Outgoing DAB chairman Tam Yiu-chung looks to a new generation

Beijing loyalist reflects on defeat that changed the course of his political career

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 February, 2015, 10:27pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 February, 2015, 4:20am

September 17, 1995, was a red- letter day in the career of Tam Yiu-chung. The veteran Beijing-loyalist politician had given up his Legislative Council seat representing the labour sector after a decade to fight for one of 18 geographical seats elected by the public at large.

But as the votes came in for Kowloon Southeast, Tam slipped to a narrow defeat, finishing a little over 2,000 votes behind the Democratic Party candidate Fred Li Wah-ming.

It was a bitter blow to Tam, who had been the sole Legco representative of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. But it was a brighter night for his party, which picked up six Legco seats, setting it on the way - via a merger with the Progressive Alliance - to becoming today's Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the city's largest party.

Looking back, Tam still believes he made the right choice.

"Someone said to me, 'Why should you bother? Just stay where you are'," Tam said. "But I thought I shouldn't occupy my [labour sector] seat for too long, and I should let someone else have a chance. So I took the initiative and stood in a direct election, of which I had no experience."

Just as his departure in 1995 paved the way for six new lawmakers to begin their careers, 65-year-old Tam's decision last month to quit as DAB chairman opened the door for a new generation of leaders.

Tam's 40-year-old deputy Starry Lee Wai-king is widely expected to become the party's first chairwoman. The leadership reshuffle will mark the first time the DAB, in its various forms, has not been led by one of its founding fathers. Tam and his predecessors, Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing and the late Ma Lik, were part of a five-member group that founded the party in 1992.

While Tsang was a high- profile educator and Ma a newspaper editor, Tam brought his experience as a legislator and a vice-chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions. His involvement reflected the party's will to reach out to the professional class as well as to the workers.

But Tam's involvement in social and labour affairs had started 24 years earlier in 1968, when, as a 19-year-old window display designer, he joined a union representing department store workers.

His interest in workers' rights led him to take a more active role in the labour movement, becoming vice-chairman of his retail union in 1975 and rising through the ranks to join Cheng Yiu-tong, now the FTU's honorary president, as one of the FTU's vice-chairmen in 1982.

Tam described 1985 as a "turning point"; he was appointed to the body drafting the city's post-handover mini-constitution and became a lawmaker.

That was the year the British colonial government for the first time allowed indirect elections to the previously all-appointed Legco with the creation of 12 functional constituencies and 12 seats elected by members of the urban and regional councils and district boards. Tam was returned uncontested in the labour constituency, while pro-democracy stalwarts Szeto Wah and Martin Lee Chu-ming were elected in the education and legal sectors.

"At that time, I knew very little about what the Basic Law [would mean to Hong Kong]," Tam recalled. "I also moved from only working on the federation's internal … and labour rights affairs, to working in the political arena."

Tam conceded that representing the labour sector gave him little opportunity to gain experience of grass-roots work at district level, a key reason for his failed 1995 campaign.

But that was only a temporary setback, as he was elected by a 400-strong committee to the provisional legislature that operated for a year after the 1997 handover.

Tam was elected again in 1998, when another shake-up saw the creation of large, multimember seats and he was chosen to lead the DAB slate in New Territories West.

"I am keen on grooming new candidates," he said. "It was good last time in 2012 because we had two new faces elected in New Territories West. I think there will be new faces in 2016 because some of us are retiring," Tam said, referring to his long-time colleague Jasper Tsang and Kowloon East lawmaker Chan Kam-lam, both expected to step down.

But Tam said a decision on his own retirement was still in the balance. November's district council elections will be a major factor, as they offer an indication of the balance of power between the pan-democratic bloc and the pro-establishment camp.

Since Tam took the helm after Ma's death in 2007, the DAB has grown rapidly. Its membership more than doubled from about 10,000 to 26,566 by December last year, while it also doubled its number of district councillors to 132. But the DAB has also faced criticism for its close ties and support for the central government.

Last April, there was controversy after property tycoon Hui Wing-mau paid HK$13.8 million at a party fundraising auction for a piece of calligraphy by Zhang Xiaoming , director of the central government's liaison office. That led to speculation that big money was going to the DAB from people eager to show fealty to Beijing and prompted James Tien Pei-chun, leader of a fellow pro-establishment party, the Liberals, to describe the DAB as "controlled by Beijing".

The DAB's popularity has also slumped. In August 2007, it was ranked the second most popular political group in town in a University of Hong Kong poll. By October last year it ranked seventh.

The DAB also strongly backs Beijing's framework on political reform, the key issue that triggered the 79-day Occupy Central protests for democracy last year.

But, when asked whether his party was too loyal and unwilling to criticise the local and central governments, Tam told the Post that it had been "acknowledging what they did right, and pointing out what they did wrong".

As a local deputy to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Tam said his party colleagues submitted dozens of proposals in the annual session of the national legislature and CPPCC every year, on things Beijing "should improve on".

"We told [former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen] to build more subsidised homes, but he didn't listen … We also told [the current government] the one-month rent waiver for public housing tenants needs to be kept," he added, referring to a relief measure that may be scaled back in next month's budget.

Tam also believes that the DAB's "rational and pragmatic" role remains important as some residents are worried that Hong Kong is becoming more "chaotic" in the aftermath of Occupy.


Tam Yiu-chung

Age: 65

Education: Adult education, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University; Trade union studies, London School of Economics and Political Science

Family: Married, with two sons

Political posts:
1985-95: Legislative Council member (Labour)
1997-2002: Executive Council member
1998-now: Legislative Council member (New Territories West)
1992-97, 2002-07: DAB vice-chairman
Since 2003: Local delegate to the CPPCC
Since August 2007: DAB chairman

Past commitments:
Elderly Commission chairman, 1997-2005
Employees Retraining Board chairman