After Occupy, Liberal Party head seeks middle ground in divided Hong Kong

Felix Chung takes over as chairman of the Liberal Party with a mission to win over those frustrated by polarised views after Occupy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 December, 2014, 5:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2014, 6:24pm

When Felix Chung Kwok-pan came back to Hong Kong at the age of 24 in 1987, his career didn't seem to be heading in a direction that would see him becoming a political leader.

Fresh from studying in Scotland, with an MBA and a bachelor's degree in surveying under his belt, he joined a local firm of surveyors.

"But business was not too good at that time," Chung said. "Property prices slumped in the early 1980s when China and Britain started negotiations on Hong Kong's future … and in 1984, [when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed], a flat in Heng Fa Chuen was as cheap as HK$500 a square foot.

"When I returned to Hong Kong, the market had stabilised, but was not really growing … So I told my dad I wanted to help him with his garment business, and he was happy," he recalls.

It was a decision that was to change his life. Two decades later, Chung had risen to become chairman of the Hong Kong Apparel Society and decided to challenge as an independent for the textile and garments seat in the Legislative Council.

His rival in 2008 was Sophie Leung Lau Yau-fun, who had represented the sector for a decade - ironically, as a member of the Liberal Party, of which Chung is now chairman.

Leung won by 1,255 votes to 711, but soon fell out with her party amid a power struggle and, along with two other lawmakers, left to form a new group, Economic Synergy.

Chung said the Liberals' honorary chairman James Tien Pei-chun approached him in 2009 and, determined to win back the lost seats, asked him to join the business-friendly party.

"I guess as an independent who had no election experience, I did OK winning 30 per cent of the vote," Chung said of the 2008 poll.

Leung announced her retirement ahead of the 2012 poll and groomed Henry Tan, CEO and president of Luen Thai Holdings, to run. But Chung defeated Tan by 1,076 votes to 843. His victory and that of Tien, who reclaimed the seat in New Territories East he had lost in 2008, took the Liberals to five lawmakers, two more than before the election.

The experience of two hotly contested elections helped Chung secure the job of party chairman on December 1. He now faces a much bigger challenge: preparing the party for the 2016 elections, when the Liberals hope to win more geographical seats, elected by the public, in addition to maintaining their strength in the trade-based constituencies, elected by business leaders and corporations.

"Considering the party's long-term development, we must groom new talents and let them gain experience … A party can work comprehensively if they have seats in both the functional and the geographical groups," Chung said.

Although new Liberal leader Vincent Fang Kang told the Post his party was unlikely to contest all five geographical constituencies, Chung said it remained a possibility.

Independent lawmaker Lam Tai-fai, who represents the industrial sector, could join the party next month and attempt to succeed Tien in New Territories East, Chung said - though Lam has hinted at quitting politics. Former transport-sector lawmaker Miriam Lau Kin-yee could run again on Hong Kong Island after losing in 2012, he added.

Lau was 10,000 votes short last time, but two big-hitters from the pro-establishment camp could pass on 2016. Political insiders say Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing could retire, while New People's Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee might focus on the 2017 chief executive election, in which she is strongly expected to run. If the pair do not run, Chung believes the Liberals have a strong chance of picking up one of their seats.

Another factor Chung believes helps the Liberals is the Occupy Central protests, the street blockade for democracy that lasted almost 80 days.

"It changed the city's political ecology," he said. "In the past, there were only two extremes: pro-establishment and pan-democratic. Now there are really some people standing in the middle ... who may not be supporting [either camp] because they see a very divided society.

"They are now [asking] 'why do things have to be in either black or white?'"

The Liberals would appear well-placed to take advantage of that gap in the market. The party has had an uneasy relationship with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying since day one - his main rival, Henry Tang Ying-yen, was once a Liberal lawmaker.

Tien was one of the few in the Beijing-loyalist camp to break ranks and criticise Leung's response to Occupy. His suggestion that Leung consider quitting to break the impasse cost Tien his seat on the nation's top advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Chung and Fang were elected to lead the party unopposed after Tien and chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee stood down. In an apparent rapprochement, Chung and Fang told Leung they would "toe the line on big issues" at a lunch the chief executive hosted on December 9.

But Chung vowed that the Liberals would speak up for those yearning for a middle path in the city's politics. And Chung still believes Tien's outspokenness is a positive for the Liberals.

"Tien's [resignation] has changed many residents' impressions of the Liberal Party … and tens of people told us that they wanted to join us," he said.

The party has about 350 members, including about 150 aged under 45.

Yet despite his optimism, Chung has no intention of following the likes of Tien, Lau and Chow in facing the public by seeking a geographical seat in 2016. "I want to do more for the sector," Chung says. "Maybe I'll try in 2020."


Felix Chung

Age: 51

Education: Bachelor's degree in surveying, Robert Gordon University, Scotland (1986); MBA, Stirling University (1987)

Political career: Lawmaker, textiles and garments sector (since 2012); Liberal Party chairman (since December 1)

Other roles: Honorary life chairman, Hong Kong Apparel Society; Director, Hong Kong Design Centre; Textile and clothing training board member, the Vocational Training Council; Director, the Chinese Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong

Family: Married with a daughter