Time to make Hong Kong a party town
New groups entering the political fray should not have to register as companies or societies
Eyebrows have been raised in political circles in the past week over the high-profile announcement by the rural powerbrokers of the Heung Yee Kuk that the organisation plans to form its own political party and run for seats in the Legislative Council.
As kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat put it in announcing the plan: "No vote means no say."
Known as the "King of the New Territories", Lau has long been an influential representative of rural interests in the Beijing-loyalist camp. He holds the kuk's functional seat in Legco and is a member of the government's top advisory body, the Executive Council. But his and the kuk's relationship with the government has turned sour as the government implemented policies affecting the interests of villagers: from its controversial crackdown on illegal structures on village houses to a plan to expand the Tuen Mun landfill.
The latest clash came with Lau's unsuccessful attempt to get lawmakers to vote down the incorporation of a scenic enclave in Sai Kung into the surrounding country park. He accused the government of "forcefully depriving [residents] of their land rights" and drew parallels to the villagers' 19th century fight with the British.
While that incident may have triggered the announcement, Lau said the idea of a party did not come to the kuk overnight. And whatever the public thinks of the kuk's decision to set up a party to stand up for the rights of indigenous villagers against the government, it is inevitable that different interest groups seek to have elected representatives and lobbyists as Hong Kong embraces universal suffrage.
This, and the suggestion by pan-democrats that parties could be given the power to put forward candidates for the 2017 chief executive election, raises another interesting question: does Hong Kong really have political parties?
Surely there are political parties in Legco, you may ask? Yes and no.
The question arises in light of an article by Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, in which he expressed doubts about whether the pan-democrats' two favoured methods of nominating chief executive hopefuls - nomination by the public and parties - fell within the framework of the Basic Law. He based his doubts on a principle of common law that holds that to express one thing is to exclude others; thus the reference to a "nominating committee" in Article 45 of the mini-constitution gives the committee the exclusive power to nominate chief executive hopefuls.
Yuen's remarks sparked a number of debates. One theory holds that Beijing does not strictly consider Hong Kong's political parties to be parties in a strict sense. The city has no formal system of registration for political organisations and parties are registered under the Companies Ordinance or the Societies Ordinance - largely the former, which is known for being easy for applicants.
It has long been an irony of Hong Kong's political scene that those "parties" from the pan-democratic and Beijing-loyalist camps that battle hard to expand their influence by winning Legco seats or joining the debate on the 2017 election are, in law, companies or societies. The same fate awaits new parties like the kuk's.
The introduction of a parties ordinance would be an important first step for the development of real party politics in Hong Kong, though Beijing has never encouraged it due to concern the executive-led system of government would be undermined. However, with the introduction of universal suffrage, more political "parties" can be expected to emerge.
For the sake of healthy political development, it is surely high time that the government and various political forces come together to construct a proper legal framework to govern the activities of political organisations.