Michael Tien splits from Liberals, citing principles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am

The Liberal Party is going through its second major split in as many years after senior member Michael Tien Puk-sun quit because of differences over issues of principle.

The split shows the weakness of the party, which is torn between a wish to woo broader popular support and a struggle to retain the backing of the business sector whose views it is meant to represent.

At a press conference with Liberals chairwoman Miriam Lau Kin-yee after days of speculation over a party power struggle, Tien said he had decided to leave, but stressed that he harboured no ill feelings.

'I was of the belief that the Liberal Party needed to walk on two legs: while representing the business sector, it will listen to the voice of the people,' Tien said. 'The Liberal Party can indeed tilt in favour of the business sector, but in doing so it must ultimately be guided by the overall interests of the community.'

He said his key difference with the party was how to interpret this principle, and how leaders applied it while taking a stance on public affairs.

Citing incidents which led to clashes between him and the party, Tien said he considered quitting six months ago but stayed after leaders tried to reconcile their conflicts.

But his recent backing of a campaign to boycott Cafe de Coral over its plans to offer workers a pay rise if they gave up their right to a paid lunch break shocked party ranks. The decision was later reversed because of public outrage.

Party vice-chairman Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, the lawmaker representing the catering sector, fiercely attacked Tien's position. Yesterday he declined to comment.

Tien admitted that many people told him his stance would cause confusion about the party's position. 'How do I know when would be the next time when such things happen? Asking me to keep silent means making my strength irrelevant,' he said. 'Relieved of this burden, I can breathe easier again.'

Tien said he planned to run for a seat in the 2012 Legco election, and would not rule out either starting a political party or joining another. He said he reached an understanding with the Liberals not to compete for seats they planned to target.

Lau said her party and Tien remain on good terms and the parting was mutually beneficial because the Liberals had been under fire from businessmen for focusing more on a populist agenda rather than business interests since its defeat in the 2008 Legco election.

'It is difficult for us to please both sides. For us to do well, we have to consolidate support from businesses. When Michael's stance is not accepted by businesses, we are in trouble as we are sandwiched in between,' she said.

But she denied that the party would ditch its pledge of moving towards contesting directly elected seats. At present, all three party lawmakers represent trade-based functional constituencies.

Both Lau and Tien briefed the central government's liaison office on Thursday of the decision.

Internal strife dogged the party after the defeat of its then chairman, James Tien Pei-chun - Tien's brother - and the then vice-chairwoman, Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, in 2008. Four Liberal lawmakers quit to start rival group Economic Synergy.

Commentator Allen Lee Peng-fei, founding chairman of the Liberals, said Tien's departure was a sign of the party's weakened political position and it was destined to collapse.