Politics as 'normal'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 March, 2011, 12:00am

Political parties championing the cause of the working class are commonplace throughout the world. But in Hong Kong, where the income gap is widening like a surging river breaking its banks, not a single party has proclaimed itself to be a workers' party. However, this week, a new party was informally launched, tentatively named the Labour Party.

Does this mean the emergence of politics as normal? As this is Hong Kong, the answer must be the usually confusing 'yes' and 'no'. Let's start with the 'no' part because it's not only confusing but downright bizarre.

The fact is that Hong Kong's oldest and largest political party is supposedly Marxist and thus supposedly represents the interests of the working class but spends its time defending the interests of the rich. The party declines to emerge from the shadows and has its only public manifestation in a subsidiary organisation called the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. In this guise, it is hardly a workers' party and mainly operates as a prop for the new ruling class.

Yet the DAB and the comrades who run it from the shadows of the still clandestine Communist Party, which used to be known as the Hong Kong and Macau Work Committee, have twinges of identification with the working class and can be found campaigning on workers' issues.

On the other side of the fence are the severely ailing Liberal Party and its offshoots, whose members proclaim themselves to be defenders of middle-class interests but every now and again are consumed by bouts of populist opportunism that find them lining up on the side of the workers.

As for the other political parties, they are more easily understood as coalitions rather than organisations based on class or ideology. This even applies to the League of Social Democrats, which has Leung Kwok-hung, an avowed Marxist, as one of its leaders, alongside other leaders who probably think Karl Marx was one of the comedic Marx brothers.

The Democratic Party contains a wide range of political views from the profound conservatism of Martin Lee Chu-ming, to the left-leaning stance of the late Szeto Wah. The Civic Party is famous for its middle-class leadership yet many members associate themselves with issues that would be considered left-wing in other places.

These non-ideological coalitions exist because Hong Kong's politics are so bizarre. In essence, they are a product of the most prominent dividing line in local politics - which is between those who favour the status quo of partial democracy and those who believe that universal suffrage is the better form of government. As these lines are drawn with a very broad brush, there is plenty of space in between for political differences that would normally divide parties.

Added to the confusion is the fact that elections are contested by political parties, yet the law bans party members from occupying the highest office in the special administrative region. Furthermore, the law does not even recognise the existence of political parties; to formalise their position, they must register as limited companies.

None of this means that there is no political party controlling Hong Kong because, of course, the Communist Party in Beijing calls the shots, even though there are genuine areas of autonomy where morsels of power are ceded to the local authorities.

All this notwithstanding, the emergence of the Labour Party is most definitely an indication of more 'normal' political life. Not only is the name familiar to those accustomed to politics in democratic countries, but so are its objectives. Its foundation seems to be a recognition that politics is moving well beyond the democracy debate, although there is little doubt over which side of the fence the new party stands.

Because Hong Kong was largely an immigrant society, the mantras of self reliance and individualism very much characterised the thinking of its citizens. However, the majority of the population are no longer immigrants and the transient nature of society has been replaced by a more settled existence, so people are starting to think in terms of collective action and membership of a society. As they do so, political and social activity grows.

The foundation of the Labour Party, old-fashioned in many ways, is another landmark in this process of evolution. It brings class politics out into the open. This will provoke some shaking of heads but class issues will not go away by ignoring them. Surely it is more healthy for them to be confronted and dealt with.

Whether the Labour Party is up to this task remains to be seen but, as matters stand, this is a positive development, even though it will be accompanied by predictable moaning from those who decry too much politics.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur