25 October 2016
Prior to the WhatsApp scandal, Jasper Tsang had a good record of presiding impartially over Legco. Photo: HKEJ
Prior to the WhatsApp scandal, Jasper Tsang had a good record of presiding impartially over Legco. Photo: HKEJ

Jasper, Jasper – what have you done?

Hong Kong politics seems to specialize in making things worse, especially when it comes to matters of personal integrity.

This generalization has now been validated by Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, the president of the Legislative Council, who has been severely compromised by revelations of his participation in the anti-democrat legislators’ WhatsApp group.

Among other things, he is shown to have been coordinating tactics for the key Legco constitutional reform debate and, less significantly, spending time making derisory remarks about opposition legislators.

Mr. Tsang insists he has done nothing wrong, but this scandal has clearly thrown the anti-democracy camp into further disarray.

Is scandal too strong a word?

Almost certainly not, because the presiding officer of Hong Kong’s legislature has been exposed as having played an active role in trying to manipulate the outcome of a debate that he was supposed to be chairing in an impartial manner.

This covert activity is all the more disappointing, because Mr. Tsang has been one of the best presidents of Legco ever; he is most certainly an improvement on his predecessor.

There is no ambiguity over the fact that the council’s president is supposed to be an independent chairman showing no favor. To be fair, Mr. Tsang has a good record for performing this task, including his role in last week’s now infamous debate on constitutional reform.

However, as in so many other respects, the Hong Kong legislative system is dysfunctional, because, unlike what happens in many other legislatures, the body’s chairman is not an independent figure but runs for office on a party ticket.

Mr. Tsang is an old-school Communist and founder of the party’s front organization, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Yet in his role as Legco president, he has rarely been accused of exercising any pronounced bias against the democratic camp.

Maybe the fact that he is an old-style true believer (as opposed to the more opportunist members of the anti-democrat camp) explains why he has more integrity.

Mr. Tsang does not deny his involvement in the WhatsApp group but says it has not influenced his work chairing the council.

Presumably, like so many other deluded politicians, he really believed that somehow he would not be found out.

At the time of writing, he has defiantly refused to concede wrongdoing.

Now there are calls for his resignation, but those making the call need to think very carefully about who would replace him.

Mr. Tsang has an opportunity to fix this with a sincere apology and acknowledgment of his grave mistake; then it will be time to move on.

Searching for a non-existent middle way

Despite wild and unfounded rumors as to why Ronny Tong Ka-wah has quit both the Civic Party and his seat in the legislature, he has clearly acted honorably by resigning.

Having been elected on the Civic Party ticket, he was beholden to quit Legco once parting company with the party he helped to found.

The Civic Party in turn has behaved in a civilized fashion, noting his decision with regret and sincerely wishing him well for his future endeavors.

It is therefore strange, albeit predictable, that this break-up has been portrayed as a savage split in the anti-democrat media.

Divisions within the ranks on both sides of the current political divide are undoubtedly debilitating, but splits are the norm in political life, and there is no need to get overexcited when they occur.

Politics is, of course, about principles and ideas, but it is also about ego and power seeking.

This is a heady mixture that attracts both the best and the worst people.

What is hardly mentioned is the remarkable extent to which both the pro- and anti-democrat camps have managed to keep themselves intact, not withstanding the debacle of the pro-government legislators’ walkout during the constitutional reform debate and the way that the bulk of the democrat camp has held together despite the emergence of new radical forces.

This level of unity is especially notable in a situation where political parties do not even have a recognized legal status and where one side is heavily motivated by the benefits of patronage and position seeking while the other side (no need to guess which) offers its adherents no material benefits but plenty of opportunities for losing material benefits as a result of their adherence to an anti-government position.

Mr. Tong appears to suffer from the delusion that there is some golden middle path between these polarized positions, but that path appears to be increasingly illusive.

The reality is that the polarization of political organizations mirrors the polarization of society as whole.

The middle gets crushed in this process, and it really is no good wailing about the erosion of the middle way.

Now it is clear that Mr. Tong’s so-called think tank is likely to be reborn as a political party, this reality will become clearer.

However, even in the current polarized atmosphere, it is not impossible for both sides to find ground for cooperation and indeed for negotiation, but the nature of the political divide provides strict limitations on how far this can go.

The Communist Party of China combines a strange amalgam of pragmatism and rigidity, while on the other side of the fence is a democratic movement that, in common, with other protest movements, defines itself by the need to oppose and lives in fear of being outflanked by more radical elements who can make a show of being the government’s “real” opponents.

The divide between the two camps is real and quite vicious; only one side can prevail.

History will show which side this is, but the verdict of history on the survival of dictatorships is pretty clear: they go from being seemingly impregnable to toppling in a very short space of time.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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