Alice Wu

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 February, 2010, 12:00am

When something is given the wrong name, things can get messy. And so it is with the League of Social Democrats' and Civic Party's by-election-cum-referendum ploy. First came the government's insistence that it is a by-election, and no more, which seems pretty accurate. Then, following the warning against the 'referendum' bid by the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, we hear from a Hong Kong Standing Committee member of the National People's Congress that it 'looks like a referendum, smells like a referendum'.

Then a by-election campaign slogan called for an 'uprising' against an unjust political system, and opponents promptly jumped on this, using it as a reason to boycott a by-election that is not a referendum - unless we use our visual and olfactory senses. And in the midst of this collective cognitive paralysis in political terminology, it has also been called the 'Hong Kong Tea Party' in an Asian Wall Street Journal editorial.

It is unclear whether the paper was trying to draw a parallel with the Tea Party movement (2009) in the US or the iconic Boston Tea Party (1773), of which the current Tea Party movement makes reference - or both. Given that we have been unable to find agreement on what it is, even using all our senses, we ought to at least see if the answer lies in the 'tea party' analogy.

The tea party protests that swept across the US last year are against many things, including big government, the Obama administration's economic stimulus packages, health care reform and increases in the national debt and taxes. In what The Economist called 'America's most vibrant political force at the moment', the anti-tax Tea-Party movement has been credited for the upset in the recent Massachusetts Senate by-election (yes, a by-election) held to fill the late Ted Kennedy's seat.

Since the issue in Hong Kong is not about government or stimulus packages, and since we are looking at more handouts in the upcoming budget, it is hard to see how the modern Tea Party movement relates to our democratic development.

If use of the term 'uprising' has rubbed Beijing up the wrong way, then we face an even bigger problem if the paper was attempting to allude to the Boston Tea Party, which ignited events leading to American independence. Any more talk of 'revolution' or 'independence' will fray Beijing's nerves even further.

The trouble with comparing apples and oranges and, in this case, showcasing blatant ethnocentrism without understanding the issues at play, is that things often fall prey to the law of unintended consequences. The Boston Tea Party evokes not-so-fond memories of colonialism; it arose from the British empire's efforts - by granting special rights like trade monopolies and exemptions, and taxing British colonies - to bail out the British East India Company from financial trouble.

The same company also had a monopoly on the production and export of Indian opium that was smuggled into China in defiance of prohibition laws to rectify the empire's trade imbalance. That nice piece of shared history of American colonies and Qing dynasty China brought about the Opium wars. While the Americans won their fight for independence, China lost its battle and not only had to tolerate the opium trade and open its ports, but also had to hand over Hong Kong. The Qing dynasty was toppled by the Tai Ping and Boxer uprisings, sparked by feelings of grave humiliation. This kind of analogy is definitely not what Hong Kong's 'new democratic movement' needs.

Whatever qualms people may have about the value of the yuan, the US trade deficit with China or other anti-China sentiments, Hong Kong affairs should not be dragged into the mix. Unfortunately, in its attempt to cast all things American as good and all things Chinese as bad, the Journal has badly misread the Hong Kong situation. The question of whether the by-election is a referendum may still be making heads spin, but the only tea parties we have the stomach for here come with dainty pastries.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA