Hong Kong's Democrats must live by their own creed

Alice Wu says Democrats must tolerate internal voices of dissent or risk losing public support over autocratic handling of conflict

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 April, 2015, 9:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 April, 2015, 9:02pm

The Democratic Party's central committee will be handling a complaint lodged against former legislator Nelson Wong Sing-chi for openly defying the party line. While the party should be given space to resolve the dispute among its own, what has transpired since veteran member and former legislator Tik Chi-yuen and Wong openly called for colleagues to back the government's electoral reform package is more than just an internal matter.

This will be the party's biggest test of its democratic values in its 20 years of existence. The Democrats have been pretty vocal about the substance of "real" democracy, so how will they handle one of its key elements - debate and dissent?

Does freedom of speech go as far as giving members the right to dissent without the fear of victimisation? The answer may be no, from what we have seen so far. The party has already issued a warning to members, threatening disciplinary action if they are found to be the initiators of a petition calling on legislators to accept the government's political reform package.

Political witchhunts aren't exactly the sort of image democracy conjures up.

It's important to understand that the problem isn't the fact that a complaint was made; after all, a party needs some discipline. The problem is the knee-jerk response of those who made the complaint. One of them, Zachary Wong Wai-yin, also a party veteran and former lawmaker, slammed Tik and Wong as "hermit crabs", suggesting that they were not Democrats to begin with, accusing them of taking advantage of the party's name for "their own goals", and basically telling them to just quit the party. It is mean and, more importantly, undemocratic.

Tik, in fact, raised valid and thoughtful questions, deserving of contemplation, not condemnation, let alone character assassination: "Why else would we mock Leung Chun-ying as '689'? How could we use public opinion [as an argument] to attack our opponents but not consider it ourselves?"

Answering dissenters' questions by retaliation - suppression, name-calling, alienation, and expulsion - isn't accommodating nor tolerating dissent. If that is the sort of culture the Democratic Party cultivates - and tolerates - then the party is more autocratic than democratic in nature.

Whatever happened to the democratic spirit that is supposed to give differences their due place, recognition, and respect? If the party is unable to manage its own conflicts without resorting to undemocratic ways, how would its brand of democracy - its system, values, and processes - be able to harness the people's diversity of perspectives and insights?

The sooner those who were angered by Tik and Wong realise that the way the party handles the complaint against Wong will discredit the party's image more than open dissent would hurt it, the better.

Rest assured that whatever public confusion or harm to the image of the Democratic Party they feel the petition may pose, there's no contest when it comes to what is truly damaging the party's image.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA