The First Post-1997 Push for Democracy in Hong Kong
In 1991, Hong Kong held its first ever direct election of the Legislative Council (LegCo). At the time, 2 years had just passed after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and Hong Kongers were still largely anti-Communist. Leaders of various democratic activist groups seized the opportunity and were successfully elected into LegCo, becoming the so-called “Democrats” from then on. This marked their official debut at the political arena of Hong Kong.
Not long after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, the 1998 LegCo election was held. The Democrats were successfully re-elected, taking up 20 seats. However, once the Legislative Council of Hong Kong became the Legislative Council of the HKSAR, the political scene was beyond recognition. The Pro-Establishment group, comprised of pro-Beijing LegCo members, dominated half of the seats representing the functional constituencies and put the Democrats at a disadvantage whenever there would be a count of vote during LegCo meetings. If one believes that his / her job as a legislator is done just by voting while looking pretty, it would have been a waste of everyone’s time. Don’t forget:
the opponent Pan-Democrats, as representatives of Hong Kongers, need to fight against is the Chinese Communist Party.
Article 23 and the First of July Protest March
In 2002, the then-Vice Premier of China Qian Qichen indicated that the Chinese government wanted Hong Kong to legislate for treason laws according to Article 23 of the HK Basic Law as soon as possible. In response, the Security Bureau released a consultation document on proposals to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law in September of that year, quickly causing public uproar. On December 15, 60,000 Hong Kongers took to the street to protest against the legislation of Article 23. On July 1, 2003, 500,000 Hong Kongers marched on the streets in protest, as a result of mobilization by mainstream media, non-governmental organizations and grassroot actions among Hong Kong citizens themselves.
Despite its size, the march failed to bring about the expected outcome. Five days after the July 1 march, the HKSAR regime remained adamant that the legislation of Article 23 would continue to take place on July 9, after making minor concessions and amendments to the original bill.
Public outrage was at an all-time high on July 1. With only 8 days to go before the bill was put to the vote, however, the Democrats had made no effort to propose further escalations or follow-ups on the matter, nor did they unleash any typical “opposition tactics” such as filibusters or threats to resign as a group from LegCo. In the end, it was pro-Bejing Executive Council member James Tien who came in to save the day: he resigned on July 6, and the Liberal Party, Tien’s affiliated political party, indicated that its LegCo members would vote against the bill. Only then did the SAR regime withdraw the bill for Article 23 in the dead of night.
The Article 23 crisis and the July 1, 2013 Protest left behind a legacy of bad habit for Hong Kong’s democratic movement: public outcry only manages to influence the number of people that would show up at subsequent protest marches but does nothing to change the political reality; the real political game changer lies in whether certain pro-Establishment LegCo members would “cross the floor” and flip against their party. On the other hand, the Democrats just stay on the sidelines rather than fully utilizing functions of the legislature to fulfil their jobs as members of the opposition. On New Year’s Eve of 2003, 100,000 people took to the streets. On July 1, 2014, 400,000 took to the streets, with public morale lasting up to LegCo elections in September. The Democrats, in an attempt to duplicate their electoral success in 1991, hoped to get elected into LegCo by taking advantage of large-scale mobilisation of the masses. Their goal at the time was to get 30 seats at LegCo, but in the end they could only get 25.
Political Parties and The People Get In The Way Of Each Other
Through this election, however, the Democrats finally managed to officially gain the mandate for “Dual Universal Suffrage for 2007/2008” i.e., direct elections of the Chief Executive and LegCo members. The political power from large-scale marches on the streets of Hong Kong should have been transferred into the legislature. Despite being legislators, the Democrats continued to rely on large-scale mass movements to advance their agenda. The people, on the other hand, began to put their hope into the Democrats’ performance in the legislature, but the latter often acted passive as legislators. This forms a vicious cycle for democratic movements later on, in which the masses and the political parties wait for each other to make the first move to push the mandate forward, which then ends up hindering one another.
The First Political Reform
On April 26, 2004, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued their interpretation of the Basic Law, which undermined the constitutional basis for the 2007/2008 Dual Universal Suffrage. Soon after, the SAR regime proposed the first political reform package, which consisted only of minor changes to the number of members for the Election Committee, the Geographical Constituencies and the Functional Constituencies, but was completely devoid of a timetable for the direct election of the Chief Executive. During June 2005, Donald Tsang replaced the unpopular Tung Chee Hwa as the Chief Executive, after the latter resigned from office mid-term. The number of participants in the July 1 Protest March that year fell from 400,000 a year ago to a mere 20,000. On December 21, 2005, the Legislative Council rejected the first political reform proposal. The hope for 2007/2008 Dual Universal Suffrage officially vanished, and the political platform since 2003 which had gathered popular momentum was declared null and void.
With the democratic movement devoid of focus, the opposition could only use the SAR regime’s administrative blunders as their target, and the Democrats was powerless to propose another political platform as replacement. The year 2007 was a public relations spectacle with Civic Party’s Alan Leong participating in a coterie Chief Executive election, paving the way to use public relations to create an illusion of fierce competition in a “fake” election.
By the time of the 2008 Legislative Council elections, the Democrats placed their focus on fighting for dual universal suffrage in 2012. “2012 Dual Universal Suffrage” became the common election platform for all democratic candidates as they started calling themselves “Pan-Democrats”. However, they ended up winning only 21 seats while losing 4, and voter turnout fell by 10%.
(Editor’s Note: this article was published in the 54th printed edition of Passion Times. Please supported our printed version by subscribing here: http://www.passiontimes.hk/4.0/regform.php)