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Thursday, June 03, 2021, 00:23
Democratic Party could avoid political irrelevance via reform
By Junius Ho and Kacee Ting Wong
Thursday, June 03, 2021, 00:23 By Junius Ho and Kacee Ting Wong

After the introduction of electoral reforms to ensure a system of “patriots governing Hong Kong”, the Democratic Party faces a watershed moment whether to participate in future Legislative Council and Election Committee elections. To avoid its descent into political irrelevance in Hong Kong, the DP should listen to the advice offered by Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing and director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies. 

Tian suggested that the DP purge its own organization to rid itself of radical elements and redefine its political platform. A purge and a reformulation of party policies may raise the patriotic profile of the party to enable it to meet the patriotic test set by the central authorities. But Tian warned that the DP should avoid a sudden change of policies.

A purge has an added appeal to the party because local public opinion has recently shifted toward an emphasis on the need for a better understanding of Hong Kong’s obligation to safeguard national security — away from the previous tolerance of the use of radical confrontational tactics to promote democratic ideas. As Tian opined, Hong Kong residents will understand the new situation, though a turnaround may incur the wrath of some supporters.

Formed in 1994, the DP was the most influential “pan-democratic” party in Hong Kong from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. It used reasoned debate within the system and extra-institutional mass organization to campaign for democratization. Though it is a local party, the DP, under the influence of the late Szeto Wah, is also interested in promoting democracy on the Chinese mainland. Its relatively moderate political stance, together with a willingness to engage in dialogue with the central authorities, set the stage for a secret meeting between Li Gang, the then-deputy director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the leaders of the DP in May 2010. 

Unlike the DP, the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats were not interested in negotiating with the central authorities. To distance itself from the moderate DP, the League of Social Democrats called for the resignation of five “pan-democratic” legislators in July 2009 in order to offer an opportunity for Hong Kong citizens to show their support for universal suffrage with their vote in an ad hoc election. Tanya Chan Suk-chong of the CP was among the lawmakers who resigned. They called the process a de facto referendum. They hoped that many voters would vote on this issue and return the five “pan-democrats” to the legislature, with the aim of piling pressure on the central and HKSAR governments to accelerate democratization in Hong Kong. The CP is also fond of using confrontational tactics to advocate their democratic ideas.

The DP has felt a cold shudder bristle down its spine since the “localists” emerged as an influential political force in Hong Kong. Some “localist” groups seem to have reaped most of the upside from the “Umbrella Movement” of 2014 by promoting radical political ideas and adopting a “localist” agenda. Many “localists” have different political viewpoints from the DP, and they advocate the “right of Hong Kongers to self-determination”. A few radicals even advocate the independence of Hong Kong.

The unwillingness of the DP to distance itself from the violent protesters and rioters during the 2019 anti-extradition campaign clearly demonstrates how the radicals led the DP by the nose. Though the DP realized that the situation was dire after the promulgation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong in June 2020, few were prepared for the rigorous enforcement that followed

Following the “Umbrella Movement”, a number of “localist” political parties were formed, organizing protests and participating in the Legislative Council election. They won six seats in the 2016 Legislative Council Election. Because of their improper oath-taking, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Lau Siu-lai, Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching were unseated from the LegCo. Nevertheless, the DP has found it difficult to win the backing of radical supporters.

The unwillingness of the DP to distance itself from the violent protesters and rioters during the 2019 anti-extradition campaign clearly demonstrates how the radicals led the DP by the nose. Though the DP realized that the situation was dire after the promulgation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong in June 2020, few were prepared for the rigorous enforcement that followed. Earlier this year, four DP lawmakers — Andrew Wan Siu-kin, Lam Cheuk-ting, Helena Wong Pik-wan and Wu Chi-wai — were among the 47 opposition activists charged with subversion for taking part in an unofficial primary poll to shortlist candidates for the upcoming LegCo election, with the declared ultimate objective of toppling the SAR government. Another rising star of the party, Ted Hui Chi-fung, is now in self-imposed exile after his withdrawal from the DP in December. 

With the benefit of hindsight, the DP made a strategic error by affiliating itself with the radical “localists” and protesters in the past few years. It is no longer an influential political force in Hong Kong. It appears that the DP may have labored under the mistaken belief that only radical confrontational tactics could force Beijing to accommodate their political demands. As important as the above miscalculation was, factors such as the fear of alienating radical supporters and the strength of the radical elements within the DP were likely to have exerted pressure on the DP to seek a damaging accommodation with the “localists” and militants.

To return from the cliff edge, the DP should take Tian’s advice to launch a purge and amend its political platforms. It came as no surprise that Lo Kin-hei, the chairman of the DP, reacted negatively to Tian’s advice in mid-May. In an earlier remark, Emily Lau Wai-hing told her DP colleagues not to run in “meaningless elections with new rules that were too degrading and humiliating to the opposition”. Lau still has many followers in the DP.

Preoccupied with the Western-propagated “input legitimacy” principle, some pro-Western DP leaders believe that the DP’s participation in the election will legitimize the polls and the HKSAR government. But the new chief executive and the new 90-member Legislative Council will probably be more interested in “output legitimacy”. Following the successful Chinese governance model, they will try their best to achieve citizens’ goals and solve their problems effectively and efficiently. Frank Schimmelfennig is one of the famous proponents of the theory of output legitimacy. The DP should not exaggerate its role in legitimizing the polls.

Most importantly, playing by the new electoral rules is the only feasible way for it to ensure the voice of the DP is still heard and impose a modicum of accountability on the government. It does not make sense for the DP to forsake this opportunity and allow other moderate democrats to fill the gap. The Third Side and the Path of Democracy are ready to participate in the forthcoming LegCo election. Far from being a departure from its raison d’etre, an amendment of its platforms will allow the DP to rectify its strategic errors and regain the trust of the central authorities. A purge will convince the central authorities that the DP is a patriotic party.

Junius Ho is a Legislative Council member and a solicitor.

Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister and a part-time researcher at Shenzhen University Hong Kong and Macao Basic Law Research Center.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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