Hong Kong post-Occupy young bloods eye up district council elections
In the third of our series on the first citywide polls since the Occupy protest, the Post talks to a new breed of politicians inspired by the sit-ins
Political groups emerging from the Occupy sit-ins are evaluating whether to field candidates in November's district council polls - and whether they can separate themselves enough from the protest movement to be viewed by the electorate as people who could make a difference in community politics.
It's a new breed of politician who are making it clear their vision is not always the same as traditional democratic parties, and some say they won't necessarily conform to the practice of "coordinating" candidates to avoid splitting the pro-democracy vote in some constituencies.
Some of the names of the groups highlight their willingness to ignore convention.
The inspiration behind these groups came from a post that appeared on the online forum hkgolden.com right after the 79-day sit-ins for democracy ended in December. Called the "18-district project", the post aimed to connect people who wanted to explore the possibility of running in the district polls.
About 10 groups aligned to different districts have since set up Facebook pages and begun reaching out to people.
One of them is Tsz Wan Chan Constructive Power, which is looking at Wong Tai Sin council. Currently, the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong holds lion's share of the 29 council seats.
The new group, most of whom live in the area, comprises about 10 members, one of whom is Brandy Cheng Yuen-ching. "We won't raise yellow umbrellas when we're working because, after all, not everyone supported the protests," said Cheng, 30, referring to the symbol of the Occupy movement. "But it is my belief that everyone has a right in their home affairs, and from there we build up the spirit of democracy."
With Occupy edged out of the manifestos, the focus is on micro-issues within the various neighbourhoods and "nativist" issues, riding on anti-mainland sentiments and Hongkongers' urge to assert their own cultural identity.
North of the Rings, with its name inspired by the Lord of the Rings novel, is working in Sheung Shui and Fanling in North District, which has seen an expansion of shops catering for parallel traders from Shenzhen, most notably pharmacies.
"We hope our district will have more shops that serve the needs of locals," said Man So. So far about five people in this group are considering running. So said they were in touch with mainstream pan-democrats but insisted it was not an affiliate, despite Democrats and the Labour Party already expressing concerns about post-Occupy groups splitting the pan-democrat vote.
"If we believe we have a higher chance of winning in a certain constituency, we would ask them to give way to us," So said.
Another new group, the East Kowloon Community, has its eyes on Kwun Tong District Council. It is drawing residents' attention to a decision by the council - again under DAB control - to build a HK$100 million musical fountain, arguing it is a waste of public money.
So far, none of the new groups has officially declared plans to run in the district polls. As Cheung Long-hin, of East Kowloon Community, said, they are "testing the water".
Tanya Chan, Civic Party vice-chairwoman, has been in touch with some of the groups. She said: "It would be good if they pooled their resources in one district and together think of new ideas on district management and the role of the councils - that way they can breathe new life into the political scene."
Be prepared to be disillusioned, young activists warned
Back in 2003, another mass protest saw fired-up young activists form political groups. A decade on, they are warning newcomers inspired by Occupy to prepare to be disillusioned.
One major weakness of this last wave of groups was their tendency to be so loosely run as to be unsustainable, said Cheng Ki-kin, a founding member of Civic Act-up, which was formed with politician Cyd Ho Sau-lan's support after the half-million-strong rally on July 1, 2003, decrying plans to introduce national security laws.
"Civic Act-up was so loosely organised that you did not feel you were part of it," Cheng, now a Wan Chai district councillor, said. "There was no regular meeting, and it seemed everyone was working independently and separately, especially after the 2003 [district council] elections."
Cheng himself quit Civic Act-up soon after 2003, while Ho now serves as a Labour Party lawmaker after co-founding the new party in 2012.
"A loose organisation is difficult to sustain. You need a clear goal and a road map. Slogans such as genuine democracy are too abstract and clichéd. What is it and how and when this can be achieved? No one seems to know, or care," he said. And the problem was not confined to Civic Act-up. "Many of the young groups were … without a structure and could thus lose direction easily," he added.
Another former activist, Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, noted that the leadership in last year's Occupy sit-ins was unclear.
The Federation of Students was one of the main groups that tried to rally the protesters but it was unpopular among some of the young occupiers.
"Being unorganised is perhaps an inevitable result because the rise of the new young groups is due to their mistrust of any organisation," said Yeung, who is now a barrister and chairman of the Civic Party's New Territories East branch. "They do not even want to be represented by the federation."
Yeung was a core member of the now-defunct 7.1 People Pile, a pro-democracy group named after the 2003 big march. Its aim was to push for democracy by keeping up the spirit of "people power" that was demonstrated in the march.
The group fielded three candidates in the 2003 district council polls. All were defeated.
One of those three defeated candidates, Bobo Yip Po-lam, called for patience.
"I appreciate [the new post-Occupy groups'] efforts in trying to change the mindset of the people," said Yip, now a project officer with the Catholic Diocese's justice and peace commission. "But if your aim is to change a culture, you cannot just parachute into a constituency and ask people to vote for you. It takes time to see change. I would say, it may take six years."
Yeung agreed. "District councils are more about neighbourhood issues, not political ideology. You need to be on the spot to serve residents. Simply saying you are pro-democracy won't help much."
Looking back at the 2003 polls, Yeung said it was unfair to judge whether the youth movement at the time was successful or not just by looking at the groups' electoral outcomes.
"On the surface, we lost the elections and many of the groups faded out of the political scene. But the movement had sown the seeds. People have been enlightened and are more willing to fight for their rights by means of mass social movements."