Striking a reasonable balance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2006, 12:00am

The establishment of the Civic Party has generated considerable discussion on the relationship between political parties and various social classes. An important function of parties in general is to speak for the interests of different social strata, proposing political platforms that reflect their concerns. Once a party has secured power, it is expected to implement those programmes.

Some fringe parties have single-issue platforms focused, for example, on the legalisation of marijuana or abortion. But parties normally want to become the government. In a democracy, this means they must win the support of a majority of voters. Therefore they need to have a wide political appeal.

From the end of the second world war until the early 1970s, class consciousness remained strong among British voters. The two major parties, Conservative and Labour, alternated as the governing party. The former claimed to represent the business and middle classes; the latter, the working class.

But about half the voters who supported the Conservatives were working class. Without the support of a substantial segment of these people, the party could not hope to win a general election.

Labour Party voters were mainly working class. But the majority of the party's executives and members of Parliament were professionals. Labour Party voters did not believe that only representatives from the blue-collar sector could defend their interests.

If we had genuine democratic elections in Hong Kong, the business community would definitely participate in political parties to pursue its interests.

Most Hongkongers do not have a strong class consciousness. Opinion surveys conducted since the 1980s all indicate that about 70 per cent of citizens usually identify themselves as members of the middle class. They may further classify themselves as members of the upper-middle, middle-middle or lower-middle classes.

Those who think they belong to the grass-roots sector normally do not exceed 20 per cent of the population.

Citizens with low incomes usually pin their hopes on their children, encouraging them to work hard and join the ranks of the middle class as business executives and professionals. That might explain why radical political groups have difficulty winning the support of a majority among the grass roots here.

Members of the lower-income group understand that the city's stability and prosperity are the key to bringing improvements to their lives. This political culture guarantees that Hong Kong politics is moderate and rational. Extremism is highly unpopular, and narrow class interests cannot win the support of the majority.

A harmonious society demands the practice of social justice. Although different people may have different ideas about this, the gaps can be narrowed through continued discussion and reasonable compromise. There is a distinct understanding that one cannot afford to emphasise class interests in Hong Kong.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some left-wing political parties in Europe and Japan captured the municipal governments in many industrial centres. They soon learned that effective governance and services were not really related to ideologies.

Hongkongers appreciate this, too. They want their government and political parties to be practical and genuinely respect public opinion. They also expect public policies to effectively tackle issues that concern them.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong