Hong Kong democrats have given up their moral high ground – and now there’s no turning back
John Chan says ideals have been exchanged for realpolitik after they threw themselves into trying to sway an election they once rejected as illegitimate
To those who have been watching local politics closely over the past two decades, one of the most notable changes among mainstream pan-democrats has been their shift from political pragmatism to idealism.
At the change of sovereignty 20 years ago, there was unanimous acceptance that the undemocratic political structure we inherited from the colonial era was far from ideal, but there was an unspoken consensus that, given time, it would be changed.
The change the democrats expected – that political reform would usher in universal suffrage for both the chief executive and Legislative Council elections – failed to materialise. Disillusionment set in, and mainstream pan-democrats abandoned their path of achieving universal suffrage step by step. Instead, they opted for an all-or-nothing approach, dismissing gradual reform through compromise as a betrayal of their ideals.
Such a mentality has become endemic among almost all pan-democratic supporters, and was the main driving force behind the unyielding 79-day Occupy Central movement, and the subsequent rejection by pan-democratic lawmakers of the chief executive electoral reform package based on the National People’s Congress 2014 decision.
Stagnation in electoral reform and the resultant lack of a mandate for the chief executive has been the core reason for pan-democrats’ refusal to cooperate with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his government over the past five years.
The pan-democrats turned to the moral high ground of “genuine democracy” as a theoretical basis to denounce the existing political order, brought about by elections that are far from democratic, as they understand the concept.
By referring to Leung Chun-ying as “689”, a reference to the fact that he won the election with 689 votes out of a total of 1,200 in the small-circle election dominated by Beijing loyalists, the pan-democrats and their supporters show they do not just hold the election in contempt; they do not even accept the legitimacy of the chief executive and the SAR government.
Nonetheless, all this changed with the pan-democrats’ enthusiastic participation in the small-circle election last month.
Bowing to realpolitik, mainstream pan-democrats breached their political ethics not only by withholding their support for veteran comrade “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung’s bid to become a candidate; they also threw their support behind John Tsang Chun-wah, a candidate firmly in the pro-establishment camp who saw Beijing’s blessing as crucial.
The stunning change from complete rejection of the system they abhor to active participation must be seen as a turning point for mainstream pan-democrats – from political idealism to pragmatism. There can be no turning back now they have abandoned the moral high ground of not accepting anything short of full democracy, and engaged in realpolitik where cooperation and compromise are the rules of the game.
From here on, the pan-democrats can no longer lambast the undemocratic nature of a system that produces a chief executive with a small number of winning votes, whether it be 689 or 777. They have lost the moral right to do so, given the passion they showed for this small-circle election.
But have they adjusted to this new reality?
On the Friday before the Sunday election, key figures from the pan-democratic camp turned out in force at a 5,000-strong rally to give their wholehearted support to Tsang’s bid. On Saturday, inexplicably, some 1,000 people from the same group of pan-democrats took part in a march to denounce the undemocratic nature of the small-circle election that they had ardently embraced the previous evening.
On election day, pan-democratic leaders criticised cronyism in the formation of the current SAR government. But when asked whether the pan-dems would join the new government, they gave wishy-washy answers.
All these signs show that pan-democratic leaders have yet to adjust their mindset to the new reality where cooperation and compromise are the rule of thumb.
John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party