Between a rock and a hard place — Hong Kong’s democrats

Foreign Affairs

A view of Hong Kong politics in the wake of the pan-democratic primaries and recent postponement of the Legislative Council elections.

Hong Kong people line up to vote in primary elections 2020
People line up to vote in the pro-democracy primary election on July 12. REUTERS/Lam Yik

To say that Hong Kong’s democrats are in a tough spot would be a slight understatement. A little over three weeks ago, the democrats in the city held their primaries for the September Legislative Council elections. Criticized by pro-Establishment forces and Beijing for being an ostensible “provocation” of the current electoral system, the pan-democratic camp sought to generate viable candidates that would receive the blessing of its primary electorate, in preparation for the official race, originally scheduled for September 6 (since postponed to next year). With a historic total of more than  610,000 voters participating in the primaries, the event welcomed a wide spectrum of contenders, ranging from moderate anti-Establishment figures to outspoken ethnic minority advocates to radicals and localists, with the latter drawing support primarily from Hong Kong’s politically fervent youth.

Traditional democrats floundered, as compared with newer-generation democratic lawmakers and localist activists who had featured far more prominently, and were perceived as thus having contributed more, under the public spotlight over the anti-extradition bill protests. Many within the pan-democratic base saw the meeker, subdued responses of the “old hacks” during the movement as signs of weakness, capitulation to the authorities, and fundamental deviance from the movement. Existing animosity toward the elder democrats — for their alleged moral prudishness and inefficacy — manifested in the poor performances of lawmakers typecast as reticent and “conservative” — such as Dr. Helena Wong Pik-Wan, widely panned for her alleged lack of involvement with the movement (despite her issuing a plethora of strongly worded public statements in the past), and the longstanding, “first-generation radical” Leung Kwok Hung.

What was more striking about the results, though, was that the eminent emphasis upon divisions along party lines had significantly declined over the past year. Historically, localists in Hong Kong — proponents of more radical, Hong Kong-centric ideology, coupled with a fundamental rejection of mainland Chinese presence in the city — had been fervent critics of lawmakers who aligned themselves with the Democratic and Civic Parties, the core pillars of the colloquially named “Democratic Mainstream.” Similarly, supporters of traditional democratic parties had largely viewed the surging, radical parties and entities (e.g., the League of Social Democrats, Civic Passion, and Hong Kong Indigenous) with skepticism and wariness — with many alleging that these were “plants” installed to disrupt the city’s path toward democracy. The past year of protests and unrest in the city has, at least superficially, reconciled the two factions: the primaries attested to this, with younger faces within the Democratic Party, such as Ted Hui Chi-fung and Kwong Chun-yu, taking by storm their respective primaries. “Radical” candidates — including those who have previously voiced support for secessionism — also ascended in mainstream popularity, with candidates such as Sunny Cheung and Joshua Wong pulling ahead in the traditionally more moderate constituencies of Kowloon West and East, respectively.

Previous democratic primaries had offered opportunities for the pan-democratic camp to filter out candidates that lacked substantive manifestos, clearly articulated visions, and detailed policies. Yet their largely advisory, even ceremonial, role meant that they had struggled to reflect the zeitgeist when they were held. In stark contrast, the recently concluded primaries featured minimal specific policy discussion — indeed, candidates who had sought to advance more progressive, redistributive, and egalitarian policies for ethnic minorities and working-class individuals (including social worker Jeffrey Andrews and former flight attendant Carol Ng) found themselves outperformed vastly by individuals with more conspicuously anti-China rhetoric.

Some may say that such is the inevitable, in light of the recent events that had befallen Hong Kong. Yet perhaps there is something rather poignant about the state of politics in the city today, when the preoccupation with a single question — the Chinese question — has crowded out any and all room for potential nuance and discussion over other issues of grave concern to Hong Kong citizens.

The preoccupation with a single question — the Chinese question — has crowded out any and all room for potential nuance and discussion over other issues of grave concern to Hong Kong citizens.

It was unsurprising that the pro-Beijing establishment took to zealously admonishing these primaries, portraying them as subversive and a continuation of academic Benny Tai’s alleged plans to incite against Hong Kong’s law and order. On the other hand, many of the more vocal writers, activists, and politicians within the pan-democratic camp portrayed the primaries as a win for democracy.

Yet, as the following will show, the primaries have also left Hong Kong’s Democrats — particularly the more moderate, reserved amongst them, who had traditionally fronted the camp’s Legislative Council presence — in a rather difficult spot. Proverbially, they’re caught between the rock of increasingly tightened redlines and the hard place of losing popular support from the preponderant radicals within the camp.

The National Security Law was passed at the end of June, explicitly outlawing “any act of treason or subversion,” “theft of state secrets,” “foreign political organizations or bodies conducting political activities in the Region,” and local entities “establishing ties with foreign political bodies.” Beijing saw passing the law as a necessary move in establishing the boundaries and laying down the law in the city. Yet inevitably, for the democrats — who have historically relied greatly upon international lobbying and persuasion — the law signals that they could no longer afford to disregard the legal consequences of their advocacy and ideology. In order to keep one foot through the door, democrats are effectively compelled to accede to critical national security baselines, which many of their supporters — out of ideological frenzy or broader concerns over implementation — outright reject. Just this past week, prospective candidates were asked to declare that they are no longer affiliated with causes deemed to be secessionist and disruptive to public order — including the much-maligned Hong Kong independence movement. Accepting the intactness of One Country, severing ties with secessionist ideology and rhetoric — these moves could well be necessary on the candidates’ part, should they seek to remain in the game.

