The Hong Kong CE Election

This is still the pre-election season, so it is understandable that the English-language press is treating the current campaigns of Lee Wing-tat (DP) and Chim Pui-chung with a big yawn.  For events prior to this update, please see the previous post Small Circle Electoral Politics (May 11, 2005). 

For your entertainment, the following no-bars-hold appeared in the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao (via Yahoo! News):

[translation]  Yesterday, in the corridor of the Legislative Council, legislative councilor Albert Cheng King-hon was asked if he would nominate Financial sector legislator councilor Chim Pui-chung and he said: "Stupid!  Why would I nominate him?"  Cheng said that he had no choice but to nominate interim Chief Executive Donald Tsang, "Do you expect me to support Lee Wing-tat or Chim Pui-chung?  If I support Lee Wing-tat or Chim Pui-chung, I might as well as immigrate tomorrow.  Would you like me to immigrate tomorrow?"

Cheng volunteered that Lee Wing-tat promised on a Sunday radio talk show that the Democratic Party will not hurl invectives to gain media exposure.  In other words, this meant that Lee has admitted to using such tactics in the past and this was a case of "attacking their previous selves."  Cheng complained that Lee Wing-tat has demeaned the Democratic Party's past criticisms of the government as 'hurling invectives', thereby shortchanging the Democratic Party.  Cheng said that Lee had sold out in order to run for the Chief Executive, "If I were a member of the Democratic Party, I would be mad at him.  I am also aware that some members are mad."

Cheng pointed out that Lee Wing-tat said all opposition members are romantics because what they say before they gain power is different from they will do afterwards.  Cheng said, "You [Lee Wing-tat] may be like that, but I am not!"  He said that if Lee wanted to run in an election, he would run to win and not diminish himself.  "I have never seen a candidate like this one.  There are problems with his quality!"

Lee declined to comment on any of Albert Cheng's criticisms.

By comparison, Chan Wai-yip was 'gentler,' but only to the extent that he declined to name names to his vitriolic criticisms:

[translation]  Independent democrat and former Democratic Party Chan Wai-yip does not preclude the possibility that he would nominate Donald Tsang depending on the platform.  "There are some people whom I know too well, and I don't think he is suitable.  There are some people that whom I don't know too well, so there might still be hope."  He declined to indicate whether he knew Lee Wing-tat too well, but reiterated that (1) he did not know Donald Tsang too well and (2) he will not nominate someone that is not suitable.

Uh huh ... I think I got the message ...

Earlier, Lee Wing-tat attended a New Century Forum and was quizzed by the attendees (see Oriental Daily via Yahoo! News).  The most substantive question is this one:

[translation]  "You have no governing experience.  You don't get along with the central government.  Why should the citizens support you?  Why should the electors support you?"

Lee Wing-tat replied that when Tung Chee-hwa was elected Chief Executive, he had no prior government experience.  He admits that he has inadequacies and that he does not have the trust of the central government.

It is perhaps too abstract to talk about Lee Wing-tat not getting along with the central government.  It was worthwhile to recount an incident earlier this year (see Ming Pao via Yahoo! News).  The following is a very loose analysis.

[translation]  In September 2004, a Democratic Party district councilor Alex Ho was arrested in Dongguan, China on moral charges (see previous post The Headline News In Hong Kong - Part 4) and sentenced to six months of labor reform.  In December 2004, Lee Wing-tat became chairman of the Democratic Party, and one of his immediate problem was to seek an early release for Alex Ho.

Who could he call?  His rolodex had no names of anyone in China who can help him.

He called three people: one was known to be Allen Lee, the past chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party in Hong Kong; another was a member of the People Congress Political Consultative Committee and was thought to be Ma Lik, the chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment party in Hong Kong; the third was a "friend of friends of China."

There was and is no direct contact between the Democratic Party and the central government.  The Democratic Party has to rely on intermediaries, who may or may not forward the message, or perhaps distort it in the process. 

Imagine how Lee Wing-tat is going to function as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

Apart from entertainment, there is an essay by a CUHK professor Chan Kin-man on April 30 (Ming Pao via Yahoo! News).  This long essay gives an analytical framework in which the nasty little pieces before can be situated.

[translation]  Democratic Party chairman Lee Wing-tat entered the election for the Chief Executive position in Hong Kong.  This has caused debate among the democratic camp.  There are some who considered it a contradiction for the democrats who have fought for direct elections on hand and now entering the 'small circle' election.  Individual democratic legislators said that they would only want to be the opposition party, and they were cool towards Lee's cabinet concept.  There are others who think that the Democratic Party is ill-qualified, and refused to work under their banner.

In the book The Third Wave, Professor Huntingdon pointed out that the democratic movements since the 1970s rarely depended on mass movements overthrowing dictatorships.  Most instances of democratization were led by liberal elite in the system leading to reform, or else democratization was brought about by pressure from the opposition.  Spain's King Juan Carlos and Premier Adolfo Suárez, Taiwan's Lee Teng-hui, Russia's Mikhail Gobachev and many south American military government leaders pushed to democratic reform within the system.

