Party games with survival the prize

THE planned merger of the liberal United Democrats and Meeting Point resembles the old fable about the blind man and the crippled man, which teaches that problems can be solved through co-operation.

The blind man could walk but was desperate to find the right way to go, the cripple knew the way but needed a strong man to carry him. Eventually, each overcame his shortcomings through a simple deal - the blind man carried the cripple on his back, while the cripple told the blind man what paths to take.

This is the kind of dilemma that has spurred the United Democrats and Meeting Point to merge.

The United Democrats are fighting hard for a way to break the wall between them and China, while Meeting Point needs to survive the 1995 elections.

Meeting Point's three directly elected legislators, all of whom received strong support from the United Democrats during the 1991 elections, are now fighting hard for survival.

None could be sure of a safe return to the legislature in 1995. Indeed, commentators are predicting the opposite, saying at least two of the three will lose, with only Fred Li Wah-ming from Kowloon East standing a fair chance of survival. But he will face strong challenges from the Liberal Party and the pro-China Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong.

Political parties live on power - what kind of role could Meeting Point play in the local political arena if it was left with one legislator, or none, in the Legislative Council? The desperate struggle faced by the Association of Democracy and People's Livelihood has already shed some light on the subject and Meeting Point's secretary general, Lo Chi-kin, has admitted the party was facing an extremely difficult period after Governor Chris Patten revealed his political reform package, which polarised the community, leaving little room for a moderate party.

That is probably why its chairman, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, a newly-appointed Hong Kong Affairs adviser who has yet to receive his formal recruitment letter from China, decided to risk his decade-long relationship with Chinese officials and press ahead with the merger plan - apparently an act of defiance to China.

Beijing has been making painstaking efforts to isolate the UDHK, but that united front strategy is likely to collapse once Mr Cheung forms a bloc with the ''subversive'' Martin Lee Chu-ming and Szeto Wah.

So the sudden announcement of combining his party with the United Democrats should appear at the least as a snub to the Chinese authorities, if not a ''Trojan horse'' in their midst.

On the other hand, the United Democrats, though undoubtedly the liberal flagship of Hong Kong, are eager to break the ice in their relationship with China, which has repeatedly refused to have any dialogue with the group since its formation in 1990.

Mr Lee knows that it is necessary to break the deadlock. A loner can never be a winner in politics.

The merger plan is the most recent and most drastic step taken by Mr Lee and other core United Democrats to break the impasse. Previously he has made several attempts to save his party's colleagues from China's ''target list''.

In 1990 he resigned from the helm of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, which had been branded as subversive by Chinese leaders.

After that he wrote to Xinhua (the New China News Agency) suggesting talks, but was cold-shouldered by it.

Now comes the merger plan - with Mr Cheung's appointment as a Hong Kong Affairs adviser a fait accompli.

But it is not without risks for those involved: there will be two camps of democrats in the new party. Mr Lee, the territory's champion of democracy may risk his standing in the community if China continues to isolate him. On the other hand, Mr Cheung and his Meeting Point colleagues have to prepare to be branded as equally ''subversive''.

And there is the pressing question of how China is going to react to the merger plan: will it resort to the radical measure of sacking Mr Cheung from his adviser's job? Can the United Democrats begin a dialogue with China with Mr Cheung as the middleman? And how will the members of UDHK and Meeting Point respond? Will the plan lead to an exodus from either party? These are questions to which there are no clear answers yet. But one thing is sure, the advent of the new Democratic Party has turned a new page in the history of Hong Kong party politics.

The United Democrats, itself a by-product of the June 4 crackdown in 1989, will become a legacy of the past. From now on, no single political force in Hong Kong, liberal or conservative, will be able to afford a complete breakdown with China. The curtain has gone up on 1997.