Do Hong Kong’s pan-democratic politicians have a future?
28 Oct 2020|

After Chief Executive Carrie Lam cancelled the Hong Kong Legislative Council election scheduled for September 2020, Beijing’s National People’s Congress decreed that all council members would stay in their posts for ‘no less than one more year’.

Of the 70 incumbents, 21 were from the opposition pan-democrat camp. Four of them had been disqualified from running in the 2020 election. Eighteen of the 21 eventually decided to stay, citing a deadlocked opinion poll on the issue. But the decision to stay could undermine cooperation between the pan-democrat and localist factions of the democracy movement and stall its momentum.

Since their emergence in the mid-1980s, Hong Kong’s pan-democrats have opted for an approach centred on negotiating and compromising with Beijing. Their initial goal was to slowly secure full suffrage for the chief executive and the Legislative Council as part of the terms of the 1997 handover of the territory from the UK to China.

These strategies looked successful in the earlier days of the handover, when China was more liberal and opted for a more laissez-faire approach to the city’s affairs. But as Beijing took a more assertive grip after the 500,000-people demonstration against a proposed national security law in 2003, the pan-democrats’ approach became largely ineffectual.

Their decades-long campaign for universal suffrage finally collapsed on 31 August 2014 when Beijing decreed that it would allow no more than three pre-screened candidates to run for chief executive.

This decree led to a split within the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Younger activists pushed for more radical solutions but found themselves disavowed by the veterans.

The divide widened in the 2016 Legislative Council election, when the younger and more radical elements splintered from the pro-democratic camp. Known as localists, this group made a breakthrough in the polls, although their candidatures were later disqualified by the government. The pan-democrats’ loss in the 2018 by-election to a pro-Beijing novice amid low voter turnout only further illustrated their impotence in the eyes of their critics.

Pan-democrats and localists put their differences aside as the 2019 anti-extradition protest erupted. The two factions stayed robustly united against the acute pressures from Beijing and intense police brutality. The goodwill continued through to the local district council elections where both factions worked together and earned a landslide victory.

Fast-forward to 2020 and the dilemma over whether to stay in the Legislative Council seems to have fragmented the pro-democrat coalition, though there had already been signs of this.

In the unofficial democratic primaries in June, localists won a landslide victory over traditional pan-democrats. The localist momentum never materialised as 12 popular candidates were disqualified and then election was cancelled. But the primary results nonetheless accentuated the returning divide in the movement.

Two online polls pointed to overwhelming support for a mass resignation, but many of the incumbent pan-democrats were eager to stay, hoping to retain what was left of the once-vibrant and revered pan-democratic presence in the legislature.

They argued that retaining a voice of opposition, despite being unable to make changes or block controversial laws, still had value in slowing down Beijing’s encroachment through parliamentary tactics like filibustering.

In reality, though, many of them have delivered lots of slogans but few results, and scenes of pan-democratic politicians being forcibly removed from the chamber are common. Voters have become disillusioned as these politicians—marketing themselves as the ‘key seat’ or ‘last hope of democracy’ —have had little effect in the legislature.

The situation is now even bleaker. Lam has outlined plans to soon allow Hongkongers living in key areas in southern China to vote in Hong Kong elections. While some argue that this will open doors to fraud, it’s not clear whether pan-democratic candidates will be able to campaign on the mainland at all.

Pan-democrats are in danger of losing their mandate as representatives of the broader pro-democracy movement. Though a mass resignation in protest might be too bold a move for these centrists, staying would signify a recognition of Beijing’s National People’s Congress’s authority over Hong Kong’s parliamentary matters, which itself is a violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Staying can also be seen as appeasement or even collaboration, since it gives Beijing much-needed legitimacy for the interim term. Just as in the National People’s Congress, where a dozen ‘democratic’ parties serve as political props for China’s rubber-stamp parliament, Hong Kong’s pan-democrats could easily find themselves playing a similar role in the Legislative Council.

Pan-democrats are also being eclipsed by prominent activists and exiles who are bringing the fight from abroad. As opposition in the legislature and on the streets has dwindled, Nathan Law and Agnes Chow—both once lawmakers but disqualified in the 2016 Legislative Council elections—have roused much public and political support.

Law has met and petitioned high-profile officials and politicians globally during his exiles, and Chow’s enormous Twitter presence in Japan has secured much awareness of Hong Kong’s situation, which also boomed after her high-profile arrest in August.

Traditional pan-democrats must be willing to make bolder moves rather than simply react to circumstances. They need to answer two questions: How will they preserve momentum and galvanise support? And how can they contribute in new ways and convince the pro-democratic camp they won’t merely repeat their mistakes?

There are many figures out there who could help amplify the cause. Reaching out to these people, rather than merely focusing on their chamber, could give much-needed momentum to the movement.

Locally, they need to show courage to work with and support the younger generations of the movement in continuing the cause, and to mentor future leaders.

And, given the erosion of so much of Hong Kong’s freedom under Beijing’s new national security law, a bold breakthrough and substantial actions are probably the only way to get past the current deadlock.

The status quo is a dead end for the pro-democracy movement. It also sends an unhelpful signal abroad. If Hong Kong democrats signal that they are content to try to work within the increasingly oppressive system, there’s not much the rest of the world can do. Beijing’s dream for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council will then be complete: a true rubber-stamp parliament with a dozen quixotic figures shouting in the background, and the voiceless majority alienated and powerless.