In Hong Kong, with the past 20 years, the democrats have participated in a an effectively powerless distinct council election and a 'small circle' election based upon functional constituencies for the same reasons.  Even though the district councilors and the legislative councilors have limited influence within the system, they can stir up awareness of democracy in the election process (especially the directly elected portion of the legislative council), and thereby obtain the support of voters and consolidate the acceptability of the yearning for democracy.

The problem is that the Chief Executive election is not the legislative council election and there is no likelihood for winning.  So what is the meaning of participation?  Perhaps, we should review the historical strategic successes and failures of the democrats and then we can study this problem.

After Tung Chee-hwa became Chief Executive, he had a fall out with the democrats and he marginalized them in the system.  Thereafter, he used the official accountability system and the unified the government to exclude the democrats, thus making the latter become the opposition which posed obstacles on all important political issues for the government.  These kinds of "exclusionary politics" may work in some democratic countries (such as the United Kingdom and the United States), but it only damaged the legitimacy of the Tung Chee-hwa government during the process.

Faced with a weak government, the confrontational attitude of the democrats led to a crisis in governance, and highlighted the flaw in the political system -- the lack of a party political system, the tensions between administration and legislation and between the government and society could not be relieved.  Through the efforts of the democrats and civic organizations, many more citizens have recognized the demand for democracy and their involvement has expanded the base for democratization.

As a result of the social mobilization, the central government stopped direct elections for 2007/2008.  The heart of the matter was that the central government does not trust the political loyalty and the administrative capabilities of the democrats, and they were concerned that direct elections may lead to the democrats creating chaos in Hong Kong.  Actually, these kinds of worries are common among the Hong Kong middle-class people, who believe that although the democrats tried hard to defend Hong Kong core values such as freedom, the rule of law and justice, they lack the talented people who can administer a government.  In the 2003 district council elections, many voters cast votes for the democrats just to say no to the pro-government camp.  In the 2004 legislative council election, this ratio slipped so that there was the support for the democrats had not increased largely.  Opinion polls also showed that even as Tung Chee-hwa's popularity slipped, the confidence of the citizens about the political parties was also at a nadir.

The importance placed by the citizens on administration is seen in the performance of Donald Tsang in the opinion polls.  Other than beating back the financial sharks during the financial crisis, most citizens cannot describe any of Tsang's accomplishments.  Both his political reform program and the West Kowloon Cultural District projects were flawed, but his popularity always stood high enough to make it a curiosity.  On one hand, it may reflect the nostalgia of many people for the colonial era; on the other hand, the Chief Secretary's stance of "less politics, more administration" may fit the pragmatic preferences of many Hong Kong people.

During the recent debate over the interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People's Congress about the length of term of the Chief Executive, the citizens were indifferent, and many people supported the use of the interpretation to put a stop to the dispute.  This shows that many people have seen too many political arguments and are longing for calmer days.  Most people want most urgently to see an improvement in the quality of government administration, and this was the reason why the central government let Tung go and supported Tsang now.

In a situation when the people are asking for better governance, it will take more than civic organizations applying pressure in order to advance the democratic movement.  The democrats must show the will and ability to become the government, and let the citizens feel that democratization will bring real choices.  Under this viewpoint, the democrats will participate in this election of the Chief Executive not to create a miracle by getting elected and not to expose the absurdity of 'small circle' elections.  While being watched by the central government and the citizens of Hong Kong, the democrats must show that they can surpass the political ideas of opposition and that they have leadership class.  To achieve these goals, they must not continue to engagethe same old political issues (such as the interpretation of the Basic Law by the NPC and direct elections in 2007/2008), and they must offer new ideas on social and political policies.  The election campaign team must exhibit professionalism and the campaign tactics must be moderate and restrained.  Even if they lose, they must will gain the respect of the citizens.

It seems difficult to accomplish these objectives with Lee Wing-tat and the Democratic Party.  The Article 45 Concern Group, some other respected legislative councilors and citizens must join this election campaign team.  But the democratic camp includes no former government officials and no business sector leaders, and it is difficult for them to come up with a cabinet that has the ability to govern.  The democrats will only be able to use this election to inform the citizens about their sincerity and concepts on governing, and to wash away their image of "oppose everything from the government" and "politics by sloganeering."

At a deeper level, faced with a new Chief Executive who has better administrative ability and higher popular support, what strategies must the democrats adopt to interact with the government afterwards in order to avoid a lose-lose situation?  The answer to this question will affect how the democrats ought to look at this particular Chief Executive election.  My colleague Choi Tse-keung told me, "If the democrats participate in the election, the most important thing is not what to write in the entry speech, but what to write in the concession speech."

How will the democrats handle Donald Tsang?  Will it be total negativity and opposition until the day that democracy arrives?  Or will they seek to open up more space for political reform through tactical cooperation with the new government to improve the administration of Hong Kong?  We should be able to get some hints by looking at the election strategies of the democrats.