Small Circle Electoral Politics

Presently, in Hong Kong, the election of the Chief Executive is determined by an Election Committee of 800 members.  These 800 members have not been elected in direct proportion to the general population of 3.2 million eligible voters.  Instead, the 800 members were elected from various functional constituencies (such as religious groups, educators, accountants, medical workers, etc) with a total base of only several hundred thousand.  This system has therefore been called a 'small circle' election.

The next election for the Chief Executive will take place on July 10.  So far, the only declared candidate is Lee Wing-tat, the chairman of the Democratic Party.  Lee is trailing far and behind the as-yet-unannounced interim Chief Executive Donald Tsang (see the previous Hong Kong By The Numbers).

It is commonly supposed that the 'small circle' of the Election Committee is heavily loaded with special interest groups and therefore unfavorable to democrats who count on broad grassroots support.  The popular opinion polls gives Lee Wing-tat about a 1% support, which means 8 votes out of 800 in a proportionate and directly elected Election Committee.  Yet, Lee Wing-tat is fighting to get the 100 votes (=12.5%) needed to secure a nomination in order to run in the actual election.  It will therefore be ironic that the 'small circle' of the Election Committee may indeed yield an unrepresentative result, but in a totally opposite direction if Lee should get those 100 votes.

Why should a democrat enter this 'small circle' election?  One of the reasons was that he/she can use the opportunity to demonstrate the absurdity of this system and thereby generate more support for direction elections.  This point has received much attention in the past.

There is a more glaring point from the Lee Wing-tat's current position.  The issue is this: In the September 2004 election for the Legislative Council, the pan-democratic camp won about 60% of the popular vote and this would indicate broad support.  So how is that the Democratic Party for the Chief Executive position has a support of 1% at this time?  Is Lee Wing-tat, the chairman of the Democratic Party, a weak candidate?  In the poll cited in the post Hong Kong By The Numbers, the support levels for the next Chief Executive were:

This is not just about Lee Wing-tat, because any other pan-democratic camp member would have received a low number as well.  This is the much larger problem for the future of the pan-democratic camp.

Here, an essay that appeared about two weeks ago in Ming Pao (via Yahoo! News) is highly relevant.  It is written by Chan Kin-man, an associate professor at the Department of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  The title of the essay is "Why is the purpose of Lee Wing-tat entering the election?"  I am going to summarize the presentation in the following.  Let me state that this is my interpretation; so the best ideas came from Chan Kin-man, and I may have butchered them here and that will be completely my fault.  I have added my own thoughts, so don't blame it on him either.

How did we arrive at this point?  A history lesson is required.  A short while after Tung Chee-hwa became the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong, he fell out with the democrats and marginalized them within the system.  This had the effect of turning the democrats into a minority opposition force that raised obstacles for the government on important political matters.  While such exclusionary politics can be practiced when the government is strong, it damaged the less-than-popular Tung Chee-hwa government.  In the latter Tung years, more citizens joined in the movement for democracy.

This social mobilization only resulted in the central government blocking direct elections for 2007/2008.  The key was that the central government did not trust the political loyalty and administrative ability of the democrats, who may make a mess of Hong Kong if they should ever take over via direct elections.  This kind of concern is actually quite common within the Hong Kong middle-class.  While people believe that the democrats are good at fighting for core values such as freedom, the rule of law and justice, their talents for administration and governance have been lacking so far.

The importance placed by the public on administration and governance can also be seen in Donald Tsang's very high public poll numbers.  Most citizens cannot actually name anything Tsang has accomplished, with perhaps the exception of his staving off the big speculators during the financial crisis.  Tsang has also made missteps on political reforms and the West Kowloon Cultural District project, and yet he continues to surprise people with those kinds of high poll numbers.  Above all, it is Tsang's role as an administrator who represents "less politics and more administration" that appeals to the people's preference for a pragmatic government.

To advance the democratic movement, it is not enough to have civil organizations continue to apply pressure.  The democrats must also show the will and ability to govern, so that the citizens feel that democratization will lead to a real choice.  Under this vision, the democrats enter this election for the Chief Executive not to hope for an electoral miracle, nor are they there to show the absurdity of 'small circle' electoral politics.  Rather, they are supposed to show that they have political ideas as well as leadership qualities, for the central government and the people to see.  In order to accomplish this, they cannot just re-cycle political issues (such as the interpretation of the Basic Law or the 2007/2008 direct elections), but they must also offer news ideas on social and economic policies.

Presently, Lee Wing-tat and the Democratic Party cannot achieve this goal.  They need the participation of the Article 45 Concern Group, other respected Legislative Councilors and members of society to join the election team.  But the democratic camp does not any include any former senior government officials, and they don't have any prominent business leaders.  It is difficult to come up with a cabinet that will have the ability to administer and govern (see the bloody details in my previous post The Disappearance of the Shadow Cabinet).  So the most that the democrats can do during this election is to express their sincerity and ideals, and wash away their image of "opposing everything that the government proposes" and "politics by sloganeering."

Lee Wing-tat has been presenting his policy platform to the public.  The media report these key platform points: strive for direct elections in 2007; defend "one country two systems"; protect human rights and judiciary independence; universal education; rational use of health/medical resources; promote fair competition; reduce unemployment; assisting the poor; promoting gender equality; protecting the environment; etc.  I am sorry, but the message is totally not getting through to me.  Hey, I can be running with these points too, and I can add another dozen more -- reduce taxes for the middle-class; increase government revenues; increase welfare payments to families in need; increase the monthly 'candy' money given to senior citizens; impose minimum wage; impose maximum working hours; end racial discrimination; reduce class sizes in schools; improve teacher quality; reduce university tuition fees; provide high-paying jobs for all those who want to work; reduce public transportation fares; make sure that Hong Kong Disneyland will turn a profit for the government; end all collusion between government officials and businessmen; end all triad extortions; arrest all the trail robbers; etc.  But I don't have a clue how to fulfill these promises.  All of these things cost money, and I have no idea how to pay for them.  Some of these things may also erode other core values (for example, I can make it easier to arrest triad members at the cost of eroding freedom).  You shouldn't believe me until I can prove to you that I am able to do so.

Here is how a mathematician would have analyzed the situation.  Let us assume that direct elections will be held in 2007 for the Chief Executive and in 2008 for the Legislative Council.  These are the two elected branches of the government: the administrative (headed by the Chief Executive) and the legislative ones.  There can only be four possible outcomes:

Uggghhh!  None of these scenarios have virtues.  If you accept the assumption that there is no qualified democrat for the Chief Executive position, then Scenarios B and D are the most likely outcomes.  If you think that Scenario D is a zoo right now, wait till you see Scenario B. 

The dynamics can be completely changed if there is some way for the democrats to produce viable candidates for the Chief Executive.  There isn't any now.  The campaign of Lee Wing-tat simply proves this point.  So they better start figuring how to identify and nurture these people.  They have some time, because the elections will actually not be held in 2007/2008, but in 2012 instead.  But they can't hang around sniping at each other as before, because they can't afford to be in the same situation when 2012 comes around.