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Rebels With a Cause 阿飛正傳

Two Sundays ago on May 16, I drove 30 minutes to my designated polling station at a high school tucked away on the far end of Guildford Road. In the quiet auditorium, the station manager handed me a ballot and a marker, before a uniformed volunteer ushered me to the voting booth. My footsteps squeaked noisily on the shiny floorboards and echoed through the hollow space. I was the only voter in the room. This cannot be good, I said to myself as I stamped a checkmark next to Tanya Chan’s (陳淑莊) name.

Voting card

Earlier this year, five opposition lawmakers from the hawkish League of Social Democrats (LSD 社民連) and the white-shoed Civic Party (公民黨) resigned to trigger by-elections they hoped to turn into a referendum on universal suffrage. The political campaign was ingenious in its originality and deviance. Thrown in a few manga posters and radical slogans, the lawmakers-cum-rebels stirred up a smoldering cauldron of social discontent that promised to plunge the administration into a constitutional crisis. 

Scrambling to respond, Donald Tsang pulled out all his tricks to sabotage the by-elections, first by cutting the number of polling stations so that many voters had to travel longer distances (that would explain why this Pokfulam resident had to drive all the way to the Peak) and then by openly calling on civil servants to boycott the elections. Behind the scenes, the Chief Executive pressured Tsang Yuk Sing (曾鈺成) to give up his LegCo presidency to secure an extra vote for the government’s reform package. Much to the Donald Tsang’s chagrin, however, his sleight-of-hand only added public attention and press coverage to the rebels’ cause.

But it all went well until it didn’t. The morning after the by-elections, newsstands across the city were plastered with scathing headlines about the record low voters’ turnout. Only around 580,000 or 17.1% of registered voters went to the polls, well below any target that campaign organizers had hoped to achieve. Emboldened by the results, Donald Tsang and his posse rushed to declare the referendum a complete failure and used the abysmal turnout as evidence that citizens valued his reform package over radicalized political movements. 

Meanwhile, the Party of Five struggled to hide their disappointment and shifted media attention to the government’s below-the-belt tactics. But it was no use. When it was all said and done, the rebels got their seats back plus plenty of egg on their faces.

Vote them back in

So what went wrong? 

A few factors contributed to our collective indifference that precipitated the spectacular dud. Right from the start, campaign organizers had troubles getting through to their stoic constituents. Many voters were confused by the two parties’ mixed messages, while others were turned off by LSD’s gratuitous use of incendiary rhetoric. Penny-smart citizens also bought into the government’s charge that the by-elections were unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money. 

As history has shown us time and again, people rarely can see beyond their noses. In the absence of any imminent danger like the passing of the anti-subversion bill in 2003, time-pressed Hong Kongers had better things to do than participate in a dubious movement that did not appear to better their lives in the short run. 

Worse still, a majority of voters simply found the status quo rather acceptable. Therein lies a fundamental quagmire facing every political advocate in Hong Kong: how are you supposed to help people who don’t need your help? Then there is that general sense of post-handover cynicism. 13 years into our decolonialization, Beijing has us eating out of its hand. Deep down every Hong Konger understands the grim reality we face: when it comes to sensitive subjects like constitutional reform, reasoned debate is not for China, sacred edicts are more its thing. So what’s the use of screaming and shouting all the way to the Liaison Office (中聯辦)?

Liaison Offce, a.k.a., the Death Star

Voters’ apathy aside, the rebels also had themselves to blame. By announcing an actual turnout target (set initially at an unrealistic 50%, only to be revised down to 30% and eventually to 25% just three days before the elections), the Party of Five had backed themselves into a corner. Voters are notoriously fickle and those in a money-grubbing city like ours certainly cannot be counted on. 

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that the success of a political movement must be measured not by a single number, but by whether it does what it is supposed to do. In this case the goal was to send Beijing a clear message that seven million Hong Kongers would not take the government’s regressive reform package lying down. Nothing more, nothing less. By that measure, the referendum was and continues to be a smashing success, if only we look hard enough to see it.

Like an unstoppable cannonball hitting an immovable wall, the de facto referendum touched a nerve and ruffled feathers in Beijing. As soon as the rebels announced their act of defiance, Central Government officials fell in line to express their displeasure, calling it “unconstitutional” – a ludicrous accusation with no legal basis – and threatening voters with doomsday scenarios. But the ripples of the referendum continue to be felt across our political landscape well beyond May 16. 

Within days after the by-elections, Beijing turned up the heat on its ground troops to ratchet up their public relations offensive. Representatives from the Liaison Office deigned to sit down with pan-democrats to break the legislative impasse. In an unfathomably stupid move, Tsang offered to take on Audrey Eu (余若薇), leader of the Civic Party, in a televised debate over his reform package. Just this weekend, the Chief Executive personally led his cabinet members in an all-out media blitz using the awkward “Act Now” (起錨) slogan to garner public support for his initiatives. 

Prime-time TV commercials, wall-to-wall posters and motorcades featuring a rogues’ gallery of bureaucratic pariahs were all part of a monkey show to assure Beijing that, despite the recent political close call, the administration still has the situation under control. Who says the referendum was a failure?

Donald Tsang's failed PR offensive

With the five lawmakers now back in the legislature, it is once again business as usual. The LSD provocateurs go on shouting slogans and throwing props in LegCo meetings, and the rest of the pan-democrats continue their gentlemanly opposition. Designed to be fail-safe, the de facto referendum succeeded by making Beijing tick and forcing those in charge to consider concessions on the constitutional debate, however small these concessions turn out to be. 

But the biggest pleasant surprise of it all is that the campaign managed to galvanize a new crop of young activists – turnout of voters between the ages 18 and 30 rose from 8% in 2003 to a whopping 18% – and, at a time when our cherished “Hongkongness” is being diluted every day, revealed a worthy new generation to whom the city’s core values can be passed down.

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Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK).

Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Revie…

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