A peculiar way to treat parties
The controversy over the legal requirement for political parties to disclose members' names underlines the silliness of registering such parties as if they were companies, and of treating members like shareholders.
If the list of purported Democratic Party members posted by someone on a weblog is accurate, then the party's efforts to keep its members' identities private may have been rendered moot. However, individuals' rights to privacy and freedom of assembly, guaranteed by the Basic Law, remain legitimate issues.
The Democratic Party is perhaps unique in that it has long been perceived not only as an opposition party, but as an enemy of Beijing. The ban on some of its leaders travelling to the mainland made many people wary of being associated with it.
Thus, its supporters often did not want their involvement to be known. That reluctance was made vividly clear in the days when the party held an annual fund-raising dinner. Some people were willing to donate money as long as they could do it anonymously. On the night of the dinner, whole tables would be empty, reflecting donors' unwillingness to be publicly identified.
The latest episode underlines the need for Hong Kong to enact a political party law, to enhance the development of parties. The exact content of such a law needs to be debated, including whether membership in these organisations should be public information. The funding of parties is another sensitive issue that requires detailed study.
Political parties in Hong Kong have a very short history. The earliest ones shunned the word 'party' in their names: hence, the United Democrats of Hong Kong and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. The feeling was that, while one should call a spade a spade, political parties should always be called something else.
It was only with the arrival of the Liberal Party, in 1993, that political organisations actually dared to call themselves parties.
Just how ridiculous the current situation is can be seen in the Chief Executive Election Ordinance, which requires the winning candidate to declare that 'he is not a member of [any] political party'. Since all major political parties are companies, it would be more accurate for the ordinance to require the winner to declare 'he is not a shareholder of any company that purports to be a political party'.
But the law does not say that, presumably because its drafters realised how silly it would sound. Instead, in this instance, the law acknowledges that political parties are different from companies.
The former secretary for constitutional affairs, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, said in 2001 that the government was 'studying the feasibility and desirability of introducing a political-party law'.
However, his successor, Stephen Lam Sui-lung, decided the following year that 'now is not the time to introduce a statutory scheme to regulate the activities of political parties'. Proponents were arguing that political parties should be recognised by law so they could be given public funding.
But Mr Lam said statutory controls on parties, such as the requirement to disclose financial donations, 'may entail undue restrictions'.
There are also those who fear that such a law would give the government an instrument for controlling political parties. But it is odd for the administration to sidestep a law for fear of 'undue restrictions' - since it can decide exactly what the ordinance will contain.
Now, almost six years later, it is time to revisit the issue. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has repeatedly said he wants to see talented people choose politics as a career. But that is unlikely to happen if the government continues to refuse to legitimise the status of political parties in Hong Kong.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator