Six reasons to feel positive about democracy in Hong Kong
Sonny Lo says although Hong Kong’s democracy movement may be at a low ebb, there are grounds for optimism for the future amid signs of pragmatism and the potential for dealmaking
The dominant view of Hong Kong’s democratic development seems to be that it is in a dark age. This ignores that the drive for democracy here is bound to have its ups and downs. The current “nadir” will eventually lead to a breakthrough, possibly in four or five years, when the chief executive election is again in the political limelight.
Idealists believe the recent legal proceedings against democratic activists testify to Hong Kong’s drift towards authoritarianism. Realists believe the democracy movement entered a cul-de-sac because of the tactics adopted by leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central Movement, and that democrats miscalculated how Beijing would react.
Yet there are grounds for optimism. First, the government of Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor’s emphasis on livelihood issues lays foundations for public trust, paving the way for political dialogue with democrats around 2019 and 2020.
Second, democratic idealists in Hong Kong need to grasp the reality of Chinese politics. There are signs that idealists are learning how to deal with the motherland more realistically by preparing to participate in upcoming Legislative Council by-elections. As such, there is some common ground with Beijing.
Third, even idealistic democracy movement leaders advocate grasping all available opportunities for electoral participation, to capture directly elected seats in the 2019 district council elections.
Fourth, political stakeholders can learn from previous mistakes, then make concessions and compromises. The political reform plan initiated by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s administration failed in 2005, but there was a breakthrough in 2010 when the democrats compromised. Similarly, the failure of all sides to reach a compromise over political reform in 2014 and 2015 does not necessarily mean the next political reform discussions will fail.
Fifth, this transition period is a movement from confrontation to dialogue. Although the time is not ripe for political talks on constitutional reform, real dialogue will surely come.
Finally, we can anticipate that Beijing will reach out to Taiwan, given that the island’s Democratic Progressive Party is increasingly unpopular and riddled with internal factionalism. The opposition Kuomintang is undergoing a process of reform. Once the island’s next presidential election gets close, the mainland authorities responsible for Hong Kong affairs may well reach out to the democrats here, in an indirect effort to influence Taiwan’s electoral politics.
While idealists learn how to adapt pragmatically, realists need not be so pessimistic about the democracy movement. After all, politics is unpredictable and can change rapidly.
Sonny Lo is a professor of politics at HKU SPACE