate a stronger sense of “national identity” in secondary students and universities. To the extent that HK people think of themselves as HK people first, that sense of identity can be a strong basis of resistance.
Traditional elements of the HK pro-democracy movement, in particular, the formal political parties, have been weak at communicating the connection between lack of democracy and income inequality. They’ve sought to improve recently, but they still have to get much better at it. This is a key opportunity to strip away support for pro-CCP parties, especially in the many low-income areas of HK where the latter have a strong presence.
But this means going to those areas, having a consistent presence in those areas, and communicating effectively to low-income people how the pro-CCP parties and the HK government are actually and effectively opposed to economic and social justice and are largely involved in preserving the vested interests of the elites. The HK government and pro-CCP parties give the pro-democracy movement plenty of easily available ammunition, such as the argument of CY Leung against genuine universal suffrage to the effect that it would give too many poor people equal voting rights.
Generally speaking, pro-democracy parties and groups have a fairly strong record in supporting measures that would lead to greater social and economic justice, such as laws on minimum wage, maximum work hours and mandatory overtime pay and the right to collective bargaining, but they need to improve and promote these more strongly, making them a cornerstone of their programs, and developing a fully coherent and and comprehensive agenda (that would, among other things, involve a sane housing strategy that would contrast sharply with the HK government’s).
If the pro-democracy movement can collaborate on a program of promotion of 1) HK identity and autonomy, 2) social and economic justice, and 3) genuine universal suffrage, and constantly stress the ways in which these issues are inter-related, then I am quite confident they will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the foreseeable in future.
In terms of techniques, after low turnouts for marches on February 1 and June 14, the line goes that many people in the pro-democracy movement don’t believe in marches anymore. That’s fine. But then, what do you believe in? What is more effective? That question remains to be answered. Ideas for general civil disobedience campaigns such as refusal to pay taxes or rent on public housing apartments have not met widespread acceptance up to now. Likewise, there have been few to no labor actions related to the pro-democracy movement, though many have organized professional groups supporting universal suffrage. Ideas for economic boycotts have not really been realized up to now either. That’s not to say there aren’t ways to go about these things; just that not much work has been done on them up to now and there’s not a general cultural climate of acceptance or experience of such techniques. This proved to be a significant limitation on the effectiveness of the occupations when the question of escalation arose.
We return to the fact that perhaps the number one signal failing of the pro-democracy movement in the past year is that it didn’t get any of the regime’s allies — tycoons, the business community in general, the largely pro-establishment or acquiescent media, the police — to defect. Are there any strategies of eventually getting them to calculate that their interests will in the long-term be more aligned with the pro-democracy movement than with the regime? This is a key question that is hardly being discussed at the moment, precisely because virtually everyone finds it hard to envision any of those entities defecting or, at the very least, withdrawing their active support of the regime.
Still, where opportunities arise, the pro-democracy movement should work to develop effective channels of communication with these elements. It’s important to remember that, deep down, few of them are fervent supporters of the CCP; it’s a marriage of convenience.
Many tycoons have resented getting roped into the CCP’s anti-democracy propaganda campaign and being made to publicly declare their loyalty. Morale within the police force is low due to its high disapproval rating among HK people. It’s hard to imagine any of them suddenly changing sides and declaring their fervent belief in democracy, but it’s not as hard to imagine them cutting their business exposure in China (especially if the Chinese economy and business opportunities continue to slow down) and gradually moving some of their business out of HK to less uncertain markets, as people like Li Ka-shing have already been doing. In their place will perhaps gradually arise a business class that is not as beholden to the political powers that be (and the favors they can bestow or withhold) for its profits.
There are many decent police officers who are disgruntled at being co-opted as the guard dogs of the regime. They are aware that the public approval rating of HK police is at an all-time low. Among other things, they see it in people’s eyes on the streets every day. HK remains one of the safest, most orderly and most law-abiding societies in the world, first and foremost because it is self-policing, because HK people are highly disciplined and law-abiding. The most lawless elements in HK society, such as the triads and other forms of organized crimes, are without exception more closely allied with the regime. As with the business class, the police are hardly going to suddenly switch sides and begin to disobey political orders, and the leaders of the HK police will most likely continue to have the least scruples when it comes to developing ever-closer relations with mainland counterparts, but more and more HK police see that various forms of smuggling and trafficking are far more damaging to law and order than the pro-democracy movement, regardless of CCP and HK government propaganda to the contrary. The aim should be to split the HK police rank and file from the HK police leaders, so that the latter, in order to maintain good relations with the former, will have to track closer to them in practice and away from using the police to conduct surveillance and monitoring and generally persecuting the pro-democracy movement, which is a trend at the moment. Right now, the police leaders think the way forward is to develop “crack units” for online surveillance, covert monitoring, and street policing, but a potential weakness of this strategy is that it will create a rift within the ranks between the absolute loyalists and the vast majority who are really just interested in traditional policing. Isolating and combating the units that engage in what the police consider “preventative” policing (ie, keeping an eye on and pursuing even potentially “criminal” elements) should be a priority of the pro-democracy movement.
For the most part, trying to change the editorial line of the establishment media is a lost cause, but it’s important to remember that what will hit them hardest is loss of revenue. Viewership of free t.v. and readership of print news continues to hemorrhage, especially amongst young people. Indeed, to a large extent, a parallel system of information gathering and dissemination, of opinion formation is already growing up around social media and online media upstarts such as InMedia, SocRec, Stand News, Passion Times, and HK Free Press. This trend will most likely continue, given that it is young people driving it. It is striking the extent to which the editorial position of South China Morning Post, for example, is almost diametrically opposed to the views of its readership when it comes to democracy. SCMP supported fake universal suffrage, but a (thoroughly unscientific but suggestive) online poll conducted of its readership found that nearly 80% were happy that fake suffrage was defeated. For both business and ideological reasons, it can be said the pro-CCP and/or self-censoring media don’t have time on their side, and their main purpose will continue to be to “divide” society, to shore up support amongst the 20 to 30% of the population that can be relied on to support CCP policies, however passively, a percentage of society which, due to its age, could be slowly dying out.
My advice is, try everything that you have the capacity for, everything that stands a chance of working and even a few things that don’t. The future really is wide open. We need to try new things. It’s hard to know what will work and what won’t. It’s a problem that we don’t know where we’re going, but it’s also an opportunity. The open-hearted and adventurous spirit of the pro-democracy movement over the past year must be retained and cultivated. We must continually search for ways to give a young people a real stake, a real voice and real power in pro-democracy institutions, something we haven’t been good at up now. Groups that are youth groups, such as Scholarism, need more support. Scholarism has operated almost in isolation when it comes to outreach to secondary school students. It needs to continue to operate according to its own agenda but help in matters such liaising with progressive teachers and school administrators, contacts, networking, and material help such as support in printing leaflets and lending venues for events would all go some way in helping to develop one of the more promising organizations.
Indeed, one of the main things the pro-democracy movement should be considering at this point is setting up an overall coordinating body as a platform for identifying common opportunities and needs and ways in which we can help each other. It should not “centralize” or be a decision-making body, but it should bring the various elements of the movement into better communication with one another.
We are tired. We need a break. But there is much work to do. And the clock is ticking. The CCP will redouble efforts to rapidly mainlandize with a vengeance after the humiliation of the defeat of fake suffrage. The people of the HK pro-democracy movement have been magnificent up to now, but that doesn’t mean we will continue to be so in the future. As ever, it all depends on us.
19 June 2015