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




02 March 2016

Winners and Losers in the New Territories East By-election 新界東補選的贏家與輸家


After weeks of intense political campaigns and a vicious war of words on social media, the dust has finally settled on who will fill the Legislative Council seat vacated by former Civic Party senior Ronny Tong.

In the end, Alvin Yeung beat out six other candidates in the New Terrorities East by-election last Sunday, winning by a thin margin, and became the latest poster boy for the pan-dems. The 35-year-old barrister could heave a sigh of relief for not letting down his party elders. His win means the tie-breaking seat in the geographic constituenciesthe directly elected half of Legco, is now safe and the pan-dems can hold on to their house majority and veto power. All’s well that ends well.

Or so it seems.

While the by-election is a winner-takes-all proposition, the politics behind it isn’t. The time to take stock of the winners and losers is now.

To the victor belong the spoils


Localist groups


Hong Kong Indigenous’ Edward Leung might have lost his Legco bid, but he went home with something else: bragging rights. The 66,000 votes he mopped up aren’t exactly chum change; they are enough to silence the skeptics and prove to fan boys that localism is more than a fringe voice that appeals only to a “very small minority” of voters.

Leung’s well-organized campaign – replete with color-matching hoodies, banners and major endorsements from opinion leaders – succeeded in galvanizing the young and the restless. The 24-year-old philosophy student addressed a range of burning issues that many of his opponents would rather not talk about: the perceived Sinofication of Hong Kong, eroding freedom of expression and the growing desire among the youth for self-governance.

Emboldened by his strong showing in the by-election, Leung declared that local politics is now a “tripartite division,” a reference to the Three Kingdoms Dynasty during which three feudal lords carved up Imperial China into regional states. The metaphor doubles as a declaration of war to both the pro-Beijing camp and the pan-dems: the by-election is only a dress rehearsal for the localists, before they return in full throttle in the September general election when all 35 geographic constituency seats will be up for grabs.

And they don’t even need to win big – Leung and his supporters don’t give a hoot to pan-dem concerns such as securing a house majority and veto power. A single seat is all it takes for these proverbial skunks-at-the-garden-party to make a stink on the Legco floor. If C.Y. Leung finds Long Hair’s theatrics offensive, then he had better start growing thicker skin to face off an Edward Leung in the house.

Leung (middle) and his supporters

Pan-dems


If the localists have come out on top, then the pan-dems have gone down in flames.

Alvin Yeung’s difficult campaign and narrow win have exposed the many cracks within the opposition. There is a growing sentiment among voters, especially the so-called “post-90s” (people born after 1990), that traditional pan-dem parties are out of touch and care more about their own political existence than the best interests of their constituents. Many believe that Yeung would have done much better at the polls had he run as an independent or at least not been constantly chaperoned by a posse of annoying pan-dem old-timers on the campaign trail. To young voters, that’s about as cool as bringing your mother to the school prom.

In an television interview shortly after the by-election, Edward Leung categorically ruled out the possibility of any form of coordination between Hong Kong Indigenous and the pan-dems in the general election, which, unlike the first-past-the-post by-election, operates under a different voting system: proportional representation. To put simply, if, say, 30% of the electorate supports a particular political party, then roughly 30% of the Legco seats will be won by – or “apportioned to” – that party. That means while the pan-dems were able to narrowly hold on to that one seat last Sunday, they stand to lose many more this September as a result of a vote leak to the localists.

Pan-dems struggling to stay relevant

Pro-Beijing camp


The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) ran a clumsy campaign. As a candidate, Holden Chow lacked charisma and his debate performances, including a poorly executed cry scene on television, was at times hard to watch.

DAB also needs to rethink their ground strategy going forward. As much as Edward Leung siphoned off votes from Alvin Yeung, the other five pro-establishment and quasi-independent candidates did exactly the same to Chow. With the Liaison Office (the de facto Chinese consulate in Hong Kong) breathing down their necks, one would expect the “red team” to put out a better coordinated campaign than the one we saw.

Looking ahead, the pro-Beijing camp is not expected to gain much from the Three Kingdoms scenario either. While the infighting within the opposition may shift a seat or two from the traditional pan-dems to the localists in the general election, the vote split will not strengthen parties like DAB under a proportional representation system. In other words, robbing Peter to pay Paul will hardly benefit Mary. What’s more, Hong Kong Indigenous and other localist groups hold the most sway with the youth vote comprising primarily first time voters. The emergence of a new, progressive and highly energized electorate will only hurt the establishment.

Chow's poor acting skill might have cost him the election

Magnet Man


In an episode that is best described as comic relief, a man who wasn’t even part of the race has ended up in the political doghouse. Starring in this sideshow was 21-year-old Oscar Lai, best known for his role as Scholarism’s spokesman and Joshua Wong’s faithful sidekick. During Alvin Yeung’s campaign, Lai stalked the candidate whenever he went and photo-bombed him and his Civic Party colleagues on numerous occasions. One photograph showed a desperate Lai standing on his toes and craning his neck just to get in the frame.

Netizens took notice and mocked the shameless political climber with the nickname “Magnet Man” – the Cantonese phrase for attention seekers who are drawn to the camera lens like moths to a flame, or in less poetic terms, paper clips to a magnet. It is believed that Lai has set his sight on the September election (unlike 19-year-old Joshua Wong, he is old enough to run) and is trying his hardest to sidle up to the pan-dems, including a high profile announcement days before the by-election that he would sever his ties with Scholarism and throw his support behind his new best friend, Yeung. Magnet Man’s not-so-subtle political agenda exposed, the question is whether he can recover in time before the next campaign season begins.

Lai (middle, front) blocking Yeung who was standing behind him

The abstainers


Despite all the drama, comedy and media hoopla, the turnout of the by-election was just over 46%, lower than that of the district elections three months ago. Excusing those who were out of town or infirm, there is really no reason why anyone could spend hours queueing up for a Mark Six lottery ticket but not stop by the voting booth in their own neighborhood on a Sunday to discharge their civic responsibility.

When one in two adults voluntarily gives up his or her most fundamental right as a citizen – the kind of right that tens of thousands slept on the streets for more than 70 days in the fallof 2014 fighting for – the whole city loses.


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This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Who were the winners and losers in the New Territories East by-election?"

As posted on SCMP.com