Parties need to open up; law must protect them

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2006, 12:00am

The Democratic Party is frantically trying to protect the identities of its members. That is odd for a party that has long promoted transparency as a guiding principle in public life. It takes an understanding of the party's history of brash encounters with the central government to appreciate its predicament.

For 20 years, the party and its forerunner, the United Democrats of Hong Kong, have been at the forefront of the local democratic movement. It owes its emergence as a major political force to its courage in standing up to Beijing on a number of controversial issues. They include its persistent demand since the 1980s for full democracy, its condemnation of the crackdown on the democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 and its opposition in 2003 to the introduction of national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law.

The party's principled stance has earned it the respect of large sectors of the population, but also exacted a heavy personal price on its members. Some key ones, including elected legislators, have been barred by the central government from visiting the mainland. By discriminating between those it considers friends and those it does not, Beijing has signalled clearly to the public that political correctness matters a great deal to it. No wonder many employers are loath to hire Democrats because of their 'anti-Beijing' label.

The Democrats' current dilemma offers an interesting perspective on whether Hong Kong should have a political party law. The issue is not just about introducing a framework that would aid the development of political parties without subjecting them to undue regulation. A more critical consideration is that some of our political parties are not ready to publicise the identities of their members. Nor would their donors want to be identified.

As party politics continues to develop, however, it is difficult to see how Hong Kong can carry on without a law that imposes transparency on the parties. The public has every right to know all about the public lives of politicians who ask for their votes. That must include information about their party membership and sources of funding.

Politics is not for the weak-minded nor those fearful of earning the chagrin of the powers that be. Anyone who decides to go into politics should know that he or she has to pay for his or her political beliefs and ambitions.

In Hong Kong, the prospect is not rosy at all for those who want to pursue a business career that involves developing good ties with mainland authorities. But it needs to be pointed out that the much-feared influence of Beijing is not as dreadful as it might sound. The rule of law is alive and well in Hong Kong, and no one can be persecuted for his or her political views or activities.

Those who stick their necks out on sensitive issues may not get invited to National Day receptions or appointed to government advisory committees. But what they have to put up with nowadays is a far cry from what members of the pro-Beijing camp experienced in colonial days. Back then, anyone perceived as having patriotic leanings to the mainland could not expect to hold a job in the public sector and was shunned by pro-establishment corporations.

That wasn't right, just as it is not right for Beijing to have adopted divide-and-rule tactics. But that is not a very good reason for Hong Kong to shy away from requiring our political parties to open up.

The solution to the parties' reservations over transparency lies in protecting their members from persecution. Should they suffer in any way, the perpetrators should be exposed, condemned and, if appropriate, punished according to law.

A free society must not pander to political correctness. That must mean making every effort to protect the right to think and act independent of official dogma. Of course, it would help if Beijing adopted a broader definition of patriots to include those who passionately call for democracy.