Joshua Wong’s new political party is off to a rocky start

April 12, 2016 14:14
It is too early to write off Joshua Wong (center), who has shown acumen and foresight in his brief career as a political activist. Photo: Reuters

Hang Seng Bank has frozen its deposit account.

Cybersquatters have occupied its domain name.

Its hastily organized news conference, held Sunday night in a subterranean auditorium, had all the trappings of a student council meeting: it started several hours late, and live streaming on YouTube was interrupted so many times that the number of viewers hovered around 300 and at times dropped below 20.

If that is any indication of the challenges facing Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s new political party, then it is in for a bumpy road ahead.

Demosistō, the grown-up version of Scholarism -- which Wong founded four years ago to oppose Leung Chun-ying’s patriotic education plan -- is meant to help the 19-year-old and his posse shed their schoolboy image to better position themselves for a serious Legislative Council bid in September.

Wong is hoping that the new party with an intelligent-sounding name will wipe the slate clean and allow pro-democracy activists of all ages to join without looking like they are crashing a high school party.

For instance, 60-year-old filmmaker Shu Kei (real name Kenneth Ip Kin-hang), who was present at the news conference, would have looked oddly out of place if he were to be introduced as a new Scholarism recruit.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the high-profile rebranding, and so far there has been more criticism than praise.

The word Demosistō, a portmanteau created by Boy Wonder himself, combines the Greek word for "the people" (demos) and the Latin word for "I stand" (sistō).

No one other than Wong himself seems to like the new name. In fact, it isn’t even grammatically correct: it loosely translates into “I the people stand” (sistō being the first person singular of the verb sistere).

Netizens have been quick to call the awkward appellation a public relations blunder, invoking the famous Cantonese proverb that “to be given a bad name is worse than to be born with a bad fate”.

One commentator joked that the name sounds like “demolition”, some sort of contraption invented by Wong to destroy the traditional pan-democratic parties.

Other people took issues with the party’s logo, which was designed around the letter “D”, saying that it looks like a mobile phone SIM card.

Things have not gone smoothly for the party’s official website either.

The domain name has been claimed by an anonymous party.

When clicked, the link goes to an empty page with a villainous taunt to Wong: “U still [have] no site?”

Outsmarted by their political opponents, Demosistians grudgingly settled for the next best thing:

A skeletal version of the site was launched hours before the news conference Sunday.

But that’s not all.

Demosistō’s fundraising efforts have been stunted by delays in the company registration process, as well as HSBC’s refusal to open a bank account for the party to receive donations.

To date, every financial institution approached by Wong has told him to take his business somewhere else.

As a result, all donations had been funneled through deputy secretary general Agnes Chow Ting’s personal savings account, which presented audit and transparency issues.

Then Monday afternoon, Hang Seng Bank suddenly notified Chow that her account could no longer accept deposits, with immediate effect. The situation just went from bad to worse.

With the entire financial system stacked against the party, it remains unclear whether Demosistō will manage to meet its HK$2 million crowdfunding target in time for the Legco election campaign season that is set to begin as early as this summer.

The good news is that jokes about names and logos will eventually pass, and banking and other administrative issues will be sorted out or gotten around somehow.

The new party will gain traction, and voters will warm to it as long as it has a solid policy platform.

So far, however, Demosistō is long on ideology but short on actionable plans.

The party’s website remains a work in progress – the “Policy” tab displays a blank page with the words “coming soon” in Chinese.

It leaves open the question of where Demosistō stands with respect to policy issues from universal retirement protection to cross-border relations, to the party’s willingness to engage CY Leung’s government and even Beijing officials to break the current political impasse.

What we do know is that Demosistō will continue Wong’s non-violent approach to the fight for universal suffrage and greater autonomy for the city.

He has called himself a “centrist” and placed his new party halfway between radical localists who call for Hong Kong’s independence through “any means possible” and the pan-dems who do little more than shout slogans and issue strongly worded statements in response to bad government decisions.

Yet, the middle path can be fraught with peril.

A centrist party may wind up pleasing no one and alienating voters on both sides.

On one hand, moderate constituents who worry about the emergence of radical forces will find Demosistō’s “self-determination” rhetoric too incendiary for comfort.

On the other hand, voters who buy into the localists’ take-no-prisoners tactics will dismiss Wong or any of his Demosistians as just another career politician climbing the greasy pole.

What’s more, now that the new party has officially thrown its hat into the ring for the upcoming elections, it has turned old allies into new rivals.

Once-friendly faces like Alan Leong Kah-kit and "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung may suddenly stop returning Wong’s phone calls.

There will be no one to offer ground game advice or coordinate voting tickets to avoid siphoning votes from each other.

In the gladiatorial game that is local politics, it is every man for himself.

But there are worse things than a cold shoulder.

Like wild animals unleashed from underground dungeons, localist sympathizers wasted no time in their vicious attacks against the new kids on the block.

Social media trolling began within minutes after the Demosistō Facebook page was launched, replete with a liberal use of expletives and colorful epithets.

Still, Demosistō’s biggest trouble may come from within.

Of the party’s four core members, only chairman Nathan Law Kwun-chung and vice chairman Oscar Lai Man-lok are old enough to stand for election in September.

While the Occupy movement made both men household names, they are as much untested as they are saddled with political baggage.

Lai, the former spokesman for Scholarism and Wong’s longtime sidekick, has been the butt of many jokes ever since he was found stalking the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu and repeatedly photo-bombing the candidate during the Legco by-election two months ago.

Lai was given the nickname “Magnet Man” – the Cantonese catchphrase for a camera hog – for sidling up to the pan-dems for cheap media exposure.

His high-profile announcement that he was severing his ties to Scholarism and throwing his support behind Yeung just days before the by-election made Lai look mercenary and opportunistic.

If Lai comes off as a shameless attention-seeker, then Law has the opposite problem.

In front of the camera lens, the former Lingnan University student union president and Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) secretary general often appears demure and distant – someone who would make a better academic than a firebrand politician.

Moreover, Law has been criticized for not taking responsibility for his ineffective leadership during Occupy, culminating in his disastrous call for protesters to besiege the government headquarters at Tamar, which hastened the demise of the movement.

That and subsequent missteps by the HKFS leadership eventually prompted half its member universities to leave the federation a year ago.

All that has made Demosistō a risky proposition for Joshua Wong.

He has put all his political eggs in one basket by making the bold move to disband Scholarism.

Forced to sit out the September elections, Wong can only campaign for Lai and Law without knowing how much of his aura and star power can be transferred to them.

It is a high-stakes gamble not only because the opposition vote will be split three ways among the pan-dems, the localists and his centrist party, but also because Wong has made himself the face and voice of Demosistō.

If his surrogates – Lai and Law – make a poor showing in the September elections, winning only a tiny fraction of the overall votes, it will call into question Wong’s leadership and whether his prodigious fame will eventually flame out.

Nevertheless, if there is one thing we know about Wong, it is that the teenager is full of surprises – the kind that have helped him reinvent himself each time critics were about to write him off as an overgrown child star.

This is a young man who combines the acumen to have put forward a proposal for civil nomination even before Occupy began and the foresight to urge the city to look beyond the current political wrangles and focus on life after 2047, the year when the Basic Law expires and “one country, two systems” ends.

Wong has a knack for knowing where to place his chips and how to make a winning bet for himself and the causes he fights for.

No matter how shaky things may look for Demosistō at the moment, he is not one to be written off just yet.

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