Call for calm at party crossroads

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 January, 1999, 12:00am

Unionist Lau Chin-shek revealed his dream this week to set up a party along unionist lines. With layoffs and pay cuts par for the course these days, it was possibly the most appropriate time to look into the establishment of a labour-oriented party, he said.

Unfortunately, his enthusiasm was not shared by many. Veteran unionists and academics were quick to throw cold water on Mr Lau's ambitions.

Lee Kai-ming, representative of the labour sector in the Legislative Council and a unionist since the 1960s, was among them.

'For such a party to exist, you have to count on a very strong trade union movement - but look at the membership numbers of our unions. Not more than 20 per cent [of the workforce] have joined their respective trade unions,' he said.

'Such a party would also have to be able to draw from a generous pool of resources, but unions in Hong Kong are stretched financially.

'In other countries, workers on pay day automatically transfer to the unions to which they belong, say, one per cent of their monthly salary. Put together that would be quite some money. Look at us: $100 a year [for individual membership]. How can a party possibly support activities and elections with that kind of income?' Mr Lee points to the prototype of a labour-oriented party - the British Labour Party of the 1970s. Labour's sustenance through the post-war years - and success in getting into office under Harold Wilson - depended on the mobilisation and support of the almighty Trades Union Congress (TUC).

The parasitic nature was highlighted by the collapse of Labour's rule as the TUC withdrew support due to a squabble between TUC and Labour leaders.

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, lecturer in social studies at City University of Hong Kong, also draws on the British experience in watering down hopes for a local equivalent.

'In Britain, social mobility is relatively small - the profession of being a worker could be passed down for generations within a family,' he said. 'Take the steel capital Sheffield, for example. It was probably unimaginable for a worker to metamorphose into an entrepreneur because it would be such an investment to start your own plant.

'When people are entrenched in that lifestyle they are motivated to act in their interests. In Hong Kong, however, people move up and down the social ladder, and that constitutes a lack of a stable working class in shoring up labour-oriented parties.' Meanwhile, anyone thinking of initiating a labour-oriented political party would find themselves at an ideological crossroads. Just as Tony Blair's New Labour in Britain and Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats in Germany have had to re-invent themselves to broaden their appeal beyond that of the ever-diminishing pool of manual workers, Mr Lau or anyone who shared his ambitions would have to find ways to sell their ideas to a predominantly middle-class society.

Indeed, the number of manual labourers - meaning those in manufacturing - has fallen to about 200,000, a mere 10 per cent of all salary-earners in Hong Kong.

Another factor hindering the growth of local social movements is, ironically, the values Hong Kong people hold in high esteem. Here it is each man for himself.

'Hong Kong people are generally more conservative and in support of the capitalist ethos: free enterprise, individual competition and the like,' said Professor Lau Siu-kai, associate director of Chinese University's Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies.

'Most people would denigrate groups using collective action to seek rights; any labour-oriented party that took such action would only alienate themselves with the masses.' Professor Lau believes that left-wing goals - such as the extensive provision of welfare to the needy and wealth equality - go against the grain of local populist preconceptions of self-help.

'In Western countries social democratic values have a more established footing - they are more into equality among the population and tolerate the state intervening when a balance of the economy is necessary,' he said, adding this was a tradition absent in Hong Kong.

Even Lau Chin-shek's closest comrade-in-arms, Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) general secretary Lee Cheuk-yan, has reservations about a labour-oriented party.

'My hesitations lie in the lack of resources we have,' he said. 'Also, it is difficult to squeeze in a party in the current political climate, with the Democrats and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong propping up this two-party scenario.' Mr Lee acknowledges, too, that given the chance, the Old Left school - embodied by British Labour in the 1970s - is not something he would put into practice. 'My definitionof the working class would be all salary-earners in Hong Kong and not just the blue-collars [manual workers],' he said.

Indeed, the CTU is possibly the only unionist force in Hong Kong with the potential to become a regular political party.

'The [pro-Beijing] Federation of Trade Unions has always been stability-oriented, rebuffing any notion of using extreme action in fighting for workers' rights - and it has taken up more or less a conciliatory stance with the Government as well,' said Professor Lau.

Mr Choy, however, points to the innate divisions in the CTU as a shortcoming for any development on the issue. 'Many of those middle-ranked personnel within the CTU - those who have grown out of local student movements - are known to have tired of trying to reach their goals through elections or Legco,' he said.

Despite the barriers, Mr Choy believes the current economic circumstances provide a ray of hope for the formation of a local labour-oriented political force.

'With the grim future facing us over the next few years, hostility between employers and employees might easily boil over,' he said.

'Unfortunate as this might be, this would also provide a beneficial scenario for the birth of a workers' party in Hong Kong.' Most people would denigrate groups using collective action to seek rights; any labour-oriented party that took such action would only alienate themselves with the masses