Democrats' fall from grace

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am

The British government's latest semi-annual report on Hong Kong is unlikely to trigger harsh denunciations from Beijing, as has happened in the past. London sparked a sharp retort in 2004, when it criticised the decision by the National People's Congress Standing Committee to rule out universal suffrage in 2007-2008 - calling it an erosion of the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong.

This time, the report discussed at length the administration's political reform package - voted down by the democratic camp in December - calling the proposed changes 'an incremental step in the right direction'.

It is significant that the British government, which has consistently supported the early realisation of universal suffrage, should part with the democratic camp on its assessment of the reform proposals. In fact, Stephen Bradley, the British consul-general to Hong Kong, supported the package when it was first unveiled, saying: 'Although these proposals will obviously not satisfy those who would like to see universal suffrage in 2007-2008, they are a step in the right direction.'

On a trip to Hong Kong in December, Ian Pearson, secretary for foreign and commonwealth affairs, said two days before the Legislative Council vote: 'We believe that the [Hong Kong] government's proposed changes are ... the best way of making progress.'

That assessment coincided with public support for the reform package. Democrats who voted against the proposals have seen a clear drop in their ratings.

A University of Hong Kong poll last month showed a significant fall in support for those who opposed the package, including Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung and Emily Lau Wai-hing of The Frontier.

It is possible that the democratic camp, in particular the Democratic Party, did not properly assess the merits of the proposals. For one thing, the enlargement of the Election Committee would have virtually ensured that the democrats succeeded in fielding a candidate in the next election for chief executive - something that they failed to do last year.

As a result, they are now asking the government to cap the number of nominations any candidate may receive, hoping this will make it possible for a democratic candidate to get enough nominations. But the administration has refused to do so.

The enlargement of Legco by 10 seats would also have helped the democrats, among other parties, groom a second generation of politicians.

In the 2004 election, the Democratic Party won only nine seats, going from the largest political party in the legislature to third position. Not a single second-tier member won.

The party's secretary-general, Cheung Yin-tung, has said that the lack of available Legco seats is a stumbling block for lesser-known party members. By rejecting the government's political reform proposals, the democrats gave up an opportunity for their younger aspirants to move up.

Andrew Fung Wai-kwong, a member of the party's executive committee, has demanded an end to 'gerontocracy', saying that lawmakers over the age of 60 should quit the central and executive committees, while those who have served three terms should step aside to make room for younger people.

To be fair, the party's legislators are mostly in their 40s and 50s: only Mr Lee is over 60.

Democratic Party chairman Lee Wing-tat has publicly said the party might shrink further and lose seats in the 2008 Legco election. That means chances for its second-tier politicians will be further reduced.

The imminent formation of a new political party by the Article 45 Concern Group suggests that the outlook for the Democratic Party is far from bright, at least in the short term.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator