Critical juncture

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 November, 2009, 12:00am

Politicians who change their mind fall into two distinct categories. On the one hand there are the shamelessly opportunistic; in Hong Kong, this phenomenon is epitomised by members of the Liberal Party. On the other hand are politicians who are brave enough to admit they are wrong and make sincere attempts to move forward in a different direction.

Martin Lee Chu-ming, the former leader of the Democratic Party, falls into the latter category, having been a vocal supporter of plans for legislators to resign and force a de facto referendum on government plans for constitutional reform. He now concedes that he was mistaken and that this strategy has stirred divisions in the democratic camp which have become counterproductive.

What he has shrewdly realised is that, while there is unanimity in opposition to government plans for slowing constitutional reform to the pace of a crippled snail, there is an unhealthy division over the less substantive issue of tactics for defeating these plans. When a division over tactics overshadows the substantive issue, the battle is halfway to being lost.

Yet recognising these eternal realities of political life seems hard for some people to accept because politics is heavily populated by activists who are loath to change their mind and instead make a positive virtue out of their intransigence. In this instance we see, most notably among members of the League of Social Democrats, a worrying emergence of a machismo approach to politics. This manifests itself as insisting that those who shout loudest occupy the moral high ground while others, who take a more subtle approach to achieving the same ends, are portrayed as weak and hopelessly compromised.

It is hard to sway those who have embraced machismo as a substitute for thought, but possible to understand why it is so difficult to admit fault. An admission of this kind clearly represents a loss of face and can be taken to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the decision was taken in the first place.

However, there is a certain kind of arrogance in refusing to acknowledge that changing circumstances require some nimble changes in attitudes. When, as is currently the case, a clear majority of the public (if opinion polls are to be believed) think the resignation idea is plain wrong, political parties committed to the principle of adhering to public opinion should, at the very least, pause for thought.

Second, when it has become clear that the opponents of universal suffrage have been thrown a lifeline by this flawed resignation plan, and have been able to deflect the debate away from the unpopularity of their own plans, surely the pause for thought needs to be extended in the direction of new thinking.

And third, when some of Hong Kong's shrewdest politicians question the viability of an ill-conceived plan, their track record needs to be taken into account.

Szeto Wah, who was a democracy campaigner long before many of the newer arrivals joined the cause and proved time and again to be a masterly tactician, needs to be heard when he says that resignations won't work.

Allen Lee Peng-fei is an even more interesting case in this respect because he has travelled far from his days at the centre of the political establishment and the founding of the Liberal Party to being a shrewd, albeit slightly maverick, advocate of democracy. Having had experience of both sides of the fence, he is uniquely positioned to understand what works and what does not. He knows how a well-meaning but highly risky plan to force a mini referendum can backfire and, because of his background, has a pretty good idea of how the anti-democrats will exploit this weakness.

Yet democrats who stubbornly maintain that the resignation tactic is the only way of really making an impact monotonously maintain that it is too late to switch course. This is the same daft argument for doing nothing when confronted with a person standing on a high ledge determined to commit suicide.

Who seriously believes that it would not be better to make every effort to prevent a leap into oblivion right up to the moment before the person makes the fatal leap?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur