30 May 2010

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.



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.


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. And 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)?


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?

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.

12 comments:

  1. Well done. I was happy you found a silver lining in the rising turn out among younger voters in Hong Kong.

    S.C.

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  2. What a great piece of writing! I had a better understanding of the current political climate in HK than from anywhere or anyone. Thank you...

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  3. The reason why this political campaign was not successful is that it failed to give the mass a clear account on the following issues:

    1. How a by-election becomes a de facto referendum

    2. what is the difference between a de facto referendum and a binding referendum

    3. what is the subject of the referendum

    The failure of the campaign propaganda certainly played a part. But I think the foremost reason is that: the majority of the Hong Kong people did not prepare to make the effort to understand these issues. Life is fair in this particular suitation: no effort, no democracy.

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  4. Thanks, Anonymous. But judging from the slow-coming of readers' comments on this article (relative to my other postings), I am realizing that there simply aren't a lot of people who paid attention to the campaign. There is a tendency for citizens to dismiss the by-elections as a political farce and move on to something else in their lives. To me, that's the most disheartening part of this saga.

    Jason

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  5. Probably because the issue is not hot now, or people turning to the 4th June event.

    P.

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  6. All great points, Kelvin! I was very surprised to find out -- subsequent to publishing this article -- that there are many among us who don't understand how the by-elections could trigger a referendum. Many simply don't know what is referendum is in the first place and don't bother to find out.

    

And I think you hit the nail right on its head when you said "no effort, no democracy". I was so angered by the low turnout on May 17 that I wrote on my Facebook wall that perhaps Hong Kongers don't *deserve* universal suffrage, since they don't bother fighting for it.



    Jason

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  7. Hi Jason,

    Thanks again for a great piece. But I have to be honest, as a foreign expat who cannot vote in this city-state, I have not been following the political situation nor inclined to follow it for that matter. Yes, as any countries in the world, HK has its fair share of political mess. Even though I don't know much about HK politics, your article did shed some light for me, and for that I appreciate it.

    cheers,
    J

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  8. Jason,

    Your witty approach aside, I totally agree with you that the strategy adopted by the 5 opposition lawmakers are ingenious. I have to admit I have forgotten as much constitutional law as possible to distil whether that act could be constitional and its effect on voting ANYONE at all into or out of Legco. But the response of the administration is hardly to be commended on maintaining "independence" and good order that we as citizens expect of a good government with proper separation of powers, right? Lofty as that aspiration may sound to a lot of people more concerned with whether they can feed their families properly on that particular evening, but shouldn't we at least try to push for something sensible or at least do not condone the asurdity that is going on and affecting our "country"? You know how "creative" I could be at times, but for a fleeting moment my mind flew back to the middle ages and the debauchery amongst the royalty that eventually brought about the French Revolution. Also for some reasons I got the impression that, the more any party (or most, shouldn't really black-list every single being out there) banters under the name of "democracy" these days, the more they are using that label to anchor the very opposite manovoeuvres into our government or into our society !

    Call me stupid, but to be quite honest I really have no idea what Tsang was doing, what he hoped to do and why on earth he was doing that when he take on Audrey Eu in the debate. Alright, I certainly wasn't paying enough attention to these political juggling at that particular point, but what was left on my mind with that incident was a big big question-mark and nothing else. And I hate to say this - if one is not crystal clear about something that appeared ludicrous and not particularly wise, one cannot be blamed for being apathetic about it, and from experience, apathy usually dissolves into cynicism or resignation. Such is human nature, or am I really generalizing too much and have lost faith myself? Call me irresponsible, but I get quite cynical over these political fiasco too.

    Irrespective of whether Beijing can really sleep at night in the aftermath, and despite all the circus cry on the propaganda around town, let's hope there is now an alertness to push us one single step up the ladder, and that it will not evaporate as the dew with the dawning of any other political fiasco. One side of me questions whether this alertness can overcome any political inertia that is so prevalent in our society that is craving for an economically snug environment, but the paranoid side of me prays that Beijing will not see any of these tickings as an insidious unrest and eclipse our society with another 6-4 like bloodshed. Call me an over-sentimental cry-baby, but I still can't come to terms with or comprehend how and why on earth they could rain the gunfire down on the students 21 years ago. The recent incident in Thailand and pre-6-4 institutional "receptions" of our statue of democracy is an unsettling echo of the attention Beijing could lavished over our government and society if she chooses so to do. Despite knowing what has to be given up for one's dreams, I still prefer not to witness a crimson Victoria Harbour, espcially if we are talking about another person's blood being spilt.

    Christine

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  9. Thanks, Christine, for your thoughtful comment.

    Your comment touches on many things, including the rather appalling handling by the government of this year's June 4 commemorative events. But the one thing you said that has stuck with me is the comparison between Hong Kong's emerging civil movement and the French Revolution. If advocacy groups in Hong Kong can organize themselves to start an uprising of that sort, it will do our city tremendous good. We witnessed an example of that in 2003 when social pressure toppled Tung's administration -- truly one of the greatest moments in our post-Handover history. I pray every day that the same fate will befall Donald Tsang. Should be any time now.

    Cheers,

    Jason

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  10. Hi J,

    I believe expats can have a meangingful participation in local politics too. The fact that you are from here gives you a different perspective on things. I am confident that once you sink your teeth in local politics, you will find it fascinating and be horrified by the absurdity of it all.

    Cheers,

    Jason

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  11. Thanks. Jason. I love reading your articles. I particularly like the one entitled "Rebels With a Cause". I'll try to get hold of the magazine "Men's Folio".

    B.

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  12. Thanks, B. Not many of my readers seemed to like the topic, and you were the exception!

    Cheers,

    Jason

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