To stay or go: Hong Kong democrats debate their options in sad exit for the ‘class of 2016’

©Hong Kong Free Press

Prospects looked bright for Hong Kong’s newly elected pro-democracy legislators when they debated among themselves the pros and cons of staging an inaugural protest during the October 2016 swearing-in ceremony.

Like-minded candidates had done much better than expected in the Legislative Council (LegCo) election a month before. Their success gave added impetus to the hopes of young novice politicians at the start of the council’s 2016-2020 term.

October 2016: oath-taking

Voters and candidates had been energised by Hong Kong’s long-running debate over universal suffrage elections for the entire legislature and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, culminating in the 2014 Occupy Movement. Beijing promised such elections as part of the agreements made when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching during their oath-taking. Photo: LegCo.

Meanwhile, a younger generation had grown up and reinforced their elders’ impatience with Beijing’s decades-long delays and excuses – and growing intrusions into the autonomy Hong Kong had also been promised.

In the 2016 election, pro-Beijing candidates had campaigned on a platform that condemned the Occupy street blockades two years before, and called on voters to punish the perpetrators. But the call fell on deaf ears. Voters chose not to remember.

Instead, they elected several young candidates who had vowed to bring the protest movement from the streets into the Legislative Council chamber itself. This some of them immediately did, by embellishing their swearing-in oaths with slogans and gestures that violated all the norms of parliamentary decorum.

That protest, on October 12, marked the beginning of the end for the class of 2016. The central government in Beijing responded immediately with a decision on oath-taking, issued by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC). The repercussions have only just ended after four years of court judgements, special elections, and procedural rulings.

National People’s Congress. File Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

As a net result of the government’s selective prosecutions, democrats eventually lost six of the seats they had won in September 2016, in what became known as the oath-taking saga.

Hong Kong’s legislature has a total of 70 seats including those both directly and indirectly elected. This simulated “two house” arrangement – between geographic and functional Constituencies – is written into Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law constitution and was designed to minimise the populist dangers of direct elections.

Democrats won a total of 29 seats in 2016 (or 30, counting one democracy-leaning independent). These included 22 directly elected and 7 (or 8) functional constituency seats.

This locked-in result allowed the government to declare democrats “the opposition,” although their candidates routinely win a majority of the votes cast for the directly elected seats.

Nor was the younger generation the only target during the oath-taking saga. “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung had pioneered the art of activist oath-taking when he was first elected in 2004. Beijing’s 2016 decision ended all that.

It was to be his last hurrah in the council chamber where he had disrupted the proceedings on many occasions with the same antics. He said it was the only way to get anyone’s attention. Otherwise, no one but his fellow-democrats would listen to what they were all trying to say.

Leung Kwok-hung protests outside China Liaison Office in Sai Ying Pun after Tiananmen vigil. Photo: Joshua Kwan/United Social Press.

Four young activists with the brightest prospects also lost their seats: the Youngspiration duo Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung, both outspoken champions of Hong Kong autonomy; plus a popular street activist, Teacher Lau Siu-lai; and Nathan Law. He was one of the original members of Joshua Wong’s (now-disbanded) student activist Demosisto party.

Another of its original members, Agnes Chow, was disqualified from the special election held to replace Nathan Law. The weeding out of Hong Kong’s new generation of political talents had begun.

But the post-Occupy oath-taking saga was only the first of the disruptions that marked the Legislative Council’s 2016-2020 term.

Summer 2019: the extradition law

The government and its allies took advantage of the depleted pro-democracy roster and changed the rules in late 2017. Filibustering and delaying tactics became more difficult. Democrats’ physical disruptions became more extreme.

Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters in Yuen Long on July 27, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

This sequence culminated in the government’s attempt last year to force through an extradition bill that would have allowed cross-border extradition to China, in the case of criminal suspects taking refuge in Hong Kong.

The public responded in far greater numbers than in 2014. Street protests last June were the largest post-1997 Hong Kong had seen and finally, for the first time in all those years, became violent. The Legislative Council building was stormed, its main chamber trashed.

The spark was Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s initial refusal to withdraw her extradition bill. But once she did, in September, the disruptive protests did not abate. Instead, they continued in tandem with preparations for last November’s District Councils election.

Slogans on the wall read: “Carrie Lam step down” and “Falling day of Hong Kong”. Photo: Todd R. Darling.

Again, pro-government legislators campaigned against the disruptors, but voters were even more emphatic than in 2016.

Tensions were so great that they had actually inspired all pro-democracy candidates to join in a rare unified alliance. They all campaigned in support of the protest demands, which by then had picked up where the Occupy Movement left off by including universal suffrage elections. This time pro-democracy candidates not only did better than expected, they swept the field with an unprecedented landslide.

Election year 2020

By New Year’s Day, 2020, preparations were already underway for the Legislative Council election, scheduled as usual for the first week in September. Along the New Year’s Day march route, a new set of fliers made their appearance. They were advertising the new employees’ unions that had sprung up in strike actions supporting the protest movement.

The idea was not only to promote protest causes and protest working conditions but to have the new white-collar unions organised and officially recognised in time to participate in the complicated Election Committee process that anoints Hong Kong’s Chief Executives. This is due to begin next year. Maybe they could even help make Carrie Lam a one-term chief executive.

This new organising effort is not to be confused with Hong Kong’s existing blue-collar unions. Dating back to the late 1940s, working-class union life here has been dominated by the pro-communist Federation of Trade Unions. Today, it claims a committed pro-Beijing affiliated membership of over 400,000. The much younger and smaller pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions has an affiliated membership of about 100,000.

A whole new generation of activists, protesters, and candidates was primed to try for another big win come September. They even dared to dream of breaking LegCo’s two-house barrier by winning a 35-seat overall majority.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Democrats also organised their own straw poll primary election to let voters decide on the candidates and prevent the candidates from fighting it out among themselves beforehand.

The straw poll, in mid-July, was another success. Again, far more voters than expected came forward to participate in the online exercise. And again, they favoured younger candidates from the post-Occupy generation.

Joshua Wong came in first in his Kowloon East constituency. Nathan Law’s Plan B candidate won in his old Hong Kong Island constituency. And therein lay the first clue to what was to come.

The new national security regime

Nathan Law had already served a short prison sentence for an episode during Occupy – not long enough to disqualify him for election purposes. But there was another reason why his substitute stepped forward in his place. Law had fled the city and has since been joined by several others.

They were fearful of becoming targets after the new national security law was promulgated by Beijing late in the evening of June 30, by a decision of the NPCSC.

As of July 1, everything political changed in Hong Kong with the criminalisation of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreigners. A new mainland-staffed Office for Safeguarding National Security is showing the way, helping Hong Kong authorities enforce the unfamiliar new mainland national security standards.

The new law is not retroactive. But its provisions are being applied retroactively in important ways. One was to disqualify most of the top tier winners from the July straw poll.

Vetting officers reasoned that prospective candidates’ declarations of loyalty to Beijing were not sincere. The declarations, within the context of past actions, must convey willing acceptance of Hong Kong’s unquestioned subordination in all respects to the central government and its decisions.

(Top, left to right) Winnie Yu, Tiffany Yuen, Frankie Fung, Kinda Li, Henry Wong, Sam Cheung, Ng Kin-wai, Ventus Lau, Gwyneth Ho, Eddie Chu. (Bottom, left to right) Fergus Leung, Sunny Cheung, Joshua Wong, Lester Shum, Wong Ji-yuet, Owen Chow. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Following this political logic, four incumbent legislators were also disqualified from contesting the September 6 election, on grounds they were guilty of collusion with foreign forces. They were on record as supporting United States’ sanctions imposed by Washington in response to Beijing’s violations of Hong Kong autonomy. The four had even made lobbying trips to Washington, as proof of their disloyalty.

Then Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked her Emergency Powers to postpone the September 6, election, due to the flu epidemic. Beijing confirmed the postponement for at least one year, by decision of the NPCSC, on August 11.

Stay or go: end game for a powerless opposition

Multiple blows had been struck, their aim achieved. Democrats had nevertheless surmounted the losses of the oath-taking saga and had been on course to repeat their November 2019 victory on September 6.

But with virtually all their strongest candidates eliminated on national security grounds, and with the election itself postponed for a year, the remaining legislators from the class of 2016 were left with two no-win options. Either make one final protest gesture and resign en masse or remain in silent acceptance of their permanent “opposition” status, with no prospect of escape.

Police barriers on Legislative Council Road. Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP

They had tried everything, and nothing had succeeded. The message from Beijing and all related sources are that the NPCSC’s 2014 decision on mainland-style election rules – that ultimately provoked the 2014 Occupy street protests – is all Beijing means by its promise of universal suffrage elections.

Hong Kong must learn that those NPCSC decisions had become the new absolute arbiter of Hong Kong political life. Resistance was futile.

Unable to decide among themselves, legislators and their parties decided to repeat the summer’s straw poll exercise and see what the public had to say. Former University of Hong Kong pollster Robert Chung, now working independently, again agreed to do the honours. But this time not everyone agreed to abide by his findings.

The decision remained elusive. Chung’s new Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) had already conducted a poll in August with the results trending decidedly negative. Among all respondents, 41 per cent favoured resign; 37 per cent remain.

Among pro-democracy respondents alone, only 19 per cent thought their LegCo representatives should remain for the extra year; 61 per cent said they should boycott the extended term.

Many of those most directly involved – legislators themselves and their parties – disagreed. But with the new legislative year about to begin in October, decision time was fast approaching.

