Hong Kong’s 2016 Legislative Council Election: Divisions in the Political Landscape

Photo source: The New York Times

Citation: Hak Yin Li, “Hong Kong’s 2016 Legislative Council Election: Divisions in the political landscape”, International Public Policy Review, Aug 23, 2016.

Hong Kong will hold its sixth Legislative Council (LegCo) Election on September 4, 2016. The reputation of the LegCo has been damaged by the behavior of some democrats as well as by the confrontations between the Executive Branch and the LegCo. The Umbrella Movement, the rising number of violent mass demonstrations, and the rise of localism have also contributed to the increased divisions in Hong Kong politics, which could affect voters’ choices as well as the choices open to the political parties and political forces.

Intense Political Atmosphere

In recent years, mass demonstrations have been held in Hong Kong, and they offer new opportunities for political activists. In late September 2014, pro-democracy scholars and activists organized the Occupy Central movement. The organizers hoped that by occupying Hong Kong’s central business district peacefully, their civil disobedience would prompt the Central Government to allow free and fair elections for the Chief Executive in Hong Kong. After the police used tear gas against citizens who used umbrellas to resist, the public anger led more Hong Kong people to join the movement, which soon became known as the Umbrella Movement. The political parties did not have a large role in the movement, while new political forces appeared, including student associations like Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students.

It is possible that the citizens of Hong Kong have grown impatient with the conflict in parliament between the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing political parties, as an increasing number of people have joined the radical protests. After over a month of demonstrations organized by the Umbrella Movement, a group of protestors stormed the LegCo building by force. Even after the end of Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong experienced another violent mass demonstration this February, which Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying described as a riot. The protestors threw bricks and bottles at the police while a police officer fired 2 warning shots — a level of violence which is rare in Hong Kong.

The influence of the traditional political parties has declined, especially the pro-democracy parties. Apart from filibusters, the democrats have not been able to do much in the LegCo since it is under the control of the pro-Beijing parties. No bill can be passed without the support of both groups. Hong Kong’s electoral system of proportional representation encourages further splits among political parties. Some radical democrats have established new parties because they only need a small percentage of votes to bring them into the LegCo. A similar situation can be found within the pro-Beijing parties. The rise of the localist movement has challenged the pro-democracy parties, as the localists question whether Hong Kong can push for democratization without considering China. Some localists even believe that the people of Hong Kong people should seek self-determination.

Further Divisions in Hong Kong Politics

The increasing number of political factions in Hong Kong suggests two things. First, intense competition exists within the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps, and the traditional political parties are challenged by new political forces created by the Umbrella Movement. Second, no party can now claim that it represents the interests of the majority in Hong Kong, because of the growing diversity in political ideas, thoughts, and values among the Hong Kong people.

Table 1 shows that the coming LegCo election in September should be the most competitive one since the handover in 1997. Even though the proportional representation system naturally encourages more electoral lists, other factors and considerations also invite more political forces to join the election.

Within the pro-democracy camp, their parties continue to have internal divisions. In the previous LegCo election, new parties like the Civic Party, Labor Party, Neo Democrats and People Power challenged the Democratic Party, which was the leading party. The Third Side, which was established in 2013, claims to be the party of the moderate democrats, in contrast to the parties of the radical democrats like the League of Social Democrats and People Power.

Joseph Cheng, a pro-democracy scholar, had previously served as a peace broker among the different pro-democracy groups. However, the democrats did not welcome such attempts at coordination. Currently, another pro-democracy scholar, Benny Tai, is organizing the “Thunder Go” election plan, which is similar to Joseph’s previous effort. Unfortunately, the plan was also not able to get much support from the pro-democracy forces.

For the pro-Beijing parties, the fight for seats in the LegCo have also overwhelmed their unity and solidarity. The largest party — the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) — has been challenged by its members. Christopher Chung earlier threatened to leave the party if he was not in the first priority of the electoral list, but he later made a compromise. Another member, Wong Yung Kan, has challenged the current DAB legislator in the Agriculture and Fisheries constituency.

