Donald Tsang

Democratic camp's art of the improbable

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 2009, 12:00am

If politics is the art of the possible, the democratic camp in Hong Kong has a lot to learn as it stumbles towards the resignations-cum-referendum plan to push for real change in the voting system.

It is a fact of history that reform movements are often defeated, or at least held up, by their own lack of unity. Divisions within the democratic camp, not to mention Martin Lee Chu-ming's double about-face, are too obvious to be papered over. Unless they can stick to a single policy, they are doomed to failure. Heroic gestures are all very well, but failure is failure.

Even if the democratic camp can restore unity and push ahead with the resignation agenda, its divisions will have left plenty of doubts in the minds of the voters as to whether this is a wise course of action. Doubts inevitably lead to loss of commitment to the cause. The issue thus becomes not one of whether the majority of the people would like to see an extension of democracy and removal of the corruption implicit in the functional constituency system. It becomes whether they can be persuaded to get out and vote in sufficient numbers to defeat a pro-government camp that is not only better disciplined but has access to massive resources and hidden pressures.

This leads to another issue - the peculiarities of Hong Kong's voting system for geographical constituencies and the role that personalities rather than issues play, at least some of the time. I do not pretend to be able to forecast how these might affect the outcome. But it is far from clear that the Civic Party, or any other resignation proponent, has thought this through. In electoral politics everywhere, a grasp of tactics is crucial and that requires a grasp of electoral mathematics and the sentiments of different classes of voter. For instance, many middle-class voters may never vote for Wong Yuk-man, however much they want more democracy. Others, indifferent to democracy, may vote for Wong simply because of his irreverent attitude and very plain speaking.

The next issue is the post-vote plan. First, a democratic victory at the polls would be deeply embarrassing for Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. But would it change anything? Maybe marginally. But it is more than likely that Beijing has already dug in its heels and will not allow more than token concessions. There is plenty of evidence that Beijing is gradually becoming more closely involved with Hong Kong constitutional issues.

Suppression of the reporting of corruption and other money scandals involving Communist Party and government officials has its Hong Kong counterpart in the need to retain the functional constituencies. The Hong Kong oligarchs and the Communist Party need each other as never before to sustain control over power and money.

A victory at the polls would, of course, carry moral weight, but neither Tsang nor Beijing are likely to be influenced much by it. As for defeat, this would leave the democrats looking very bedraggled, with the moral ground cut from under their feet and having shown themselves to be politically inept.

If they want an example of repeated failure to gain a small amount of ground at the expense of grand principles, the democrats should look at the history of the Palestinians over the past 90 years. Intransigence based on the notion that they had moral right and democratic principles on their side led them to boycotts and unsuccessful insurrections. Meanwhile, their Jewish opponents understated their expansionist goals but grabbed small opportunities and created facts inch by inch. In Europe, social democracy was achieved by gradualism, not revolution.

For sure, Hong Kong's democratic movement needs its uncompromising and impassioned tribunes to demand early and major change to a corrupt system which makes 'stability' a mask for mutual backscratching. But, at the level of practical politics, it demands grabbing every small advance and then pushing for more.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator