Rise of radical populism pitting Hongkongers against Hongkongers

Sonny Lo warns of violence to come if the political system is unable to accommodate these forces

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 3:36am

The rapid rise of populism, both from the pan-democratic camp and pro-Beijing front, is challenging the social stability of Hong Kong.

Taking populism to refer to the utilisation of public opinion as an appeal to the ruling elite, it's safe to say it has grown rapidly in Hong Kong since July 1, 2003, when half a million people protested against the Tung Chee-hwa administration. Unpopular policies, such as the proposed national security legislation, and the lack of a consistent housing plan triggered the demonstration.

The city marked another milestone in 2012 when tens of thousands of citizens demonstrated against the national education policy.

Other examples of populism abound, including public opposition to the removal of Queen's Pier, the express rail link and the New Territories development plans.

While populism in Western democracies has been marked by the emergence of populist parties, both left and right, and their incorporation into the political system, the Hong Kong case is worrying in several aspects.

First, populist forces here are not co-opted into the existing political system. With no chance of grasping political power, some populists in the democratic camp have resorted to adopting obstructionist tactics, such as filibustering, and even confronting the police outside the Legislative Council building. If this situation persists, it may only be a matter of time before we see violent confrontations.

At that juncture, any decision by the government to prosecute the law-breakers will be highly controversial.

Second, these populists are going to clash with their counterparts from the establishment front. On the night of the June 4 candlelight vigil, pan-democratic supporters scuffled with pro-Beijing activists who set up a booth at Victoria Park. And, recently, the attack of a young man - who was on trial for trespassing at the People's Liberation Army barracks in Hong Kong - outside court was a testimony to the danger of populism.

Street-level confrontations between the two sides will probably become more prominent and serious in the years ahead, especially during the 2015 district council elections, in which both sides will compete fiercely for the directly elected seats.

Third, Beijing sees democratic populism in Hong Kong as a national security issue not only challenging the legitimacy of the Hong Kong government but also potentially disrupting public order. The recent white paper on the implementation of the "one country, two systems" policy has reiterated the positive role of the PLA in Hong Kong.

Implicitly, if the local police cannot effectively deal with democratic populists' protests, the central authorities reserve the right to deploy the PLA - a scenario Beijing must avoid as far as possible. Beijing's position on democratic populism is clear: the danger is that it will become the ally of foreign political forces that seek to democratise Hong Kong and disrupt local public order.

Fourth, the Occupy Central movement will probably test the limits of tolerance not only of the Hong Kong police but also the central government. Although the movement organisers assert their ideals of justice and peace, the problem is that democratic populists are deeply divided into moderates and radicals. While the moderates stress the strategy of using both street rallies and political dialogue, the radicals tend to see political compromise as a betrayal of Hong Kong's interests.

In the event that the moderates-led Occupy movement were to be hijacked by the radicals, who have nothing to lose, the ability of the local police to handle populist rallies and protests will come into question.

Fifth, it is alarming that more young people are joining the democratic populist front and are determined to confront the police at the risk of being arrested. Two factors account for their emergence.

The first is generational change. The young democratic populists have been radicalised through their social networks and have developed a strong sense of nativism against the influx of mainland immigrants and tourists.

The other factor is the tendency of the young to stress their political rights rather than obligations. In mainland China, citizens are educated to heed their political obligations more than their rights. In Hong Kong, however, the opposite is true. Their obligations are not covered extensively in the secondary school curriculum. One consequence of introducing the liberal studies curriculum in secondary schools is an increasing political awareness among many young people.

Given these factors, the mass rallies of the radical democratic populists have attracted many young Hong Kong citizens.

Hence, we're seeing not just a rise in populism but also a rise in more radical populism. The Hong Kong police will have to deal with more radical nativists and democratic populists than ever before.

Sonny Lo is professor and head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education