What you need to know
'Now that the independence argument is being so clearly articulated in Hong Kong, Beijing can’t pretend anymore that it doesn’t understand what people here are talking about.'
The disqualification of six candidates has added an unexpected dimension to the coming Sept. 4 Legislative Council election. During all the years since Hong Kong, belatedly, introduced universal suffrage elections, in the 1980s, no candidate has ever been banned beforehand on political grounds. The first instance was announced last week, along with the validated candidates.
According to the official figures released on Aug. 5, there are a total of 289 validly nominated candidates in all categories vying to fill 70 seats in the council. That includes: 35 seats to be filled by direct election in five Geographic Constituencies, with 213 candidates divided among 84 lists following the format of Hong Kong’s single transferable vote version of proportional representation.
Additionally, 30 seats are filled by occupation-based Functional Constituencies. And five seats are a hybrid mix of indirect/direct election.
But on Aug. 5 when the government lists were formally announced, the center of attention was not on the “validly nominated candidates” but on the six hopefuls who had been disqualified.
Andy Chan Ho-tin (陳浩天), convener, Hong Kong National Party.
Yeung Ke-cheong (楊繼昌) from a new group calling itself the Democratic Progressive Party.
Nakade Hitsujiko (鍾明倫), a Hong Kong nationalist associated with Hong Kong Resurgence.
Alice Lai Yi-man (賴綺雯), Hong Kong Conservative Party, advocate of eventual self-determination for Hong Kong via a return to British sovereignty.
James Chan Kwok-keung (陳國強), independent, District Councilor.
Edward Leung Tin-kei (梁天琦), student activist, leader of the localist group Hong Kong Indigenous.
These six were barred on what would be the highest charge of subversion if Hong Kong was governed like the rest of China. But it isn’t. So they were denied access to the election instead. Reason: because they have recently begun talking about Hong Kong independence and Beijing regards such talk as a violation of its inalienable sovereign right to rule Hong Kong.
The validating officials asked each if they are indeed independence advocates and after ascertaining that they either are or must be, these six were denied permission to contest the election
As to why they have recently begun talking about independence when virtually no one had done so since the conditions for resuming Chinese sovereignty were agreed upon in the mid-1980s, their reasons have by now been clearly stated.
After decades of agitation for democratic reform, culminating in the 2014 Occupy protest movement, it’s now obvious that Beijing doesn’t intend to fulfill the promises that were written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution, promulgated by Beijing, to govern Hong Kong during the first 50 years after its return to Chinese rule (1997-2047).
With those hopes dashed, a few young and not-so-young political activists have concluded that the “high degree of autonomy” promised Hong Kong by the Basic Law can only be achieved through independence or the less subversive-sounding goal of self-determination.
These activists have also concluded, correctly, that election campaigns provide the best opportunity for getting their message across since that’s when the largest number of people focus their attention on politics. Otherwise, most people are inclined to ignore the subject most of the time.
Several activists thus decided to contest the Sept. 4 election. They actually got this idea about contesting elections last year and tested the waters during the November 2014 District Councils election when they did better than expected. Edward Leung Tin-kei did the same with the same result in the February by-election.
The next best thing
So if one way doesn’t work, try another. Since they were denied access to the candidate lists, they decided to do the next best thing – campaign anyway. The act of banning these six was actually in the nature of a gift. It focused attention on their message in a way they could never have achieved had they carried on campaigning like everyone else, via social media and street-corner pamphleteering.
The six were, with one exception, marginal candidates, set to generate little interest on their own. The exception was Edward Leung who is the only one who had a realistic chance of winning a seat.
But singled out for such special government attention, they suddenly had a ready-made opportunity and they didn’t let it pass them by. Andy Chan’s Hong Kong National Party sponsored a rally on the evening of Aug. 5 and five of the six had a chance to say what they had to say with all the local news media gathered in attendance – in the shadow of the Legislative Council building itself.
