Published: 00:04, April 22, 2024 | Updated: 09:56, April 22, 2024
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Hong Kong’s party politics take on a new look 
By Lau Siu-kai

Under the leadership of the central government, Hong Kong’s political order and governance structure have undergone fundamental revamping; and the city’s party politics, concomitantly, have undergone earth-shaking changes. Today, the central government actively and effectively exercises its comprehensive jurisdiction over the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The power to govern Hong Kong is firmly in the hands of patriots. The principle of “executive-led governance” has been largely realized. External forces and the anti-China insurrectionists are no longer in the city’s governance structure. The National Security Law for Hong Kong and other local laws have put them on a tight leash. Their room for maneuver will be further restricted after the local legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law is completed. Under the new political landscape, Hong Kong’s party politics have taken on a new look.

Since the 1997 handover and before 2021, the primary manifestation of Hong Kong’s party politics was political chaos. Ferocious and acrimonious fighting between opposition and pro-establishment parties in the Legislative Council and district councils was the norm. The most critical issue between them was the constitutional order of the HKSAR. Opposition parties did not recognize Hong Kong’s constitutional order stipulated in the national Constitution and the Basic Law. They did not acknowledge the central government’s comprehensive jurisdiction over the HKSAR and the legitimacy of its government. With the coaxing, support and instigating of external forces, the opposition forces strived to overthrow Hong Kong’s constitutional order, disrupt its governance, and seize power in the city through intense political struggles, including violent upheavals. For this reason, there was no room for compromise and cooperation between opposition and pro-establishment parties, or between opposition parties and the central government. Party struggles, hence, could only be “zero-sum games” that seriously undermined the city’s governance and stability, and paved the way for external forces to interfere in Hong Kong affairs. This type of party politics is unique worldwide and rare in “normal” nations and regions. The reason is that in other places, all political parties generally recognize the legitimacy of their constitutional structures.

Under the revamped political order and governance structure, Hong Kong’s party politics are once more unique globally. It can thus be coined as “party politics with Hong Kong characteristics”.

First, party politics normally occur in independent nations, but Hong Kong is not an independent country but a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Communist Party of China (CPC) is the ruling party of the PRC, including HKSAR. However, under “one country, two systems”, the CPC does not directly govern Hong Kong. Instead, it confers upon Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. Under the leadership of the CPC, the central government oversees Hong Kong’s political system and appoints the HKSAR’s chief executive — who is elected by a broadly representative Election Committee — and principal officials who are nominated by the chief executive. Under the national Constitution and the Basic Law, the central government enjoys comprehensive jurisdiction over the city, thereby ensuring that the practice of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong complies with the strategic objectives of the ruling Party, the CPC. The constitutional system of the PRC renders it impossible for any Hong Kong political party to become a de facto or de jure “ruling party”. In essence, Hong Kong’s political parties are among the many organizations participating in Hong Kong’s governance or public affairs. Of course, they may have members joining the HKSAR government, the Legislative Council, and district councils, thus giving them greater political stature and influence.

In the context of “patriots administering Hong Kong”, the political parties and the government form a “community of common political destiny”, succeeding and failing together. In the eyes of Hong Kong residents, the HKSAR government and the political parties bear joint responsibility for the performance of the city’s governance

Second, under “executive-led governance”, political parties in Hong Kong cannot be the primary entities governing Hong Kong. The person responsible for Hong Kong’s governance is the chief executive appointed by the central government, who is accountable to and must be loyal to the central government, and who is legally forbidden to have party affiliations. In addition to the chief executive, the principal officials of the city are also appointed by the central government, and most do not have party membership. Those few members with political party backgrounds must be accountable to the central government and the chief executive, and they no longer owe “loyalty” to their political parties.

Third, the influence of political parties within Hong Kong’s governance structure is modest. In the election of the chief executive, only some of the members of the Election Committee are members of political parties. In the Legislative Council elections, only some members elected by the Election Committee and functional constituencies have political party affiliations. In district council elections, party members do indeed have an edge in winning seats in the district elections. However, district councilors elected through district elections account for a meager 20 percent of all district council seats. In other words, after the central government thoroughly revamped Hong Kong’s electoral system, it will be difficult for Hong Kong’s political parties to “monopolize” the opportunities to join the governance system. Hong Kong residents interested in pursuing a political career can do so through official appointments, indirect elections, or political influence through their efforts. There is no absolute need to join a political party. Political parties, therefore, must compete with other social or civic organizations for talent, resources, government recognition and popularity.

