On Sunday, residents of the New Territories East electoral district – which includes Sha Tin, Tai Po, Sai Kung and the surrounding areas – will get to decide the political future of the entire city.
That’s when a by-election to fill the Legislative Council seat vacated by former Civic Party member Ronny Tong Ka-wah will be held.
A social media war over how the district’s residents should vote has reached a fever pitch.
Not since the five-constituency de facto referendum in 2012 has a by-election drawn so much public attention and polarized the city into such diametrically opposed extremes.
Why the election matters
We begin with a refresher on local politics.
Legco is a 70-seat legislative body comprising two sections – the functional constituencies (FCs) and the geographical constituencies (GCs) – each having 35 seats.
The FCs are stacked with Beijing loyalists handpicked by big business and special interest groups.
Because they march in lockstep with our equally unelected chief executive, the FCs are a lost cause as far as government oversight is concerned.
By contrast, the GCs (including Tong’s vacated seat) are democratically elected and represent our only hope within the Legco to impose some form of checks and balances on government actions.
When it comes to making laws, the Legco is clinically schizophrenic.
While all 70 legislators must vote at the same time on bills introduced by the government, bills proposed by individual Legco members must be passed by the GCs and the FCs, one group voting separately from the other.
This bizarre, only-in-Hong Kong voting procedure is commonly referred to as the “separate vote count.”
Until Tong resigned in June following the defeat of the government’s electoral reform bill, opposition lawmakers carried a razor-thin 18-17 majority in the GCs over their pro-Beijing rivals.
As a result, motions initiated by the pan-democratic lawmakers, such as the one to investigate police violence during the 2014 Occupy movement, would be passed by the GCs but defeated by the FCs.
Likewise, any proposal from the pro-Beijing camp would sail through the FCs but get shot down by the GCs.
That’s about as fair as our lopsided legislative system gets.
But this dubious balance of power only works if the opposition controls the GCs.
Should one of the pro-Beijing candidates snatch the contested seat in the by-election on Sunday, the balance would be tipped from 18-17 to 17-18, thereby handing majority control to the other side – at least until all the Legco seats are once again up for grabs in the next general election, in September.
In other words, if the opposition fails to hold on to that critical seat, there will be nothing to stop a lawmaker from the dark side from initiating dangerous proposals and having them rubber-stamped by both the Beijing loyalist-controlled sections of the legislature.
Under this doomsday scenario, the biggest worry is a rule change to put an end to filibusters, a motion that only members of Legco’s Committee on Rules of Procedure can initiate (and hence having a majority of the GCs matters).
The filibuster is currently the opposition’s only effective weapon to delay or derail bad government bills like the copyright amendment bill (dubbed “Article 23 of the internet”) and funding requests for wasteful infrastructure projects that squander billions of taxpayer dollars.
For instance, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s pet project to create an innovation and technology bureau – accused by the pan-dems of being yet another pork barrel project to benefit political friends – was stalled for several years by League of Social Democrats chairman “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and his People Power friends.
But if the opposition’s GC majority goes, so goes its ability to filibuster.
Front runner’s blues
There are seven candidates vying for the New Territories East seat.
All but two of them are Beijing loyalists (such as Holden Chow Ho-ding, vice-chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong) or faux opposition (such as Democratic Party reject Nelson Wong Sing-chi).
For most freedom-loving voters in the constituency, the real choice comes down to two candidates: Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, a barrister and longtime Civic Party member, and Edward Leung Tin-kei, a University of Hong Kong philosophy student and spokesman for nativist group Hong Kong Indigenous.
The by-election is a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all proposition, which means Yeung and Leung are in the same quagmire that beset Eric Chu Li-luan and James Soong Chu-yu in Taiwan’s general election last month, or, for those with a longer memory, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in the 1992 US presidential election.
It is a political truism: candidates with similar political leanings siphon votes from each other and often end up handing the election to the other side.
Political cannibalism is every bit as savage and tragic as it sounds.
In the past, if two pan-dem candidates found themselves running head-to-head in the same election, they would either hold a primary or work it out between themselves behind the scenes.
In the latter scenario, the candidate with weaker poll numbers would graciously bow out in the best interest of the entire opposition camp – the “big picture” argument.
But not this time.
Front runner Yeung and political newbie Leung are strange bedfellows who represent two vastly different factions within the opposition camp: the mainstream pan-dems and the nativists.
Whereas one prefers to sit down and talk, the other demands that supporters stand up and fight.
That Yeung and Leung share a common political enemy is not enough to make them friends, much less allies.
To the delight of their pro-Beijing rivals, there has been no coordination within the opposition.
A gracious bow-out by either candidate is out of the question.
For months, the pan-dems had hoped that Yeung would carry enough votes in New Territories East, a pan-dem stronghold, to win the election notwithstanding the leaking of votes to Leung.
But the “fishball riot” on Lunar New Year’s Day altered the calculus.
Overnight, radical groups like Hong Kong Indigenous became the people’s heroes, especially among the post-80s and post-90s generation.
To these young (and many of them first-time) voters, nativist warriors finally put their money where their mouth was and risked prison by standing up to the authorities during the clashes with police.
Dozens of them have been arrested and charged with rioting, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years if convicted.
Their personal sacrifices have added fuel to the rising localist movement in the post-Occupy era.
The “fishball riot” has bolstered Leung’s popularity and strengthened his poll numbers (Leung himself is on bail after being charged with participating in a riot).
