What Hong Kong pan-democrats must say to even get to the election starting line, and other helpful hints
- Mike Rowse says Lee Cheuk-yan’s defeat in the West Kowloon by-election should press home the point that pan-democrats urgently need a course correction
- They must completely disassociate themselves from pro-independence advocates and stick to grass-roots issues
The sight of two honourable men with essentially similar views fighting tooth and nail against each other in a Legislative Council by-election could mean only one thing. The pan-democrats had failed to learn the lessons of their last set of humiliating election results and the outcome would be the same: a shocking defeat.
Thus, the two heavyweights, Lee Cheuk-yan and Frederick Fung Kin-kee, succeeded in knocking each other out and a political neophyte, Chan Hoi-yan, won the bout. I am not impressed by the argument of some commentators that because Chan gained slightly more votes than Lee and Fung together, the split in the pan-democrat camp did not affect the outcome. The mere fact that there was a split could have persuaded some voters to stay away from the polls altogether, and others – fed up by the infighting among the old dinosaurs – to decide to give a fresh face a chance.
The November result had loud echoes of what had happened in the by-elections in March: then, fighting to regain three “sure win” seats in the geographical constituencies, an inept campaign saw the pan-democrats lose one and barely scrape home in the other two.
In a column in this newspaper at the time, I pointed out four lessons they urgently needed to learn: cut all links with the pro-independence forces, because mature voters know this is a dead end; be much more selective in the issues on which they fight the government, and especially not obstruct routine public works projects; come down from their high horse and stick to grass roots issues; and, finally, stop the bickering and present a united front.
Lee went into bat as a substitute for the previously disqualified Lau Siu-lai, a past advocate of self-determination (with independence as an option on the table). Hardly the kind of clean break voters were looking for. Opposition to virtually all government proposals is still the default option for the pan-democrat camp. Just look at the reflex thumbs down to the East Lantau reclamation plan, which will provide land for, inter alia, public housing.
How Lee managed to be outflanked by Chan on grass-roots issues is something he needs to reflect on. His quarter of a century of tireless work on these issues carried less weight with less-well-off voters than Chan’s carefully scripted manifesto, as the results from individual polling stations clearly show. And the fact that Fung was also a candidate spoke for itself on the issue of unity.
Latest to find himself on thin ice with the independence issue is Legco member Eddie Chu Hoi-dick. He now wants to run as a candidate in lower level rural elections. The returning officer is asking him a range of questions to ascertain his views. Chu has been careful to make it clear he does not himself advocate independence, and he accepts that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. Having already taken an oath to support the Basic Law as part of his Legco admission process, he could hardly do otherwise.
So far, so good, but he is struggling with the self-determination angle. Some advocates argue that Hongkongers alone should decide the city’s future, and one of the options on the table at that time will be independence. Chu has been asked if he agrees. It is a fair question.
Chu is on record as saying: “I don’t advocate independence myself, but Hongkongers can determine their own fate.” Sorry, but this is just not true. Hongkongers will have a say in their own future, but Hong Kong’s fate will be decided by all the people of China, not just the residents here.
The pan-democratic camp has got to face this issue head on, preferably with some robust legal advice in hand. The fact is, if only to protect themselves, returning officers at all levels of election in the future are going to ask where the candidates stand on the issues of independence and self-determination. Let me get candidates’ thought process off to a good start.
The correct answer on independence is: “No, I do not support it, Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.” The correct answer on self-determination is: “Hongkongers have a right to a major say in the future of their city, but independence cannot be an option.”
On the entirely separate question of whether Hong Kong citizens have the right to peaceful advocacy of independence, candidates can refer to the freedom of expression provisions of the Basic Law, and then add the words: “But I do not agree with them.”
They should on no account link the separate issue of free speech to the substantive issue of independence. That will give even fair-minded returning officers – let us give them the benefit of the doubt here – cause to question the candidates’ sincerity.
Executive Council member Ronny Tong Ka-wah has said that it is contradictory to, on the one hand, say one does not support independence and, on the other hand, defend the right of others to peaceful advocacy. Tong overstates the case here, but it could leave room for doubt.
Far safer to keep things simple: when it comes to independence, in the words of Nancy Reagan, just say no.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]