Fourth, under “patriots administering Hong Kong”, all political parties are unexceptionally patriotic, loyal to the country and the HKSAR, allegiant to the national Constitution and the Basic Law, and supportive of the CPC. There are few differences in political stances and ideologies between political parties. Although parties may have different views on the further reforms of Hong Kong’s political system, they aren’t irreconcilable differences. Political parties will abstain from using constitutional issues to distinguish themselves and attack their opponents. Naturally, there will be differences between political parties regarding Hong Kong’s governance methods and policy directions. Still, those differences can be reconciled and will not give rise to intense political struggles. In other countries, the differences between political parties are not mainly about constitutional issues. Religion, language, region, ethnicity, gender, values, etc, can be highly divisive and nonnegotiable. Fortunately, these issues are not severe or salient in Hong Kong.

Fifth, political parties’ “representative” function is crucial and indispensable in Hong Kong’s governance. Different political parties represent the interests, views, demands and grievances of various social classes, sectors, professions, industries and social groups. For this reason, on practical issues such as the economy, society, people’s livelihoods, environmental protection, education, housing and land, especially considering that the lingering deep-seated conflicts in Hong Kong are worsening, political parties need to fight for the interests and groups of people they represent to retain their support and recognition. On these practical issues, conflicts and disputes will arise between political parties and between political parties and the government, but they certainly aren’t “zero-sum” games.

Sixth, under the central government’s supervision and the patriotic camp’s oversight, conflicts and disputes between political parties and between political parties and the government will not become acrimonious political conflicts that sow severe social divisions and instability. The central government and patriotic forces will not tolerate any action by political parties that evinces parochialism and fuels political unrest; hence, doing so will jeopardize their political future. At the same time, big parties must not bully small parties and independents because this is incongruent with the political ethics of “patriots administering Hong Kong”. Instead, “gentlemanly contest” is the norm in Hong Kong’s party politics. The reason the relationship between political parties is mainly based on cooperation and supplemented by competition is that it is necessary to prevent hostile forces, both internal and external, from taking advantage of interparty rivalry and spawning unrest.

Seventh, while political parties represent different interests and aspirations, under the banner of “patriots administering Hong Kong”, the central government still hopes that all the political parties can focus more on the overall situation and cater to the collective interests of Hong Kong. Through cooperation and consultation in the spirit of “mutual understanding and mutual accommodation”, political parties can play the vital political functions of “interest articulation” and “interest aggregation”. Doing so, they help the HKSAR government formulate policies conducive to social stability and political trust. Of course, as the one with primary responsibility for governing Hong Kong, the HKSAR government has an even more critical responsibility to aggregate and reconcile the interests of all social sectors.

Eighth, as organizations that participate in politics or assist in governance, Hong Kong’s political parties must do an excellent job of supervising the government by the requirements of the Basic Law and actively offer sound advice to the government. Of course, these tasks must be undertaken rationally, peacefully, with goodwill, constructively, and practically. The achievements of different political parties in performing these tasks are an essential criterion for the central government and Hong Kong residents to rate the quality of governance. The HKSAR government should show openness and humility, encourage and accept criticism, and facilitate the oversight of political parties and their members in the Legislative Council and district councils. To better fulfill their responsibilities, political parties must significantly improve their policy and public opinion research capabilities and strengthen their connections with all quarters of society. The relationship between political parties and the government entails cooperation, mutual solicitude, friendly criticism, and advice-giving. In the context of “patriots administering Hong Kong”, the political parties and the government form a “community of common political destiny”, succeeding and failing together. In the eyes of Hong Kong residents, the HKSAR government and the political parties bear joint responsibility for the performance of the city’s governance.

Ninth, another critical task for Hong Kong political parties, especially those with a mass base, is to organize and expand the social support base for patriotic forces. Through electoral, political and policy mobilization, regular contacts, and service delivery, political parties can make more and more people accept Hong Kong’s new constitutional order and trust the HKSAR government, fortifying and enlarging the foundation of “patriots administering Hong Kong”.

Tenth, through their connections with the education, culture, art, media and other sectors, political parties can actively work in the ideological and cultural arenas encompassing national education, constitutional and Basic Law education, and national security education. Their endeavors in these areas will help foment strong national identification and public immunity to the ideological suasion of internal and external hostile forces.

Finally, the attacks, smearing and isolation of Hong Kong by external forces, especially the United States and other Western forces, will intensify in the years ahead. They will ramp up efforts to demean China, the HKSAR and its government both within Hong Kong and internationally. An increasingly important function of Hong Kong’s political parties is thus to compete with external forces online and offline for “discourse power” on significant issues such as “one country, two systems”, “the central government’s comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong”, “national security” and “a high degree of autonomy”, and to inoculate Hong Kong residents from being misled and divided. Political parties have more advantages and flexibility in these efforts than the central and HKSAR governments.

All in all, in the context of “one country, two systems” and “patriots administering Hong Kong”, “party politics with Hong Kong characteristics” is not only different from the antagonistic party politics of other countries but also unique regarding interparty relationships and the relationship between political parties and the government. Interparty concord, mutual trust, and cooperation between parties and the government are testaments that party politics in Hong Kong are not tethered to prioritizing self-interest but also serve the common good.  

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong; and consultant of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.