In the zero-sum game that is the Legco by-election, Yeung finds his front-runner status greatly diminished.
That, combined with the prevalent view among the new generation that traditional pan-dem parties are out of touch and don’t “get” them, is giving Yeung a taste of Hillary Clinton’s blues after Bernie Sanders came out of nowhere and won the New Hampshire Democratic primary in the US presidential race.
Why you should vote for Yeung
If you subscribe to the “big picture” argument, as do the majority of pro-democracy citizens aged 30 or above, then the clear choice is Alvin Yeung.
After all, no matter how much some Democrats in the United States are “feeling the Bern”, they need to consider the reality that Clinton has a much better chance of defeating the Republican nominee in the presidential election.
Likewise, even if you prefer Leung’s “any means necessary” rhetoric to Yeung’s waistcoat-and-necktie preppy charm, why “waste” your vote on a political unknown who won’t win and will effectively deliver the seat to the pro-Beijing camp?
Strategic voting aside, Yeung is a likable guy.
For years, he has offered pro bono legal services to anti-government protesters, including many in the Occupy movement and most recently the “fishball rioters” – the very people who are now jeopardizing his quest for a Legco seat.
Although Leung’s supporters have questioned Yeung’s motive for defending the Mong Kok protesters in the run-up to the by-election, their accusation does not hold up, considering that any association with street violence would and did invite attacks from the establishment and alienate Yeung’s peace-loving electoral base.
Yeung also represents a new generation of pan-dems who is less saddled with political baggage.
The 35-year-old barrister is determined to change the old boys’ club culture and bridge the generation gap between traditional parties and young voters.
Unlike Tong, his mentor, he is more inclined to fight the system from within by joining forces with Long Hair and other firebrand lawmakers.
Yeung does not want voters to “settle” for him solely because of the “big picture” argument. He wants them to pick him for who he is and what he stands for.
Why you should vote for Leung
If you believe that parliamentary politics in Hong Kong is dead and that the battle to free the city from the ever-extending claws of Beijing is best fought on the streets and not in Legco, then 24-year-old Edward Leung is your man.
The logic is simple: why bother with the “big picture” argument or any of the gibberish about the 18-17 majority when the legislative process is so inherently and hopelessly unfair?
Forget about blocking bills and filibustering, because local politics needs not small fixes but a complete overhaul, and an overhaul can only come about through resistance and revolt.
Sending another slogan-shouting, finger-wagging pan-dem like Yeung to Legco will do absolutely nothing to change the status quo.
Voting for Leung, even if he doesn’t win, will send a clear message to the establishment that nativism is a force to reckon with.
And if he does win, CY Leung and his cronies will have to brace themselves for a lot worse than projectile bananas on the Legco floor.
In fact, who ultimately wins the by-election doesn’t matter all that much to Leung and his supporters.
In their minds, the “big picture” argument is simply another permutation of the pan-dems’ fear tactics designed to protect their dwindling political power.
For all the nativists care, Chow can take the contested seat, and the pro-Beijing camp should go ahead and wreak even more havoc in the Legco than they already have – it will only serve to expose how utterly grotesque the system is and galvanize the city all the more for an all-out revolt.
Scorch the earth and torch the sky, and a new world order will emerge.
As radical as the rhetoric sounds, it has its appeal – especially to frustrated youth.
For one thing, Leung’s platform of violent resistance is clear and easily understood (compared with Yeung’s sometimes muffled message).
For another, many voters are growing increasingly disillusioned with the pan-dems, who have been in the fight for democracy since the 1980s but don’t have much to show for it.
Their efforts have created an illusion of doing something but amounted to achieving nothing.
Long Hair’s filibusters might have succeeded in delaying the technology bureau for years, but who had the last laugh when funding for it was eventually approved?
The Legco rules are so stacked against the opposition that it is likened to a four-card hand in a poker game: knowing that you could never ever win with one card missing, would you keep playing or would you throw the cards and flip the table?
Leung has successfully turned the by-election debate into a referendum on the entire pan-dem platform.
Running as an outsider and gaining momentum with his rare combination of youth, intellect and passion, he has tapped into the bubbling public anger and is sucking up the youth vote faster than Bernie Sanders.
There is much more to this nondescript, bespectacled college student than meets the eye.
With power comes responsibility
With the way things are going, neither Alvin Yeung nor Edward Leung will win the by-election, and Holden Chow is poised to become the chief beneficiary of the vote split.
But will it actually matter, if Legco is broken and beyond repair?
That question is being put to hundreds of thousands of New Territories East residents entrusted with the power to determine the political fate of Hong Kong.
If you happen to be one of them and haven’t yet made up your mind, your deliberation over the next few days boils down to this: what direction should the opposition take going forward?
It is the eternal struggle between evolution and revolution, between peaceful resistance and violent rebellion, between fixing what is broken and breaking what cannot be fixed.
It is as much a battle of ideologies as it is a question of morality.
So while this article does not purport to tell you how to vote, it does entreat you to think clearly and choose carefully, no matter whom you end up voting for.
You owe the city that much.
Candidates for the Legislative Council seat for the New Territories East geographical constituency: Lau Chi-shing, Nelson Wong Sing-chi, Holden Chow Ho-ding, Albert Leung Sze-ho, Christine Fong Kwok-shan, Edward Leung Tin-kei and Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu.
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