Photo: GovHK.

They called for more public debates, and the Chinese University joined Robert Chung for a follow-up poll. Altogether 15 lawmakers agreed to abide by the findings – but only if they reached a 50 per cent threshold of agreement, one way or the other, and only among those who identified themselves as pro-democracy supporters.

Yet however depleted their ranks and defeated their cause, the new post-Occupy divisions immediately reasserted themselves.

Among those who had formerly spoken for Hong Kong’s democracy movement as a whole – pan-democrats – the inclination was to remain. Members of the Democratic Party and the Civic Party were among them. In contrast, the new post-Occupy younger generation, calling themselves localists, argued for a clean break.

Ted Hui, one of the Democratic Party’s most active members, made the case for remain. As he sees it, democrats have always regarded the existing LegCo system as unfair and undemocratic. That’s why they have spent so much time and exerted so much energy calling for full universal suffrage elections. But democrats have all along participated in the system anyway.

Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan stands on top of a table in the Chamber of the Legislative Council Complex during the Chief Executive’s 2019 Policy Address. Photo: Inmediahk.net, via CC 2.0.

So he thought the arbitrary one-year extension was just more of the same from Beijing, and should not deter them from carrying on as best they could.

He cited some government measures likely to be tabled during the coming year and argued that they should not be allowed to pass unchallenged. Better to fight the good fight and go down to defeat than not to fight at all.

Kenneth Leung made the same argument. He favoured remaining in LegCo, as did his constituents, by 52 per cent to 42 per cent, according to his own calculations. But his is a small functional constituency, and he speaks for accountants only.

He also thinks legislators should make such a decision on their own, whatever the consequences, and not rely on the crutch of public opinion.

Leung is one of the four incumbent legislators who had planned to run for re-election on September 6 – until they were disqualified on national security grounds for supporting United States sanctions.

Leung regards Hong Kong’s existing legislative arrangements as illegitimate. But so are all of Hong Kong’s past elections that have been conducted under Beijing’s imposed Basic Law mandate since 1997. He therefore decided that staying on to continue the struggle was the better course to follow.

Eddie Chu (right) and Ray Chan. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Localist Raymond Chan not only made the case for quitting but took the initiative and actually did, without waiting for the public opinion mandate. Eddie Chu Hoi-dick waited for the poll results but made the same decision before they were publicly announced.

In 2016, Chu was christened the “king of votes” for winning more than any other candidate in the race. He also had some ambitious ideas then that actually came to pass. They were about the district-level mass mobilisation of voters – although he didn’t expect the 2019 extradition law protests that actually made it happen.

Raymond Chan explained that he does not recognise the postponement as legitimate and therefore insists he is not resigning. He is consequently planning to fight for the customary end-of-service gratuity paid to all legislators. He says he was elected in 2016 to serve a four-year term and has done so.

Chan is Hong Kong’s first openly gay legislator and accustomed to swimming against the tide of public opinion. He also said he did not believe other pro-democracy lawmakers were really prepared to quit whatever the opinion poll results might be. So he took the initiative and acted on his own.

Raymond Chan was probably right. But when the final poll results were announced on September 29, they were basically a draw. Among those identifying themselves as pro-democracy supporters, the results were: 47.1 per cent remain, 45.8 per cent leave.

Pan-democrats stage a protest outside the Chamber of the Legislative Council Complex ahead of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s 2019 Policy Address on October 16

Since the 50 per cent threshold was not reached, legislators had the cover they needed. Almost all chose to remain for the extra year. Besides Chan and Chu, there was only one other resignation.

The Civic Party’s Tanya Chan is stepping down, she says, for personal and health reasons. She was one of the Occupy Nine prosecuted for their roles in the 2014 movement but escaped a prison term on health grounds.

The three departures nevertheless leave Hong Kong’s Legislative Council looking much the worse for wear. Its numbers are now down from the full complement of 70, to 62.

Ultimately, time ran out for the class of 2016. After all their oath-taking saga appeals and erroneous court rulings, four of the most recently vacated seats remain empty pending the next general election. Three councillors have just resigned. That leaves a pro-democracy caucus of 20, with one democracy-leaning independent.

The Democratic Party had commissioned the final opinion survey and its chairman, Wu Chi-wai, could only promise to stay on the battlefield, try to block government policies, and slow the erosion of freedom now underway.

Democratic legislators and representatives from the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute meet the press on September 29, 2020. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

The Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung said the poll results showed their words and arguments had failed to convince the public one way or the other. So legislators must now be more humble and let their worth be measured in whatever they are able to accomplish during their remaining time in office.

Eddie Chu called for an early resumption of elections to replace what he dismissed as an appointed legislature. What we need, he said, is a legislature elected by the people rather than one endorsed by the Chinese Communist Party.


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