21 September 2019
National People's Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang (right) meets Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong in Beijing on Friday. Photo: Xinhua
National People's Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang (right) meets Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong in Beijing on Friday. Photo: Xinhua

DAB caught between serving HK people and pleasing Beijing

Beijing has relied on the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) to serve as a stabilizing force for the city’s middle class. 

It wants the pro-establishment party to facilitate the smooth implementation of its policy of a small-circle election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.

But the fact is that DAB failed in achieving that goal after its farcical walkout during the Legislative Council voting on the political reform bill on June 18. Its embarrassing fiasco allowed the pan-democrats to win an overwhelming veto of the government proposal.

In a recent meeting in Beijing, Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, told the DAB to work with allies to win two-thirds of the Legislative Council seats in next year’s election.

He told the pro-Beijing group to “find out what is good and hold fast to it”.

In so many words, Zhang appears to be telling the DAB that although it is the biggest party in the pro-establishment camp, it has not achieved much from Beijing’s perspective.

Otherwise, he would have used the occasion to praise DAB’s contributions to society since the 1997 handover.

The position of the DAB in Hong Kong’s political landscape is quite controversial.

On one hand, the party plays a key role in supporting the government, but on the other hand, it is stands on the opposite side by criticizing the government’s wrong policies.

The DAB wants to project itself as the political party of choice of the Hong Kong middle class, who wants a stable political environment and hates disputes.

But the fact that the DAB offers its unfailing support to Beijing leads the middle class to doubt the party’s loyalty to the people.

The middle class wants Hong Kong to be a just, fair and democratic society, which means that it cannot stand a party that is giving its full support to Beijing. Simply put, DAB isn’t their cup of tea.

In fact, the DAB’s biggest challenge is how to strike a balance between maintaining its loyalty to Beijing while serving the interests of its supporters.

In the current lead-in-water crisis, residents of the affected public housing estates offer a large pool of potential DAB supporters.

But the party can only do so much in criticizing the government and the main contractor, the state-owned China State Construction, as it wants to maintain its pro-government, pro-Beijing character.

It is expected that DAB could lose substantial votes in the upcoming Legco and District Council elections as the silent majority wants a political party that can fight for their rights and welfare —including their health — rather than keep silent on government wrongdoings simply because it is a pro-establishment group.

In the Beijing meeting, Zhang also told the DAB to support the chief executive and the SAR government. 

This is another major challenge for the party. The DAB does not always agree with the policies set by the goverment. But with Zhang’s order, it cannot have its own policy agenda but to support the chief executive’s plans.

The different groups that make up the pro-establishment camp may have their own agenda, and they are not solely Leung Chun-ying’s supporters.

For example, the Liberal Party is clearly a pro-Beijing but anti-CY Leung political group. It still enjoys enormous influence to nominate a Hong Kong tycoon-backed candidate to challenge Leung.

Given Leung’s poor performance in the past three years, the whole pro-Beijing camp will play a “guess the leader” game until Beijing confirms the next chief executive.

Against this backdrop, the DAB should follow the Beijing official line to support the chief executive and the SAR government, rather than to support Leung as chief executive.

Such a stance will give the party a room a chance to distance itself from Leung’s controversial political struggle style to win back support from the middle class.

That could be the reason why the pro-Beijing mouthpieces in Hong Kong, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, reported that Zhang urged the DAB to support the Hong Kong government and help the chief executive to implement policies.

The whole report did not name CY Leung as the chief executive, unlike some local newspapers like Sing Tao Daily and Ming Pao Daily News, which cited sources as saying that Zhang urged the DAB to fully support Leung.

This ambiguity could be exploited by Leung backers to spread the “support Leung” message. But if readers are smart enough, they should check Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao for Zhang’s actual message during the meeting with the DAB in Beijing.

DAB chairwoman Starry Lee was quite tight-lipped during her visit to Beijing. But she should know that the party is facing tough battles in the upcoming two elections.

The Legco walkout showed that the party lacks political wisdom to deal with such “emergency” situations, while the recent contaminated water crisis showed that the party could get caught in an embarrassing situation, caught between the conflicting interests of the Hong Kong grassroots and a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

Lee should brave enough to lead the party to become a truly Hong Kong political party, serving the interests of Hong Kong people and leaving the role of a Communist Party proxy to the Liaison Office. 

Such a stance would help the DAB to gain more supporters in Hong Kong. But the question is, does Lee have such courage?

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EJ Insight writer