For reasons not yet divulged, the authorities have allowed the National Party to function normally even though the government has refused to allow it to register as required of all political parties – which means it’s carrying on illegally. But since free speech prevails so far, National Party flags lined the walkway around the Legislative Council building and campaign workers handed out hundreds of cleverly-designed booklets with each page offering a rhetorical answer to all the questions people ask and reasons they give for why Hong Kong can never be independent. On the back page was a quote from Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
The venue is becoming an iconic spot – the Legislative Council complex is newly built – and it’s only saving aesthetic grace is a vast expanse of well-tended lawn, a rarity in Hong Kong, stretching down to the waterfront.
The crowd was large, 2,000-3,000, and not at all violent. It was reminiscent of the rally Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s Occupy Central campaign held there just after Beijing announced its Aug. 31 (8.31) election reform decision in 2014. The two rallies conveyed the same mood: defeat and defiance.
Even though the speeches were made by heretofore marginal players in Hong Kong’s political drama, they reflected the growing sense of political gloom that has taken hold here. They seemed like a political answer to the dark futuristic film “Ten Years” that had such an impact earlier this year. The new (for Hong Kong) idea of independence is a reaction against the growing pressures to “mainland-ize” that are dramatized in the film – with candidate bans being only the most recent real life example thereof.
A recent survey conducted by Chinese University researchers found only 17% of respondents supported the idea of independence, but many more were borderline pro and con. The proportion was 39% among young people.
Andy Chan hosted the event on Friday night, billed as Hong Kong’s first independence rally and held, with permission, in the government’s Tamar Park for added effect. There was even a dress code. Everyone was told to “dress conservatively” and remain on best behavior throughout, which they did.
He wanted to make his point that Hong Kong needed a revolution but it didn’t have to be with guns and bullets. What was needed was a mass base – with many more people rallying to the cause. Otherwise, it would be impossible to make the breakthrough he hoped to achieve.
But Chan also made a point of telling his audience not to support candidates in the coming election who might be close to them in spirit but refused to accept the idea of independence. Specifically, he warned against those representing the Civic Passion-Hong Kong Resurgence-Proletarian Political Institute alliance that wanted to keep the Basic Law (revised) forever. One of their candidates attended the rally but was not invited to speak.
In terms of ideas and explanations, it’s easy to see why Edward Leung Tin-kei was the star of the evening and why he might have been elected – despite his adventuristic flirtation with “valiant” violent resistance.
He addressed the seeming contradiction between his advocacy of violence – that shot him to local fame after the Mong Kok riot last February – and the current peaceful assembly he was addressing. He said both were fine. What he objected to was the dogmatism of Hong Kong’s mainstream pro-democracy protestors with their insistence on non-violence that never went beyond civil disobedience.
No need to feel guilty about sitting here so quietly and listening to speeches, he told his audience. Only don’t tell us we can’t up the ante if need be. Use any means just so the goal is to overthrow the present government. Overthrowing the government is necessary to regain political rights because sovereignty over Hong Kongers doesn’t belong to Xi Jinping (習近平) or the Central government or the Chinese Communist Party. It belongs to us, the people of Hong Kong. We’ve given up our fantasies toward the Hong Kong government and the Basic Law with its promises about "one-country, two systems," and Beijing giving us democracy. We want to regain power that should belong to us and this is the meaning of our rally today.
But the struggle has already begun, he said. It began during what began as Benny Tai’s (戴耀廷) Occupy Central protest. Leung and the students and others then pushed on far beyond what Tai had in mind for the original protest. That’s why Leung and others like him refuse to refer to it as the Umbrella Movement. For them, it was the Umbrella Revolution.
A surprise talent on the Aug. 5 speakers’ roster was banned candidate Nakade Hitsujiko. He recently changed his name from Chung Ming-lun, the better to play his favorite role as a character actor in drag. But on this occasion he used his soapbox opportunity in a serious satirical way – to mock everyone including himself.
