What hope for Hong Kong’s political future, as moderates are sidelined and cross-party cooperation is stymied?

Gary Cheung says the dramatic change in the political image of Emily Lau, once seen as a hardliner but now considered too moderate by radicals, is a worrying indicator of the direction Hong Kong’s politics is taking

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 January, 2016, 3:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 January, 2016, 3:04pm

In his bestselling 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama lamented how the country and, in particular, Washington, was divided politically. “Not only did we disagree, but we disagreed vehemently, with partisans on each side of the divide unrestrained in the vitriol they hurled at opponents,” he wrote. Obama, who was elected US president two years later, noted that senators from the Democratic and Republican parties seldom crossed the aisles to get something done.

It is believed that Beijing does not want parties across the political spectrum to get together

The US president’s observation may shed light on the increasingly divided political landscape in Hong Kong. Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing has been known for her tough style in her pursuit of full democracy since she was first elected a legislator in 1991. In August 1996, she and four other pro-democracy lawmakers co-founded the Frontier, a political group which took a more radical and uncompromising stance than the Democratic Party.

Four months later, she and three pan-democratic allies protested against the “small-circle” chief executive election by lying down in the middle of the road in Wan Chai, earning her the nickname “street-sleeping Hing”. Today, that doesn’t seem like such a big deal in the light of the proliferation of grandstanding protests, never mind the Occupy Central protests in 2014.

Lau became vice-chairwoman of the Democratic Party in 2008 by leading the merger of the two groups. Two years later, she was one of three Democratic Party representatives involved in talks with the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong over the 2012 elections.

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A last-ditch U-turn by Beijing led to an agreement based on the party’s idea of allowing the 3.2 million voters who cannot cast a ballot in a functional constituency to elect five so-called super-seat lawmakers.

Since then, Lau has apparently lost the support of young people and radical supporters of the pro-democracy movement, who consider her too moderate. She was booed by those protesting against the controversial copyright law last month over her party’s stance.

Two weeks ago, she decided not to seek re-election in the Legislative Council election in September.

The dramatic change in Lau’s political image is testament to the worrying transformation in Hong Kong’s political landscape in the past few years. In the increasingly polarised political environment, the market for middle-of-the-road politicians and parties appears to be shrinking.

The increasingly divided legislature has also made it virtually impossible for cross-party co-operation to get things done.

READ MORE: Trumping Trump: With Hong Kong gearing up for an election, brace for lawmakers spouting even more offensive nonsense

Knowing full well that it is a tall order for rival parties to reach a consensus on political issues, Lau made efforts to cross the political aisle by spearheading an eight-party coalition in 2001. It successfully forced the government to incorporate suggestions agreed by parties across the spectrum, such as a waiver of property rates and quarantine of residents in a block in Amoy Gardens in Kowloon Bay at the height of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003.

But the coalition collapsed after the 2004 Legco election. It is believed that Beijing does not want parties across the political spectrum to get together, while the Hong Kong government considers such a united front a threat to the executive-led system.

“Yes We Can” was the slogan used by Obama for his 2008 presidential election campaign. Given the increasing polarisation in society and Beijing’s negative attitude towards party politics here, I have realistic grounds to worry that it’s a case of “No We Can’t” in Hong Kong.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor