Hunger strike for universal suffrage reaches eighth day but is starved of support

Radicals within pan-democratic camp pour scorn on fasting

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 11:04am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2014, 5:41am

Hunger strikes are used by activists in many countries to pressure governments to change policy. The protest method is traditionally used by Hong Kong activists, too, but it is now being ridiculed as "old school".

Pan-democrats who took part in an ongoing hunger strike for universal suffrage believe it is one of the few ways they can arouse public attention.

On a gloomy Wednesday morning, Lam Cheuk-ting sat outside HSBC headquarters in Central. Troubling him was not just chilly weather but also hunger - the politician had not eaten for 120 hours.

For Lam, chief executive of the Democratic Party, the fight for universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election is worth the personal sacrifice. He and 16 other pan-democrats joined the hunger strike that began on March 28.

By yesterday, five were still holding out. The rest of the team, comprising fellow Democrats and Labour Party members, had abandoned the struggle as their biological indicators fell to critical levels.

At 6pm yesterday, the five broke the 171-hour record for a Hong Kong hunger strike set by retired teacher James Hon Lin-shan during his anti-national-education protest in September 2012.

Yet few, including some political allies, appreciated their efforts. "People say a hunger strike is useless and old school, and unlikely to bring any change," Lam said. "Still, at least we come out and do something."

The reference to being "old school" is but a mild criticism of the protest method.

Radicals within the pan-democratic camp have poured scorn on the fasting. Binge-eating "could also be a means to fight for democracy", the sarcastic among them said. In a Facebook event page titled "Hotpot for Universal Suffrage", more than 120 people pledged to gather in Central to mock the hunger strike.

Other pan-democrats either gave tepid support to the fasters or stood on the sidelines. Labour Party chairman Lee Cheuk-yan, who co-ordinated the fast, bemoaned how cynical Hongkongers had become.

"There is too much negative sentiment in society about everything," Lee said. "Even if I don't agree with certain approaches [in fighting for democracy] I won't discourage them. If you want to eat hotpot, just do it.

"The hunger strike does not have the total endorsement of the pan-democratic camp … We invited other pan-democratic parties, including the Civic Party. But this is how it has turned out," he said, referring to the final Democrat-Labour line-up of fasters. The pan-democrats' core demand for public nomination has been resisted by local and Beijing officials since the government began its consultation on political reform in December. During last month's annual session of the National People's Congress, its chairman, Zhang Dejiang , said Western electoral models might become a "democracy trap" and result in catastrophe. The comment was seen as effectively ruling out allowing eligible voters to nominate candidates for the chief executive election.

Lee said advocates for the public nomination of chief executive candidates had mulled their options. "To change the momentum of the reform battle, we either organise a mass public movement or do something that may not be massive but will have an impact," he said. "Would yet another rally be better than this hunger strike?"

"The action [fast] will end when the last of this batch of 17 people gives up. Then we will organise the second and third waves of hunger strike around July, depending on developments in the stance of the government and the Beijing-loyalist camp on political reform. Heavyweights such as Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and [Democratic Party founding chairman] Martin Lee Chu-ming have volunteered to join."

Zen, 82, risks harming himself if he fasts. In 2011, he lived on only water for three days to protest against school reforms.

"We have been advised to discourage the cardinal from joining the hunger strike," Lee said. "We will seek further advice."