History is unforgiving, he said. If you win, you’re normal. If you lose, you’re crazy. Screening candidates is not just an insult to the candidates but to voters as well. Responding to the official inquiry by the Returning Officer as to his political beliefs, he said Beijing should declare Hong Kong a territory on the moon and leave the earthly site alone where the locals could build their own nation in peace. This farce is good for us, he said.
Hong Kongers are worried about the future but they can’t think outside the box. Why should we try to do everything by ourselves? He mocked Edward Leung’s idea of fighting back “valiantly” with force. Beijing is forever accusing Hong Kong of colluding with foreign forces. So let’s collude. Call in the Americans to help us, he declared.
He said he had thought of leaving Hong Kong, migrating to Canada or wherever. But then he decided he must stay to help fix things here. For those who object, let them be the ones to leave – move up north to the land of “comprehensive systems of laws” and “selfless one-party systems.”
Another surprise was recently elected District Councilor James Chan Kwok-keung who “came out” to reveal himself a supporter of Hong Kong independence for the first time. He was especially tough on Hong Kong’s pan-democrats, now increasingly referred to as “traditional” to disguise them from the post-Occupy generation.
The communist party is the biggest evil, declared Chan, and that’s why we should stop listening to those who shout that slogan about “ending one-party dictatorship” – the slogan old-timers pride themselves on daring to use at their annual June Fourth candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. If you end one-party rule, that means the communist party will still be there. He said his old pan-democratic friends are now saying he has betrayed them. To them he says the biggest evil is the communist party and he calls them its hidden defenders.
He also said many of his fellow District Councilors would say among themselves that Hong Kong should be independent. But he alone had dared to show up for this rally. To succeed, the movement needed not just students but the general public and the middle class as well – most of them, of course, hold foreign passports and can leave Hong Kong whenever they want. His suggestion: ban foreign passport holders from standing for election as District Councilors. That would automatically eliminate half the pro-Beijing crowd and probably half the pan-democrats as well.
This new post-Occupy localism-as-independence idea is not just different in degree from traditional pro-democracy demands and concerns, but different in kind as well. It may force Beijing to adjust and acknowledge what the traditionalists have been protesting in their own muddled way for the past 30 years.
At least now it’s clear that Beijing’s post-1997 promises are not what Hong Kong thought they would be. And now that the independence argument is being so clearly articulated, Beijing can’t pretend anymore that it doesn’t understand what people here are talking about. Officials will try to discredit and suppress – but traditional pan-democrats will also have to sharpen their demands – as they’ve already begun to do. That’s the long-term positive potential of the new post-Occupy ideas.
The immediate negative is that they’re probably going to cost pan-democrats their meagre one-third veto-proof minority in the coming Legislative Council election. That seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind – except for pro-Beijing loyalists who are keeping a very low profile the better to succeed with their determined-to-win candidate positions in all five districts.
Voters will begin focusing more intently as Election Day draws closer. And they may do what “old-timers” Benny Tai and Joseph Cheng (鄭宇碩) are hoping, with all their opinion polls designed to show how best to avoid wasting ballots on idealistic candidates who are sure to lose, while their real adversaries walk home with the prizes.
But Tai and Cheng are from the pre-Occupy generation and they’re competing for attention with the likes of post-Occupy Andy Chan who doesn’t want people to mistakenly vote for Civic Passion alliance candidates thinking they are the next closest alternative to independence. They still believe in the Basic Law enough to want to re-write it, warns Chan, even if they are the most radical of the old pre-Occupy generation.
Edward Leung says the only candidates who distrust Beijing almost as much as he does are the Youngspiation candidates, who have not been banned presumably because they do not advocate independence in so many words. Joshua Wong’s Demosisto has only one candidate, Nathan Law (羅冠聰), whose election materials have been banned even if he hasn’t. Clearly, there are not enough post-Occupy candidates left to vote for if Andy Chan’s advice is taken to heart.
The prospects, in other words, are for a seriously fragmented pro-democracy vote. But pre-election polling is still preliminary, too soon to try and predict who voters will listen to and what choices they’ll decide to make.
The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published here.
First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole