28 April 2016

Baptism of Fire 炮火的洗禮

“Drop dead, traitors!” wrote one Facebook user. “Stop swindling money from gullible supporters,” said another. Further down the comment thread, the Photoshopped picture of a young man with a noose tied around his neck received dozens of likes. “Your corpse will rot on the street and we will celebrate!” the caption read.

The lynching victim depicted in the picture was Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), the once-idolized student leader who, at the tender age of 14, led tens of thousands of citizens to thwart the government’s attempt to introduce a patriotic education program. The darling of foreign news media appeared on the cover of Time’s Asia edition and was named one of Fortune magazine’s top 10 world leaders in 2015 alongside Pope Francis and Apple CEO Tim Cook. There were even whispers that he should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Yesterday's hero

But what a difference a year makes. Today, he is the prime target of what amounts to Cyber-bullying. Thousands of blistering comments plaster across Wong’s Facebook page and that of his newly-minted political party Demosistö (香港眾志). The trolling – the Internet slang for online harassment – is so relentless, and the name-calling is so vicious and disruptive, that you easily forget what the original post is about.

“My five-year honeymoon is over,” said Wong, who turned 19 last October, on the telephone yesterday. He was referring to the early years of his political career when he enjoyed a degree of immunity from criticism. “Now that I’m running my own political party, I expect the public to hold my feet to the fire,” he confessed, admitting that the halo above his head has slipped. “If the criticism is valid,” Wong added, “I take it to heart so I can do better in the future.”

In reality, most of the online commentary is less than constructive. The trolls, who never fail to respond within minutes of a new update, go by aliases like Billy Bong and On Dog Joshua (on” is an expletive in Cantonese meaning “moronic”). At the same time, there is no shortage of keyboard warriors who use their real accounts under their real names. The vast majority of them are diehard supporters of localist parties such as Hong Kong Indigenous (本土民主前線) and Civic Passion (熱血公民) – radical splinter groups that call on citizens to use “any means necessary” to resist the Sinofication of Hong Kong and ultimately declare independence from Mainland China.

When asked whether the troll army is an organized group mobilized by a political force, Wong explained, “We need to distinguish between localist sympathizers and localist parties, and not lump the two together.” Sympathizers are netizens, according to Wong, and they are uncoordinated and self-motivated. Political parties, on the other hand, are by definition organized groups. Most of the trolls belong to the first category. “Netizens take whatever I say out of context and sometimes put words in my mouth,” Wong protested. “You can reason with a political party, but it’s very difficult to reason with a netizen.”

Don't try to reason with him

Feeding time at the zoo

While Wong bears the brunt of the vitriol, he is by no means the only target. Fellow Demosistians such as Nathan Law (羅冠聰) and Oscar Lai (黎汶洛) also find themselves in the cross hairs of the ad hominem offensives.

Last week, when Wong and Law embarked on a North American university tour – Wong was invited to speak at Harvard, Yale and M.I.T., among others, while Law focused on Stanford, Berkeley and other West Coast colleges – the attacks reached a fever pitch. The troll army sneered at their “paid vacation” and called it “shameless self-promotion” and an “embarrassment to Hong Kong.” “Who the f** gives you the right to speak for us?” one asked, before a chorus of assailants joined in for an online free-for-all.

“The purpose of the trip was to spread the word about our political situation and rally international support for the self-determination of Hong Kong,” said Law over the telephone, hours before his scheduled flight from San Francisco to Vancouver for a speaking engagement at the University of British Columbia, the final stop on his week-long tour. “We didn’t do any fundraising for Demosistö, and all travel expenses were paid by the universities that invited us,” he added.

When asked about the timing of the trip – less than a month after Demosistö was launched – Law explained: “Until now, Joshua and I had been very busy getting the new party off the ground. At the same time, we had to do the talks before the spring semester ends in North America. That was it – there’s nothing opportunistic about our schedule.”

Wong's and Law's university tour


How it all started

The spat between the student leaders and the localists goes way back. During the OccupyMovement of 2014, Wong and the Hong Kong Federation of Students (of which Law was a core member) had constant run-ins with various splinter groups. Four days into the movement, Wong held an anti-government rally outside the Golden Bauhinia Square where the National Day flag-raising ceremony was to take place. Wong and his Scholarism followers were accused of forming a human chain to sabotage the attempt by a legion of firebrand protesters to storm the square to disrupt the event.

“That whole ‘human chain’ accusation was bogus,” Wong argued. “There were dozens of us staging a mass protest that morning. We had turned our backs to the Chinese flag in silent protest and formed crosses with our arms. We never physically stopped anyone from doing anything. It was a misunderstanding that has kept snowballing since then.”

And snowballed it has. The National Day ruckus was followed by similar incidents throughout the 79-day street occupation, in which localist groups challenged the legitimacy of Wong and HKFS leaders to make decisions for protesters and slammed them for standing in the way of escalation plans.

But it gets worse. In the eye of the localist sympathizers, the recent rebranding of Scholarism into Demosistö has turned Wong and Law from ineffective leaders to political rivals  and even election spoilers. That Demosistö and Hong Kong Indigenous will be going after the same voter base – the young, progressive vote – in the September general election has added fuel to the raging fire. That also explains why localist supporters have been going after the new party with more ferocity than they do their declared enemy: Communist China. 

Wong accused of sabotaging other protesters' action during Occupy

Resistance is futile

Until recently, the trolling had been one-sided, and the Demosistians had not hit back. Two weeks ago, however, Wong made the mistake of responding to a supporter of Edward Leung (梁天琦), spokesman of Hong Kong Indigenous. The supporter had left a Facebook comment criticizing Demosistö’s $2 million fundraising campaign. Wong defended his solicitation of small online donations with a short reply: “We don’t want to court secret benefactors,” implying that Leung’s party is funded by a dubious financial backer.

Wong’s regrettable remark was political red meat for the trolls, and the teenager was slaughtered on social media for leveling an unsubstantiated attack against Leung. The next day, Wong issued a public statement on Facebook apologizing for his gaffe. Not surprisingly, the apology was not accepted; it has fired up his critics even more.

“There isn’t much else I can say or do,” said Wong, sounding frustrated and exhausted. “If I am wrong, I stand corrected and I take responsibility for it. But if netizens continue their irrational attacks, I need to stand my ground and push back.”

Apology not accepted

As much as Wong and Law try to take the flak in stride, personal insults still sting. The phenomenon underscores the toxicity of local politics and the severe polarization of society in the post-Occupy era. Anger and frustration have boiled over, and once-political allies can become sworn enemies over the slightest of misunderstanding or disagreement.

“[Criticism] comes with the territory,” Wong sighed. “I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”

Law, on the other hand, takes a more defiant stance. “I’m happy to listen to constructive comments and learn from them,” he said. “But for groundless, malicious attacks, all I can say is: what goes around comes around!”


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This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Baptism of fire for Joshua Wong and his nascent political party."

As posted on SCMP.com


11 April 2016

Off to a Rocky Start 香港中箭

Hang Seng Bank has frozen its deposit account. Cybersquatters have occupied its domain name. Its hastily organized press conference, held last Sunday night in a subterranean auditorium, had all the trappings of a student council meeting: it started several hours late and the live streaming on YouTube was interrupted so many times that the number of viewers hovered around 300 and at times dropped below 20.

If that is any indication of the challenges facing Joshua Wong’s new political party, then it is in for a bumpy road ahead.

The launch

Demosistō, the grown-up version of Scholarism – which Wong founded four years ago to oppose C.Y. Leung’s patriotic education plan – is meant to help the 19-year-old and his posse shed their school boy image to better position themselves for a serious Legislative Council bid in September.

Wong is hoping that the new party with an intelligent-sounding name will wipe the slate clean and allow pro-democracy activists of all ages to join without looking like they are crashing a high school party. For instance, 60-year-old filmmaker Shu Kei (real name Kenneth Ip), who was present at Sunday’s press reference, would have looked oddly out of place if he were to be introduced as a new Scholarism recruit.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the high-profile rebranding, and so far there has been more criticism than praise. The word Demosistō, a portmanteau created by Boy Wonder himself, combines the Greek word for "the people" (demo) and the Latin word for "I stand" (sistō). No one other than Wong himself seems to like the new name. In fact, the word isn’t even grammatically correct: it loosely translates into “I the People stand” (sistō being the first person singular of the verb sistere).

