Getting into the party spirit

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 2006, 12:00am

Hong Kong has the appearance of an ultra-modern, cosmopolitan city, but its political culture remains backward. The community has grown increasingly polarised and apathetic in recent years. And, in the eyes of the media and many people, 'party politics' remains a shabby label.

In a democratic society, political parties perform important functions. They articulate people's interests, in the manner of interest groups. And they bring together the interests of various segments of the population, linking them to party platforms. When a party is elected, its platform becomes the government's policy programme. In this way, parties offer choices to the electorate.

Parties also recruit political talent and provide services for people. They offer important channels for political participation: party members become candidates for election to public office. Parties also offer various services to attract support.

In Hong Kong, however, they have a more limited role because of Beijing's insistence on an 'executive-led' system of government. Hence, Hongkongers tend to think that political parties mainly engage in criticising the government and seeking the most media exposure.

The political establishment often accuses the pro-democracy parties of 'opposition for opposition's sake'. But that is not true. In the Legislative Council's daily work, pro-democracy parties often support the government's policies - possibly 70 per cent of the time.

Further, opposition serves a constructive purpose. In Britain today, the Conservative Party is serious about its role of opposing the government. This is the most important mechanism in the system of checks and balances, and it forces the Labour government to explain its policies to the people - strengthening its accountability to the electorate.

It is unfortunate that the pro-Beijing united front sees opposition as an obstacle to progress. And it is more unfortunate that, increasingly, the Tsang administration shares this perception.

The Labour Party is currently the governing party in Britain. Under normal circumstances, an out-of-power party like the Conservatives would have a very limited influence on policies. But the British electorate believes it is legitimate and constructive for the Conservatives to engage in opposition for the sake of opposition. It is interested to know if opposition parties can offer credible alternatives to the government's policies.

Seeking the widest possible media exposure is an important characteristic of politics in Hong Kong, as it is in America. In both cases, that's because so few people participate in political parties: so parties have to rely on the mass media to influence voters.

In western Europe, relatively high proportions of voters belong to parties. The parties therefore feel less pressure to attract a lot of media exposure.

Hongkongers are gradually realising that politics is no longer an area to be avoided; it has become part of life. They probably complain about the quality of local politics, saying no political parties truly represent their interests. Complaints, however, are futile. Improving the quality of our political process will depend on the community's participation - to ensure that the government and political parties are accountable to it.

Elections and parliamentary politics are bound to generate political parties. Unless Hongkongers are willing to cancel all elections, they have to accept that fact. On the other hand, if they are willing to take part in political parties, and work towards better accountability, party politics will not disappoint them.

Instead, it will offer meaningful political participation for all.

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