New tricks needed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 February, 2008, 12:00am

As the Year of the Rat dawns, a young generation of Hongkongers is gradually moving into the centre of the city's politics. Generational change is dawning. It can be seen in the expected growth in the number of first-time candidates for seats in September's Legislative Council election. And it is apparent in the election as local deputies of more young professionals, and the offspring of business heavyweights, to the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

The creation of the Centum Charitas Foundation also indicates increased activism among the children of tycoons, although their political intent is unclear.

But a crucial question remains for young people on both sides of the political divide: are they ready to play a political game that will differ vastly from that played by their predecessors?

Politics in Hong Kong is unlikely to remain 'business as usual' in the coming decade. The introduction of universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017, and for all of the Legislative Council in 2020 at the earliest, has reset the dial for local politics.

In fact, the new pro-establishment generation will find an uphill battle awaiting them. With the arrival of universal suffrage, the elitist approach to politics - that their predecessors were so accustomed to - will have to compete with, if not give way to, politics of the masses. The traditional channel for pro-establishment interests, the Election Committee, will soon be washed by waves of reforms leading up to the magical 2017 date.

The continued existence of Legco functional constituencies is expected to be seriously challenged. As events of recent months suggest, even Hong Kong delegates to the NPC and CPPCC will find it harder to be insulated from local pressures.

The new pro-establishment generation must be prepared to step into uncharted territory, one that their predecessors have so carefully avoided thus far. They must adapt to the new political dynamic by uniting behind coherent and vibrant organisations, to defend their interests effectively. The call from Li Gang , deputy director of the central government's liaison office, to the Centum Charitas Foundation to make an active contribution to society serves as a warning. Politics has become an increasingly fluid affair.

In a nutshell, Beijing has compelling reasons to encourage more organised support behind the establishment in an era of mass politics. But it is unclear whether the pro-establishment young turks have got the message.

Likewise, pro-democracy neophytes must also adapt to changes wrought by Beijing's timetable for universal suffrage - the pre-emptive strike that took away much of the fire from the pro-democracy movement. As most Hongkongers appear ready to move on, the young democracy fighters are at a crossroads. They could reject the timetable offered by Beijing, but this would mean the loss of a foothold in the political market to moderates. Conversely, they could accept it as a reconciliatory gesture, but such a move risks disappointing their hardcore supporters.

The young democracy fighters also have to learn to interact with an ever-more pragmatic and skilful pro-establishment camp. Since 2003, Beijing leaders have shown increased sensitivity to public opinion and electoral politics. The district council elections illustrate that a general election will not always be the sure win for democrats that it had been. The establishment has also hinted at its capacity to enlist the support of the politically invincible: former senior civil servants. Old slogans and tactics would have to follow the old democrats into retirement.

New politics calls for new vision and strategies. Young people, irrespective of their political affiliations, will have few safe lessons to draw on from the experiences of their predecessors. They need to learn new tricks for an entirely fresh game, although the details of the challenge may not be exactly the same for all sides.

Kitty Poon is assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the author of The Political Future of Hong Kong