Netizens are quick to call the awkward appellation a public relations blunder, invoking the famous Cantonese proverb that “to be given a bad name is worse than to be born with a bad fate.” One commentator joked that the name sounds like “demolition,” some sort of contraption invented by Joshua Wong to destroy the traditional pan-democratic parties. Other people took issues with the party’s logo that was designed around the letter “D,” saying that it looks like a mobile phone SIM card.

It really does look like a SIM card

Things have not gone smoothly for the party’s official website either. The domain name www.demosisto.com has been claimed by an anonymous party. When clicked, the link goes to an empty page with a villainous taunt to Wong: “U still [have] no site?” Outsmarted by their political opponents, Demosistians begrudgingly settled for the next best thing: www.demosisto.hk. A skeletal version of the site was launched hours before the press conference on Sunday.

But that’s not all. Demosistō’s fundraising effort has been stunted by delays in the company registration process, as well as HSBC’s refusal to open a bank account for the party to receive donations. To date, every financial institution approached by Wong has told him to take his business somewhere else.

As a result, all donations had been funneled through deputy secretary-general Agnes Chow’s personal savings account, which presented audit and transparency issues. Then yesterday afternoon, Hang Seng Bank suddenly notified Chow that her account could no longer accept deposits, with immediate effect. The situation just went from bad to worse.

With the entire financial system stacked against them, it remains unclear whether Demosistō will manage to meet its HK$2 million crowd-funding target in time for the Legco election campaign season that is set to begin as early as this summer.  

HSBC, one of the self-censoring banks

The good news is that jokes about names and logos will eventually pass, and that banking and other administrative issues will be sorted out or gotten around somehow. The new party will gain traction and warm to voters as long as it has a solid policy platform. So far, however, Demosistō is long on ideology but short on actionable plans.

The party’s website remains a work-in-progress – the “Policy” tab currently displays a blank page with the words “coming soon” in Chinese. It leaves open the question of where Demosistō stands with respect to policy issues from universal retirement protection to cross-border relations, to the party’s willingness to engage C.Y. Leung’s government and even Beijing officials to break the current political impasse.

What we do know is that Demosistō will continue Wong’s non-violent approach to the fight for universal suffrage and greater autonomy for the city. He has called himself a “centrist” and placed his new party halfway between radical localists who call for Hong Kong’s independence through “any means possible” and the pan-dems who do little more than shout slogans and issue strongly worded statements in response to bad government decisions.

Yet, the middle path can be fraught with peril. A centrist party may wind up pleasing no one and alienating voters on both sides of the opposition aisle. On one hand, moderate constituents who worry about the emergence of radical forces will find Demosistō’s “self-determination” rhetoric too incendiary for comfort. On the other hand, voters who buy into the localists’ take-no-prisoners tactics will dismiss Wong or any of his Demosistians as just another career politician climbing the greasy pole.

What’s more, now that the new party has officially thrown its hat into the ring for the upcoming elections, it has turned old allies into new rivals. Once-friendly faces like Alan Leong and Long Hair may suddenly stop returning Wong’s phone calls. There will be no one to offer ground game advice or coordinate voting tickets to avoid siphoning votes from each other. In the gladiatorial game that is local politics, it is every man for himself.

A formidable rival


But there are worse things than a cold shoulder. Like wild animals unleashed from underground dungeons, localist sympathizers wasted no time in their vicious attacks against the new kids on the block. Social media trolling began within minutes after the Demosistō Facebook page was launched, replete with a liberal use of expletives and colorful epithets.

Still, Demosistō’s biggest trouble may be coming from within. Of the party’s four core members, only chairman Nathan Law and vice chairman Oscar Lai are old enough to stand for election in September. While the Occupy movement made both men household names, they are as much untested as they are saddled with political baggage.

Lai, the former spokesman for Scholarism and Wong’s longtime sidekick, has been the butt of many jokes ever since he was found stalking the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung and repeatedly photo-bombing the candidate during the Legco by-election two months ago. Lai was given the nickname “Magnet Man” – the Cantonese catch phrase for a camera hog – for sidling up to the pan-dems for cheap media exposure. His high-profile announcement that he was severing ties to Scholarism and throwing his support behind Yeung just days before the by-election made Lai look mercenary and opportunistic.


Struggling to be noticed

If Lai comes off as a shameless attention-seeker, then Law has the opposite problem. In front of the camera lens, the former Lingnan University student union president and Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) secretary general often appears demure and distant – someone who would make a better academic than a firebrand politician.

Moreover, Law has been criticized for not taking responsibility for his ineffective leadership during Occupy, culminating in his disastrous call for protesters to besiege the government headquarters at Tamar, that hastened the demise of the movement. That and subsequent missteps by the HKFS leadership eventually prompted half its member universities to leave the federation a year ago.

All that has made Demosistō a risky proposition for Joshua Wong. He has put all his political eggs in one basket by making the bold move to disband Scholarism. Forced to sit out the September elections, Wong can only campaign for Lai and Law without knowing how much of his aura and star power can be transferred to them.

It is a high stakes gamble not only because the opposition vote will be split three ways among the pan-dems, the localists and his centrist party, but also because Wong has made himself the face and voice of Demosistō. If his surrogates – Lai and Law – make a poor showing in the September elections, winning only a tiny fraction of the overall votes, it will call into question Wong’s leadership and whether his prodigious fame will eventually flame out.

Scholarism no more

Nevertheless, if there is one thing we know about Wong, it is that the teenager is full of surprises – the kind that has helped him reinvent himself each time critics are about to write him off as an overgrown child star.

This is a young man who combines the acumen to have put forward a proposal for civil nomination even before Occupy began and the foresight to urge the city to look beyond the current political wrangles and focus on life after 2047, the year when the Basic Law expires and "one country, two systems" ends.

Wong has a knack for knowing where to place his chips and how to make a winning bet for both himself and the causes he fights for. No matter how shaky things may look for Demosistō at the moment, he is not one to be written off just yet.

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This article appears on EJInsight under the title "Joshua Wong’s new political party is off to a rocky start"

As posted on www.EJInsight.com







22 March 2016

The Third Road 中間路線


Two weeks ago, I traveled to Beijing to speak at an international literary festival. It was one of the largest events of its kind in mainland China and certainly the most daring judging by some of the sensitive topics it covered: territorial disputes, gay rights and religious freedom. My talks on the political future of Hong Kong centred around the rise of radical opposition forces and the growing polarization of society in the post-Occupy era. A single question kept popping up during the Q&A sessions: in the age of police clashes and street riots, is there any room for moderate voices in local politics?

The short answer, I told my audiences, is “not at the moment.” These days, compromise and pragmatism are such dirty words that the mere utterance of them would draw not only suspicious glares but also vicious trolling on social media. The idea that freedom-loving citizens should sit down and talk to their pro-Beijing government conjures up not images of savvy dealmakers perfecting the “art of the possible” (to quote Otto von Bismarck), but the ugly memory of greasy pan-democratic old-timers exchanging a Faustian handshake with the Liaison Office over the 2010 electoral reform package. There are names for these people: traitors, sell-outs, communist operatives-in-disguise.

Is the third road a political dead end?

But that hasn’t deterred some quixotic pan-dems from continuing to try. During last month’s by-election to fill Ronny Tong’s (湯家驊) vacated Legislative Council seat, ex-Democratic Party member Nelson Wong (黃成智) ran on a “middle way” platform and promised to bury the hatchet and build bridges. Wong’s campaign faltered, in part because of his bumbling public persona and in part because his moderate rhetoric failed to register a pulse in the electorate.

Then there is the godfather of political moderation: Ronny Tong. Disgusted with toxic partisanship that culminated in the defeat of the 2015 electoral reformbill, Tong resigned from both Legco and the Civic Party shortly thereafter to forge what he called the “third road” – a more reconciliatory stance toward Beijing as an alternative to the adversarial pan-dems. The self-proclaimed centrist founded a think tank called the Path of Democracy and recruited a handful of respected scholars. So far, the pathfinders have not gained much traction in the public narrative. It is death by anonymity: no one is talking about them.

Ronny Tong (in front of the microphones) and his fellow pathfinders

Neither Wong nor Tong ought to be surprised. Reconciliation is not in vogue, at least for the time being. There is so much anger in the air, and with that comes radicalization. After Occupy ended without achieving any of the political gains it had set out to achieve, radical splinter groups seized on the post-movement emotional void and drafted many former protesters into their army of fun ching (憤青), the Cantonese phrase for “angry youth.” Their combative, take-no-prisoner gospel appealed to the disillusioned Umbrella Kids much more so than any humdrum sermon on dialogue and deal-making. It is political marketing 101 – just ask Donald Trump.

To be fair, radicalization is more by circumstance than by choice. Who doesn’t want to sit in an air-conditioned room and talk to each other like civilized adults? We’ve tried and it hasn’t worked. The third road is premised on seeking common ground, which by definition requires some degree of give-and-take. But with increasing Beijing intervention in local affairs, the Hong Kong government is forced to capitulate on important policy issues and take direct orders from the communist leadership. There isn’t very much room for dialogue when one side doesn’t have the authority to give and is instructed to only take.

It's hard to negotiate with a puppet

Besides, being a fun ching may not be such a bad thing – it may actually be healthy in the grand scheme of things. Anger is one of the essential steps in the five stages of grief, which allows us to cope with a traumatic experience, such as spending 79 days on the streets braving police batons and pepper spray. In other words, young people need to get their frustrations out of the system so that the healing can begin. Those who have watched Disney’s Inside Out also understand that human emotions – even undesirable ones like sadness and anger – are part of our personal growth. Likewise, radicalization is part of the city’s coming of age. In the 1970s and 1980s, angry students and violent opposition parties in Taiwan and South Korea exhibited many of the same symptoms, before the countries reached their political maturity and blossomed into full-fledged democracies. Hong Kong may be a few decades behind, but we will eventually get there.

And so I told my audiences at the literary event: radicalization is only a passing phase and pragmatism will one day return. Once their emotions subside, the fun ching will realize that their combative approach, no matter how cathartic, will ultimately do little, if anything at all, to bring a freer Hong Kong. They will come to the conclusion that dialogue, in whatever form it may take, still has the best chance of yielding tangible political results. Hong Kongers can never outgun the communists; we will have to outsmart them at the negotiation table.

We are in Phase 2

There is reason for us to be cautiously optimistic. With the Chinese leadership increasingly embroiled in high-stakes factional infighting and the economy showing signs of serious weakening, Beijing has far bigger fish to fry than whether the Hong Kong Airport should have a third runway or if street vendors in Mongkok can sell fish balls on Chinese New Year’s Day. And if more heavyweights like mainland property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang (任志强) come out swinging against PresidentXi Jin-ping (習近平) or the Shanghai Composite drops another 10 per cent, then the beanstalk giant just might loosen its grip on Hong Kong and crack the door open for a third road. Indeed, Premier Li Keqiang’s (李克强) softened tone on our “high degree of autonomy” at the National People’s Congress meetings two weeks ago and the praises sung by Ta Kung Pao (大公報), a pro-Beijing newspaper, of localist leader Edward Leung (梁天琦) days after the Legco by-election both offer us a glimmer of hope that reconciliation is more than a pipe dream.

In the meantime, while we continue to debate whether the third road will lead us anywhere, a fourth path has emerged. Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) announced earlier this week that Scholarism, the activist group he founded in 2011, would be disbanded to make way for a new political party ahead of the September general election. Wong said that his new baby – still to be given a name – would seek a middle way within the opposition camp. The 19-year-old is determined to fill the ideological gap by wooing voters who have given up on the slogan-shouting pan-dems but are equally turned off by the localists’ warlike tactics, much like the way Ronny Tong is trying to provide a voice of reason that speaks to both the establishment and the opposition. It is too early to predict whether voters will warm to Scholarism 2.0, but one thing is certain: the days of predictable two-camp politics are over in Hong Kong. As our political spectrum gets more crowded, the moderates will, in the not so distant future, come out of the woodwork and cease to be the politicians who dare not speak their name.

Joshua Wong (in orange) announcing the dissolution of Scholarism


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This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Is the 'third road' a political dead end?"

As published on SCMP.com