Is this the beginning of the end for the pan-dems?

November 30, 2018 17:30
After getting trounced in a Legco by-election, Hong Kong's pan-democrat leaders have created a lingering image of their defeat by standing together with bowed heads and apologizing for their performance. Photo: HKEJ

The demise of Hong Kong's democracy camp has been confidently forecast many times and in the wake of the recent Legco by-election defeat the doomsters have been busy dusting off their predictions for another try.

Astonishingly they have been aided and abetted by leaders of the camp who came up with the ‘bright' idea of creating a lingering image of defeat by standing together with bowed heads in apology for the election loss.

There is no intrinsic reason for this loss to be a long-term disaster although there is no disguising the fact that it was a very bad result for the pan-democrats who not only lost to a pro-government candidate but were done so in a decisive manner. Nonetheless, just to put things in perspective, the pan-dems still managed to secure almost half of the popular vote, which is some way from pointing to extinction.

This defeat punctures the idea that democrats could be assured of capturing the lion’s share of the vote in any poll containing the semblance of a genuine election. Now a crippling combination of apathy and cynicism among many younger voters keeps them away from the polls while many other voters have been swayed by the government camp's so-called ‘pragmatic’ argument that it is better to support parties that can get things done even where there is doubt over what they are doing.

Moreover, there is no escaping the strength of the pro-government camp with its vast financial resources and demonstrated willingness to engage in the most dubious of tactics to win an election. Crucially, the establishment camp has developed a coherent and easily understood message which boils down to the assertion that they stand on the side of economic progress and will use their power to prevent obstruction to government plans for improving people’s livelihoods.

The pan-dems meanwhile spend far too much time tilting at windmills, banging on about procedures within the legislature and singularly failing to emerge with something resembling focus when it comes to policy. In the wake of the by-election defeat Claudia Mo, current leader of the opposition bloc in Legco, offered little more than a lame assurance that the democrats would battle on.

No one is much interested in battling on for no apparent purpose and there is something depressing about the democrats’ self-flagellation and weary repetition of the unfairness of life. Yet if the democratic leadership were able to concoct a coherent narrative, they would almost definitely find that it has widespread support.

Let’s start with livelihood issues. While the so-called worker-friendly DAB finds itself beholden to big business for funds it is reluctant to be a reliable advocate for working people. It has nothing of interest to say about the widening wealth gap and the existence of a massive underclass living below the poverty line. It will not even back legislation to enhance the rights of organized labor and is meek when it comes to confrontation with the property moguls who are primarily responsible for the acute housing crisis.

The democrats have a real opportunity to be the voice of the vast majority of Hong Kong people who can only dream of owning their own homes and work incredibly hard just to keep their heads above water. The pan-dems should also be taking the lead in campaigns against the government’s mad and bad mega white elephant projects which will not only drain Hong Kong’s financial reserves but have dubious benefits.

At this point it will be argued that they do indeed campaign on these issues but that’s the problem right there – they campaign on everything without focus. Popping up at every opportunity to chant slogans and wave banners impresses practically no one but alienates a great many people who find this activity downright annoying.

As matters stand Carrie Lam’s scheme for reclaiming vast tracks of land to the East of Lantau would provide an excellent basis for more focus. Lam claims her scheme will solve the housing problem in a decisive manner, but the truth is that not only would the project take forever to be completed, there are cheaper, less environmentally-damaging and more practical ways of tackling this crisis right now.

Then there are the big political issues. Although people do not spend their days agonizing over the abstract concept of constitutional change the fact is that when push comes to shove Hongkongers cherish their freedoms and distinctive society. Were it otherwise, the government would, for example, have no hesitation about bringing in very severe anti-subversion legislation as soon as possible. In their heart of hearts the authorities know that the public would mobilize against oppressive measures, so they follow a policy of slowly eroding liberty.

Only the democrats can unambiguously oppose the ebbing away of freedom but, yet again, it requires targeted action and less reliance on rituals such as the July 1 rally.

What is most worrying is the fact that the traditional democrats seem unable to connect with the new generation, many of whom participated in the Umbrella Movement, and the others who may not have not been out on the streets but are active on social media and are engaged in a host of other ways that stand aside from traditional political activity.

Although the younger generation tends to identify with precisely the same values as the democrats they do not identify with the democrats. This seems to be a contradiction in terms but it is not because there is chasm between institutional affiliation and widely-held beliefs. Bridging that gap is not easy; however, it is far from impossible and it’s something the pro-government camp simply cannot do because at the end of the day their values and objectives are widely at variance with those of most younger people.

Matters are coming to a head as critics are literally kidnapped off the streets of Hong Kong and handed over to the horrors of the Mainland legal system; and the government is also showing increasing enthusiasm for action against critics within the Hong Kong legal system. Freedom of speech is being eroded and the 'one country, two systems' concept is being squeezed to the extent that there is only space for one system. The stakes and dangers have risen considerably. As ever danger also produces opportunity.

So, although the democracy movement is clearly immersed in a down phase there is no need to turn a defeat into a tragedy. And it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the democrats are on the right side of history.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author