Whether or not these candidates can successfully galvanize the radicals within the movement remains unknown. Indeed, the most extreme amongst the radicals have sought to boycott the primaries and declined to pledge their allegiance to the Basic Law. The more moderate and pragmatic these candidates are — in accepting and adhering to the baselines stipulated by Beijing — the less likely it is that they could successfully win over the ideologically frenzied. The more radical and bellicose their rhetoric is, the more likely it is that they would be disqualified for transgressing the redlines of Beijing. Hence, democratic lawmakers must grapple with the real challenges of preserving their critical stance toward China without being thereby disqualified from the race. At times when bombastic rhetoric is rewarded over substantive policies, and where taking a trenchant stance on Hong Kong’s relationship with its country is a prerequisite to gaining any electoral traction, candidates may be damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Yet this isn’t just about positions or rhetoric. Underlying this all is a fundamental quandary over methodology. While Beijing views the recent six months of legal-cum-institutional adjustments in the city as a reset button, many in the city are perhaps alarmed by the increasingly reduced room for political maneuvering and opposition.

Democrats have historically pursued the path of resisting from within, a vision that is perhaps best epitomized currently by their plan to secure over 50% of the seats in the pro-Beijing-dominated Legislative Council. The original plan — at least until recently — was for the lawmakers to wield the majority to sabotage the Policy Address’s passage, thereby assuring that their political demands could be met. Yet the apparently devastating consequences of “35+,” coupled with an increasingly hostile international environment toward China, has certainly touched many nerves up north. Beijing has openly condemned the “35+” strategy, as the plan has become known colloquially.

It’d be premature to write off Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, just yet.

A pan-democratic friend confided in me the other day that most democrats see their options as a fork with two equally unpalatable options. One of the forks, they suggest, would be to fold and “capitulate,” and for the democrats to thereby become a part of the political establishment. This would constitute a betrayal of their “core values,” but also of their supporters. More importantly, this appears to defeat the whole point of the pan-democratic camp, in their eyes. Yet it also seems somewhat inevitable, given the city’s political trajectory.

The other path, however, would be one where they “stood their ground” and sought to oppose the establishment through means beyond the law. As I put to them the observation that such a move not only would risk their own career, but also lead to further repudiation and tightening, they shrugged, “What gives? It can’t get worse anyway.”

So I put to them my personal two cents — two cents that may well be the product of sheer idealism.

Politics in Hong Kong has always been impossible. The city, as a collective, is caught between the rock of its democratic aspirations and the hard place of its being a constituent part of a far larger country — indeed, the second-largest economy in the world — with political institutions that are both impenetrable and vastly distinct from Hong Kong’s. As the Cold War looms and political paranoia from all parties runs high, Democrats in Hong Kong have a Mission Impossible — they must demonstrate how and why democracy in Hong Kong, alongside a more accountable, transparent, and open-minded government, is compatible with Beijing’s interests.

The second path of the dilemma is, in many ways, a non-starter. As the past year has shown, attempts to “shock” the behemothic system into responding differently have only led to a backsliding of Hong Kong further away from the values it espouses. Establishment figures view Hong Kong today as ripe for “law and order” to be restored, but I’m far less optimistic.

Yet pursuing the first path, of seeking reform and changes within the establishment, should not and need not equate to sycophancy and obsequiousness. Democrats must understand the target of their advocacy, and make the pragmatic case that democracy neither upsets Beijing’s interests in the city nor entails all the spillover harms about which the Central Administration is concerned. Hong Kong’s distinct cultural values and political norms render it the ripe site for political experimentation — how such experimentation plays out, whom this experiment benefits, these are all questions that desperately await an answer. To make the democratic case from within is not easy, but could well become a matter of necessity, as Hong Kong enters a new era in its political developments.

Pursuing this path is easier said than done. Democrats must cater to the sentiments and skepticism of their own electorate. They must also learn to navigate the complex quagmire that is Beijing-Hong Kong’s central-periphery tensions, and work within the redlines set up by Beijing. This is a gargantuan undertaking, as demonstrated by the recent disqualifications of 12 legislators (with more to come). Above all, they must find ways to dodge daggers from opportunistic knaves from all sides — those who seek to bury them under the weight of populist, flamboyant rhetoric, and then those who seek to court political favor through performative loyalty.

Indeed, the Legislative Council elections have been postponed in the name of the city’s anti-coronavirus efforts — though many suspect this delay to be, in fact, propelled by ulterior political motives: with the Establishment feeling threatened by the prospects of a repeat of their hemorrhagic defeat at the democrats’ hands last November, a postponement only seems to be all too convenient for the political fortunes of many who bear the brunt of the social movement’s anger. The future of Hong Kong politics remains largely behind a thick veil of uncertainty. One could indeed say that the prognosis is grim.

It’d be premature to write off Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, just yet. This is a city of 7.4 million diverse, vibrant, intelligent, and wonderful people. It’s the home to many — with divergent political ideals, origins, and beliefs. Yet the path forward for democrats isn’t going to be easy. At times, luck and hope could well run out. At other times, compromises and sacrifices must be made. But I’d like to think that this path could at least be worth another try — for a better Hong Kong, for all.