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Legislative Council by-election 2018

Hong Kong’s pan-democrats can win back the public, but only if they get down to basics

Mike Rowse says if it wants to be taken seriously, the pan-democratic camp needs to focus on solutions, especially for those most in need, not the democracy cause and obstructionism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 5:50pm

The good news – such as it is – is that there is a path back for Hong Kong’s pan-democrats following their disappointing performance in the recent by-elections. The bad news is that the path will require courage, tenacity, strategic thinking and self-restraint – qualities conspicuously absent in recent times.

We should start by analysing the outcome of the by-elections. I attach no weight to the loss of the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape functional constituency seat. This was an unexpected gain last time around and arose only because there were two pro-government candidates competing against each other, allowing the democrat to win with a minority share of the vote. The pair did not make the same mistake in the by-election. 

The really damaging aspect was the outcome in the three geographic constituencies. The outright loss of Kowloon West was stunning. The inept campaigning style of the losing candidate was certainly a factor, but there were also signs of disunity in the camp and a general fatigue among the electorate over abuse of filibustering tactics in the past four years. 

Also striking was the result in New Territories East. The pan-democrat did regain the seat lost via disqualification of the previous incumbent, but the real eye-opener was the performance of the third party, Livelihood First candidate Christine Fong Kwok-shan, who captured almost 65,000 votes – 15 per cent. The victorious Gary Fan Kwok-wai took less than half of the votes. This was a clear sign that many voters are looking for other options. 

Hong Kong pan-democrats’ by-election losses show the politics of anger is losing its lustre

On Hong Kong Island, the winning margin was only 50 per cent to 47 per cent, a far cry from the glory days when the democratic camp could count on the support of around 60 per cent of the electorate. 

So, what should the democrats do to claw their way back? First, they must cleanly break with pro-independence activists, including “self-determination” advocates if one option of their proposed referendum is an independent Hong Kong. One only has to read as far as Article 1 of the Basic Law to know that there is no prospect of a future for our city separate from China. The delusion of those who think otherwise, however attractive they may seem as individuals on a personal level, needs to be confronted. This will take a combination of diplomacy and courage. 

Independence or self-determination: whatever you call it, it’s still separatism

Second, the pan-democratic camp needs to be more selective in the issues on which it launches all-out attacks on the government. Many months after the community at large accepted – even welcomed – the co-location arrangements at the high-speed rail terminal in West Kowloon, some pan-dem leaders still banged on about how this would be the end of the world. It won’t. The next issue likely to stir them to fury while putting the electorate to sleep is the national anthem law. They need to accept that there is an anthem, there needs to be a local law to cover it, and their focus should be on finding a smooth path to do so while finessing minor wrinkles in an unhysterical way. Will they have the self-control? 

National anthem should start on the right note in Hong Kong

Similarly with the public works projects backlog. Choose one or two where there is an issue and hold the administration’s feet to the fire. Wave the rest through and get Hong Kong back to work. 

The cause of political reform remains an important one for the community, and one to which the administration needs to return soon. But it is not front of mind now for most ordinary people. They are more concerned with livelihood issues like the cost of housing, career prospects for their children and so on. The democrats need to focus on matters of concern to the grass roots. This is the area where they are strongest. The reason they went into politics in the first place and fought for a more representative system of government was to improve the circumstances of the poorer members of society. It is folly of the highest order to allow others to seize the initiative here. 

Political courage has to be shown when it comes to empty Hong Kong flats

The next priorities are to unify the camp better and strengthen electioneering tactics. The primary system was a good idea for a by-election because there is only one candidate per seat. For the next election, where this factor does not apply, there needs to be a proper carve-up of the different constituencies and discipline to adhere to the outcome. Some political leaders will miss out, but need to swallow their pride and get their supporters out to vote for the agreed slate of candidates. And when it gets to the campaign itself, everyone has to get out into the streets and housing estates and face the electorate squarely. Hong Kong voters want to look people in the eye and squeeze their shoulders to size them up. Barking at them through loudhailers is just not going to cut the mustard. 

If they can do all this – it is a big if – the pan-democratic camp can regain support. They would also raise the level of public discourse, which will benefit all sides.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. mike@rowse.com.hk