Public support for the city's political groups has taken a dramatic plunge in the past couple of weeks. The blame rests squarely on the unseemly squabbling over political reform and the circus surrounding this month's 'referendum' by-elections, according to pollsters at the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme.
Let's not listen to claims that this shows Hongkongers' preference for 'harmony' above all else. 'Harmony' - the current political buzz word - is not what we love. Hongkongers want democracy and, in any healthy democracy, dissent is welcomed and necessary. What good is democracy if everyone sees everything the same way, every time?
Hongkongers seem to be tired of the politics of grandstanding that has devoured the political scene. Discussions about constitutional reform have turned into a spectacle of politicians, out for blood, tearing each other down in a futile competition to come up with the best and most insulting sound bite.
The one thing organisers of the so-called de facto referendum have got right is that they did, indeed, win. That is why the Democratic Party should not be blamed for not participating - that is, handing its supporters over to political 'frenemies' on a silver platter. The five re-elected lawmakers added more than 228,000 votes to their support base. League of Social Democrats lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip, seen to be the weakest link for the league before the resignations, came out the biggest winner, gaining 77,427 votes and tripling his support. So they have every reason to congratulate themselves for a job well done. But the exercise was completely ineffective in other ways, and done at the expense of Hongkongers' desire to advance democracy through constitutional reform. In short, it was all about them, not us.
Little wonder, then, that when the Democratic Party and the Alliance for Universal Suffrage were invited to chat with Beijing representative Li Gang , others had a serious and contagious case of sour grapes. Now everyone, including those deemed 'pro-establishment', has caught the bug. So when Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen invited Civic Party head Audrey Eu Yuet-mee to a televised debate, all the others - in a furious chorus of 'What about me? Me! Me!' - wanted in on the action. Again, it is all about them and not us.
Tsang's call for the June 17 debate and his choice of Eu as the opponent may have puzzled many. But perhaps the government has learned a thing or two from being sidelined by the recent political stunts. It has watched the political camps slice and dice each other about as much as they can. Now Tsang doesn't seem interested in changing lawmakers' minds: if he were seeking their support, his obvious choice would have been to debate with Democrats leader Albert Ho Chun-yan, because winning might have meant gaining nine votes for the government's constitutional reform package.
Perhaps Tsang took the idea from the Serenity Prayer he quotes from time to time: he chose to debate with Eu simply because her mind cannot be changed. Tsang's reasoning must be like this: rather than winning over lawmakers, he has mustered the courage to win over the public, in an hour on television uninterrupted by opposition-flung bananas or anything else.
Tsang quoted from the biblical book of Proverbs on his website - 'A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver' - implying he sees Eu as the 'picture' that will nicely frame his 'apples of gold': present two opposing views on the constitutional reform package, let the people be the judge and hope his views are the golden apples.
Hongkongers know they have been used blatantly for political purposes. Their political aspirations have been pushed aside by lawmakers' mad dash for recognition in a flurry of self-congratulatory applauding, back patting, finger pointing and hand raising. A backlash was inevitable: no wonder support for political groups has reached new lows. The government is hoping that the disengaged public will tune in and finally hear what it has to say.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA