Can Democratic Party be divided and still conquer?
Radicalism on the rise in a battle-scarred party that once commanded the most seats in Legco
Four years ago, the Democratic Party alienated its allies by entering into private talks with Beijing.
Today, the 20-year-old party stands again at the crossroads of political reform, by turns moderate and radical, seemingly cautious about radical reform and yet aligning itself with the Occupy Central civil disobedience drive.
On one hand, it is not party to the majority call in the pan-democratic camp that the public's right to nominate chief executive hopefuls in 2017 is "indispensable" - an idea that government officials on both sides of the border have shot down.
But the Democrats do insist, like the rest of the camp, that the city's electoral reforms must follow international standards on universal suffrage.
Notably, they are also the only pan-democrats who have officially taken an oath, on February 5, to join the Occupy campaign, which plans to block the main financial district if the government fails to deliver a satisfactory democracy model to elect the city's chief executive.
Just on Tuesday, party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing reiterated their resolve to take part in the civil disobedience action, which could happen as soon as next month when the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress presents principles for the reform framework.
"There are always tensions within the party. Some people think we should take a stern stance to fight," a party member said on condition of anonymity.
"Others believe we should leave room for future negotiation [with the local or Beijing government]. That is why the public might get the impression that the party is sometimes radical and sometimes moderate."
Scarred by the last reform battle, party members said they would take a more cautious approach this time. Many would agree 2010 marked a watershed for the Democratic Party. That year, much to the consternation of its allies, the party held private negotiations - as did some other pan-democrats - with the central government's liaison office and then voted in favour of the official reform proposals for the 2012 chief executive and Legislative Council elections.
Those proposals included the party's idea to allow candidates for five new Legco seats to be nominated by elected district councillors, and to be voted on by the city's 3.2 million voters.
The party insists it has no regrets, yet it is still paying the price for talking privately with Beijing and failing to consult the public - an act radicals said "betrayed Hongkongers".
"Society in general does not trust the party much [after 2010] no matter what we do. They believe we will eventually backtrack [on reform]," 26-year-old Kelvin Lai King-wai, who leads the party's creative media division, said. "The 2010 experience is definitely one of our concerns … We know society still has expectations of us and hope we can put on a good show in the battle this year. And our stance is actually very clear and consistent - we will occupy Central if the government's proposal fails to meet international standards."
Indeed, they put their words into action on the morning of July 2, when members joined in occupying Chater Road as a rehearsal for Occupy Central. Five Democrats were arrested.
One of them, Southern district councillor Au Nok-hin, said he saw no room for negotiation over reform at this critical moment. "I cannot see what we can achieve without a struggle," he said. "The Democratic Party gambled its political capital in 2010 on negotiations [with the liaison office], but got nothing."
Au said the Chater Road incident had inspired more of his party colleagues to back taking the radical stance, particularly with their former chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan also arrested. "It was a turning point," he noted.
The Democratic Party, founded in 1994, was for years seen as the most prominent pro-democracy party. Once the biggest party in the 60-strong Legco, it held 13 seats in the 1998 and 2000 polls, beating close rival the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
Even after the pro-establishment DAB overtook the Democratic Party in 2004, it retained its position as the leading pan-democratic grouping in Legco, winning eight seats in the 2008 election. The reform fiasco two years later, however, cost the party two seats in 2012.
Radical pan-democrats, particularly from People Power, never stopped criticising the Democrats for holding the "secret talks". The rift between them was also a reason why the Democrats recently quit the Alliance for True Democracy, a grouping that had consisted of 26 out of 27 pan-democratic lawmakers.
The alliance proposes letting the public, political parties and a nominating committee put forward chief executive candidates.
Political scientist Ma Ngok, of Chinese University, says the different voices in the Democrats and their exit from the alliance may confuse the public. "People might wonder how the party, which backs the alliance's proposal, could promote it if it was not in the alliance."
Core Democrat and former chairman Professor Yeung Sum said the Democrats learned two lessons from the 2010 incident. Firstly, the party would engage in dialogue with central government officials over reform only if other pan-democrats decided to do it together as a "negotiation team", he said.
Secondly, the party's reform preference would be shaped by Occupy's second unofficial referendum, which would put up the government's proposal for voting. "We believe this would be the best way to solve many conflicts and ease the pressure we're under," Yeung said.