Four women blaze trail in Hong Kong politics

Family duties and the roles traditional culture assigns women doesn't make it easy for them to take on the challenge of helping run Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 10:19am

They've taken abuse on the campaign trail, had their children picked on at school and been tagged with unflattering nicknames - but women are slowly climbing to the top in Hong Kong politics.

Since December, an unprecedented four women - Emily Lau Wai-hing, Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee - have led major political parties.

It reflects growing participation by women in politics at all levels - from district councils to senior government posts. But women politicians say the challenges remain as family responsibilities and traditional views about the role of women make life tough.

In 1985, just one woman ran for the Legislative Council. In last year's election, 11 women were chosen as lawmakers - all directly elected - a figure that has remained the same since 2004, although Legco grew from 60 to 70 members last year.

In 1982, just 5 per cent of the 403 candidates running for district councils were women. Ten per cent of district council seats were held by women at the time, with appointed councillors lifting the percentage. By the 2011 poll, women made up 18 per cent of candidates and just under 19 per cent of the councillors.

But the city still lags behind the mainland, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore, where more than 20 per cent of lawmakers are women. While South Korea and Thailand have elected a woman to lead their government in recent years, Hong Kong has yet to see a woman candidate nominated for chief executive - although two women, Anson Chan Fang On-sang and incumbent Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, have been chief secretary.

Perhaps the highest-profile woman in Hong Kong politics remains Ip, who started out as a civil servant in the 1970s. She rose to prominence as secretary for security, a job which saw her attacked for her spearheading efforts to introduce controversial national security laws under Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Her first run for office was in a 2007 Legco by-election on Hong Kong Island, when she was defeated by Chan. After winning a Legco seat in 2008, she co-founded the New People's Party in 2011 and is its chairwoman.

As women are traditionally burdened with the responsibility of starting a family, I suppose that some women would choose to focus on family and forgo a career in politics

Building a career wasn't easy for Ip. "When I was young I was always urged to get married and start a family before it was too late," Ip said. "Because of my heavy work responsibilities, I found that I could only do things one at a time. As women are traditionally burdened with the responsibility of starting a family, I suppose that some women would choose to focus on family and forgo a career in politics."

Ip, whose husband Sammy Ip Man-ho died of cancer in 1997, said the challenges of family life remained the biggest factor keeping women out of politics.

"It is largely due to the cost it incurs on family life, especially for women who already have other professional obligations," Ip said. "From canvassing on the streets every day at 6am to sitting through hours of filibusters, electoral politics is a time-consuming business … it's hard to cope with the demanding hours while caring for a young family."

Ip admits that constant personal attacks over Article 23 were a key factor behind her decision to resign shortly after a 500,000-strong protest march against the legislation. The controversy led to attacks by classmates on her daughter Cynthia Ip Wing-yan, now 23 and working for her mother's party.

"It was difficult to be attacked by the media while I was just trying to carry out my duties … the toughest part of it was the impact it had on my daughter," said Ip, who studied for a master's degree at Stanford University after quitting. "I had developed an idea to return to studies before 2003, so with my daughter growing up and the media attacks, I thought it was a good time to take her to the US for school. It was there we rebuilt our mother-daughter relationship."

For Cynthia, being the daughter of a prominent official was tough - especially when she saw opponents attack her mother on the grounds of appearance. Regina Ip's hairstyle famously earned her the nickname "Broomhead".

"I was particularly frustrated with the comments about her appearance - her hairstyle, because I thought that it was tastelessly offensive and irrelevant to her work," Cynthia said. "I think that once we resort to nicknaming or other ad hominem attacks, it is very difficult to have a thoughtful and unbiased discussion on a policy itself.

"We know for a fact that women in politics are more likely to be judged by their appearance than their male counterparts … I question whether there would have been as much negative attention about her appearance if she were a man."

Democratic Party chairwoman Lau has not agreed on much with Ip over the years, but she too can attest to the difficulty of balancing a political career and a family. She admits her political career left her with too little time to spend with her two former husbands - but she has no regrets about putting her cause first. "This is my own choice after all. My colleagues said I was married to my work," Lau, 61, said.

Her election to Legco in 1991 remains her proudest political achievement. "I became the first directly elected female legislator after defeating former member of the United Democrats of Hong Kong Lau Kong-wah - now undersecretary for constitutional and mainland affairs - in the Sha Tin constituency," she recalled.

We know for a fact that women in politics are more likely to be judged by their appearance than their male counterparts … I question whether there would have been as much negative attention about her appearance if she were a man

Lau, a former journalist, also took pride in being the first woman legislator to move a private member's bill in 1994.