The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) used to be a supporter of the DAB. Given their success in the 2012 LegCo Election, the FTU joins 4 out of 5 geographical constituency elections this year. While this will not seriously impact the DAB, the DAB’s share of votes in the pro-Beijing camp will still suffer. Another blow to the DAB is the participation of the “rural strongman” Hau Chi Keung, who is an influential member of the Heung Yee Kuk (similar to Rural Council). Though Hau has joined the election without the formal endorsement of the Heung Yee Kuk, observers expect him to reduce the DAB’s rural support in New Territories East.

The legacy of the Umbrella movement should also not be underestimated. Young activists have recently formed new political organizations. Demosistō was established by some former student leaders of Scholarism. Youngspiration is composed of young people who participated in the Umbrella Movement. Their Facebook page proclaims that the people of Hong Kong should determine their own future. Another newly emerging political faction is the localist group Hong Kong Indigenous. Its activist, Edward Leung, showed his influence in a LegCo by-election this February. Although he did not win the seat, his 66,524 votes stunned many policy analysts, especially since Hong Kong Indigenous is not a mature political organization. He will not contest the coming election due to the Electoral Affairs Commission’s disapproval. The government’s explanation is that his support for Hong Kong’s independence violates the Basic Law (the mini constitution that governs relations between Hong Kong and the Central Government). Hong Kong Indigenous hence is working with Youngspiration to have Leung Chung Hang replace Edward Leung in the coming election. Indeed, Edward Leung is not alone, for another localist, Chan Ho Tin, who is a convenor of the Hong Kong National Party, is also barred by the government from contesting the coming election for the same reason.

Hong Kong’s political landscape has changed gradually since the 1997 handover. The first stage — 1997 to 2005 — saw competition between the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing parties. The founding of the League of Social Democrats and the Civic Party in 2006 marked the beginning of the second stage, which indicated that the traditional political parties could not accommodate the voters’ needs and interests. Thereafter, many new political parties were formed, such as the New People’s Party and the Neo Democrats in 2010, and People Power and the Labor Party in 2011. Hong Kong’s political spectrum has expanded and widened further. The third stage refers to the current circumstances — the Post-Umbrella Movement era. Hong Kong’s youth have for years since the handover been disappointed with established institutions and parliamentary politics. The increasing conflict between China and Hong Kong has contributed to the anxiety of the Hong Kong people. Localism and the goal of Hong Kong’s independence hence have risen up.

Is the LegCo a Trojan Horse?

While it is too early to say that localism can seriously challenge the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing parties, the LegCo seems to be a Trojan Horse for young activists to advertise their ideas and values. First, the Umbrella Movement worked against the established institutions and political system from the very beginning, yet some of its participants have formed political organizations and joined the coming election. Are they aiming to alter the status quo from within? Second, if this is not their ultimate goal, the LegCo election could still be a promising platform for them to advocate localism or even Hong Kong’s independence. While the localists probably are not aiming to win seats since they lack the resources and networks which the traditional political parties have, what they actually need is publicity.

The banning of Edward Leung and Chan Ho Tin in the coming election has also put the Hong Kong government in an embarrassing situation. Many analysts wonder if these are cases of political censorship, which may violate Article 25 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states that every citizen should have the right and opportunity to be elected. Although the government has acted to prevent the LegCo from becoming a Trojan Horse for the localists, the screening of candidates has driven the focus of the Hong Kong people to the localists’ demands and concerns.

Ironically, other candidates who had advocated national self-determination and Hong Kong’s independence have been approved to contest the coming election. Some examples are Yau Wai Ching (Kowloon West), Leung Chung Hang (New Territories East) from Youngspiration, Cheng Kam Mun (Hong Kong Island), Wong Yeung Tat (Kowloon East), and Cheng Chung Tai (New Territories West) from People Power. These candidates have expressed clearly that they will not change their ideas and values. The question indeed is not how many seats the localists can win, but whether their ideas and values will prevail in Hong Kong after the electoral campaign.