25 March 2019
Michael Tien's departure from New People's Party could set the stage for some realignment of forces within the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong. Photo: RTHK
Michael Tien's departure from New People's Party could set the stage for some realignment of forces within the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong. Photo: RTHK

What Michael Tien’s NPP exit means for pro-Beijing camp

On Monday, lawmaker Michael Tien announced that he was quitting New People’s Party (NPP), the pro-Beijing political outfit that he co-founded six years ago with former security secretary Regina Ip.

The resignation, which came along with news that six district councilors close to Tien were also leaving the NPP, has set tongues wagging as to what exactly lay behind the events. 

While rumors of Tien’s departure from the party had been doing the rounds for some time, given his differences with party chief Ip on key issues, the timing of the announcement is interesting.

Tien chose to break away from his party a couple of weeks after the chief executive election during which Ip made an unsuccessful bid to become a candidate for Hong Kong’s top job. 

As pro-establishment members of the Election Committee delivered a snub to Ip by not giving her enough nominations to stand in the final race, the NPP is facing a churn internally.  

With Tien, who has been serving as NPP vice-chairman, now opting out along with six other district councilors, there is speculation as to whether the lawmaker plans to establish a new political party.

Tien has denied that he has sought to poach his NPP supporters, but has admitted to differences with party chief Ip.  

The resignation of Tien and his allies is no doubt a setback to NPP, especially in New Territories West. The party will now have only 5 district councilors in the area, compared with 12 before.

As for the Legislative Council, the NPP will only have two members in the house, namely Regina Ip and Eunice Yung.

Tien said he was quitting the party as there were “differences in ideals” between him and Ip, but stressed that he didn’t clash with her and that they are still friends.

While Tien insisted that he remains pro-Beijing, his resignation from NPP highlights the difficulties a politician with independent thinking faces in Hong Kong. 

With Beijing’s Liaison Office increasingly meddling in Hong Kong affairs, politicians from the establishment camp are expected to fall in line on all issues.

Taking a different viewpoint on any major issue is fraught with risks for individuals as well as political groups. 

Tien said differences between him and Ip had built up over the years, and that it is good that he leave now to save the NPP from “negative effects”.

He said that one of the major differences between him and the party had been on the issue of multi-entry permits for Chinese travelers.

Tien said he was in favor of setting a limit on such permits, while Ip had opposed the idea.

Tien said he believed an influx of mainland travelers would only fuel resentment among Hong Kong people and provide political leverage for localists to launch anti-China protests.

“I supported (limitations on multi-entry permits) for the benefit of the relationship between Hong Kong and China,” he said.

On this issue, Tien was on the same page with most Hong Kong people, in contrast to the stand taken by Ip and other pro-Beijing politicians.

Tien’s stand, not surprisingly, has made Beijing leaders a bit wary about him.  

In a press conference Monday, Tien said he notified the central government’s Liaison Office before announcing his exit from the NPP.

He told reporters that the Liaison Office respected his decision and that it had no comment on the matter.

Now, why did Tien need to notify the Liaison Office?

Well, the answer is this: the party he co-founded could not have been established without the support of Beijing officials.

Now, as he is opting out, he wants to tell mainland authorities that he is acting on his own and that the move is in the best interests of the party as it plans its road ahead. 

Tien’s NPP departure will surely set the Liaison Office thinking as to how it should now consolidate the resources of the pro-establishment camp in the city.

Among other things, Ip may see her role getting redefined following her disastrous CE campaign bid.

After she failed to qualify for the race, Ip told media that she wouldn’t be a pure pro-Beijing loyalist, comment that suggests that she is upset with Beijing’s backing of Carrie Lam, who ultimately won the top prize.

An alliance between Tien and Ip in the past was based on Sai Wan’s strategic direction to expand the sphere of influence of the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong to professionals and middle classes.

With the partnership falling apart, Beijing may now need to incubate some new friendly entities to gather the silent majority in Hong Kong, rather than rely on existing organizations.

While we can only wait and watch, one thing is certain: there will be a lot more activity in the pro-Beijing camp in the months to come.

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EJ Insight writer

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