"I moved a bill demanding from the colonial government a full direct election in 1995 to replace former governor Chris Patten's constitutional reform package. It sparked fierce debate in the legislature… it was beaten by just one vote in the end. "

She is keen to see more women follow in her footsteps but family duties make that more difficult. "It is more difficult to appeal to women than young people, as many need to take care of their children and household duties." Lau said. "Our government has not done enough on gender mainstreaming to integrate women into the workplace and community service."

Josephine Chan Shu-ying, a district councillor in New Territories West and a member of the Democrats' central committee, says getting women involved in the party is not easy.

"Many female helpers don't want to be associated with the party's ideology, although they are very enthusiastic about community service," Chan said. "They are more comfortable in a capacity as associate members."

Another leader in the pan-democratic camp is Eu, 59, chairwoman of the Civic Party, of which she was founding leader. She narrowly lost in New Territories West in last year's Legco poll, after representing Hong Kong Island for 12 years. Eu, a high-profile rights lawyer before her election, says her first break in politics came largely by accident.

"Before entering politics, I was a chairperson of the Hong Kong Bar Association," she said. "My legal practice had taken up 90 per cent of my time. I was approached by [Democratic Party founder] Martin Lee Chu-ming, who suggested I contest a Legco by-election in 2000 … it was something I never thought of."

Lee said bringing Eu into the race to replace disgraced Beijing loyalist Gary Cheng Kai-nam - found guilty of abuse of power - helped unite the pan-democrats.

"Pan-democrat candidates Kam Nai-wai and Tsang Kin-shing intended to contest [the poll]," Lee said. "But both eventually gave their blessing to Eu. Her eloquence and ever-smiling nature was her edge in winning the race."

But before winning over voters on Hong Kong Island, Eu faced reluctance at home from her husband, neurosurgeon Dr Edmund Woo Kin-wai. "In the beginning, my husband was against me participating, but he compromised with me provided that I had regular medical check-ups. He is 100 per cent behind me now… being a chauffeur, taking me here and there. Without his support, I would never have entered politics."

But the mother-of-three faced trouble on the campaign trail. "When I was canvassing for votes along a street, a man bumped into me and said if I were his wife, he would not let me run for election" Eu said.

She says traditional family values that identify men as the breadwinners and women as homemakers are only one of the factors keeping women away from politics. "My diary was always swamped with meetings … school events and public functions," she said on balancing a political career with raising children. "It was time-consuming."

Things became more difficult in 2007 when a 3mm tumour was found in an artery near her brain. The chances of the tumour bursting are slim, but it could lead to a stroke if it does. "At that time, my husband asked me if it [the Legco work] was still worth it."

Her answer is that she can't resist a challenge - as shown when she performed strongly in a televised debate with former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen over electoral reforms in 2010. "Life is not meant to be a bed of roses," she said. "You can't run away, you need to remain upbeat and always look up."

Blazing a trail for the likes of Ip, Lau and Eu in the 1980s was Chow, the first woman appointed to the legislature in 1981.

"I participated in public service through the appointment system in the 1980s because of my background in broadcasting. At that time, the British governor [Murray MacLehose] needed an adviser familiar with the development of Hong Kong society and public sentiment to give advice on various policies. I witnessed the evolution of our political system."

Women enjoy the same legal rights as their male counterparts to run for public office. They have to make the choice to fight for themselves

Chow became chairwoman of the Liberal Party last year after poor electoral results.

"I was the first woman legislator to raise in Legco the issue of domestic violence … other issues included the shortage of child care services and welfare of the grass roots."

She sees no reason why more women cannot take part in the political process. "Hong Kong is an open society. I don't see any external force to hinder women from running for public office," she said. "Women enjoy the same legal rights as their male counterparts to run for public office. They have to make the choice to fight for themselves."

For some, politics can be a cruel world. Christine Fong Kwok-shan, a Sai Kung district councillor, says she experienced discrimination from councillors.

"I've raised many women's issues in meetings, including flexible working hours for working mothers and setting up workplace child care centres. But [I am] always intimidated by rural district councillors who want me to remain silent … at some official lunch meetings, they even made dirty jokes. They largely undermine women's voices in the community."

Lawmaker and academic Dr Helena Wong Pik-wan said the government could adopt various measures to encourage women to participate in politics.

"There could be a quota system where women must make up at least a minimum proportion of elected representatives," Wong said. "It would create a platform for women representatives to address issues like gender segregation in employment."

But what of the post women have yet to reach - that of chief executive? Former Legco president Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai was tipped as a contender for last year's poll before ruling herself out, while Ip missed out in a late bid to join the race.

Ip refuses to rule herself out of the next poll in 2017. "I am committed to working for the people of Hong Kong in whatever position I may hold," she said.