Hong Kong’s “five district referendum” (for universal suffrage) campaign nears a conclusion! The byelections across the city on Sunday 16 May (“516”) give ordinary voters, workers and youth an opportunity to register a powerful protest against today’s rotten system. These elections are quite unlike any other. They have been forced on an unwilling government and capitalist establishment by the resignation of five pro-democracy lawmakers – three for the League of Social Democrats and two from the Civic Party. The election campaign, especially of the youthful LSD, has been marked by demonstrations, street meetings, and large rallies.
The ruling elite cannot hide their fury. Following orders from the Chinese dictatorship, the Hong Kong government and establishment parties are boycotting the byelections, seen as a “blatant challenge” to Beijing’s authority. More than just a boycott, they have done their utmost to sabotage the elections and cut the turnout.
Chief executive Donald Tsang says he won’t vote. He and his “team” want to set an example and imply by this that government employees should also stay away on 16 May. This is all part of a campaign of intimidation by the government side. Pro-Beijing politicians at local level have tried to block the use of schools and other public buildings as polling stations. Through both official channels and the capitalist-controlled media publicity for these elections has been minimal. Only one major newspaper, the anti-Beijing Apple Daily, has declared its support.
The establishment’s campaign of sabotage seems likely to reduce the overall turnout, but this by no means hands them victory. These actions are a sign of the bankruptcy of the ruling group. They have not won any converts to their position. The government’s fraudulent electoral reform package, which preserves rather than scrapping undemocratic features such as the functional constituencies, is only supported by 48% according to a recent poll. And many who support the package do not do so with any enthusiasm, but in the mistaken belief it is necessary to pass the reform in order to “move forward” in the forlorn hope of concessions from Beijing at a later date.
Government support crashes
Not surprisingly, over this and a range of social issues, confidence in the government is at a five-year low according to a poll by the University of Hong Kong. The numbers expressing ‘no confidence’ in Donald Tsang have risen to 46 percent. In a separate poll from the Chinese University, only a quarter now regard Hong Kong as a ‘harmonious society’ – a drop from 37 percent two years ago. Two-thirds cited ‘conflicts between rich and poor’ as their number one concern. Widely reported, was this poll’s finding that 25.9 percent of respondents supported the use of ‘radical means’ to protest government actions.
This is not surprising to us socialists. The capitalist elite of Hong Kong, through a government that is appointed by Beijing rather than elected, have imposed some of the most brutal neo-liberal policies seen anywhere:
• Hong Kong now has the widest wealth gap of any developed economy – the income of the top earning tenth of the population is 31.5 times greater than that of the bottom tenth. 1.23 million people or 1 in 7 live under the poverty line.
• Incomes for the poor are falling. More than half a million of the poorest people in Hong Kong suffered a 20% fall in income from 1996 to 2006. Ten years after it was first proposed in the Legco, Hong Kong still has no legal minimum wage.
• Average house prices have risen 36 percent since January 2009. Hong Kong has the “least affordable” housing in the world according to a global study commissioned by the South China Morning Post.
• With interest rates historically low, the average homeowner pays 42 percent of their income to the banks in mortgage repayments. When interest rates increase as they will eventually, tens of thousands of homeowners may find it impossible to keep up with payments.
Abolish functional constituencies!
A central issue in this election is the call to scrap the repugnant functional constituencies, which gives Hong Kong’s moneyed elite extra votes to control the make-up of the Legco:
• Only 6 percent of the population can vote in the functional constituencies – they pick half the Legco seats (30 of 60).
• Last time around (2008) there was no election for 14 of these 30 seats – a single candidate was agreed upon by the corporations and tycoons who control these seats.
• The functional constituencies are a stronghold of reactionary neo-liberalism. On every major political issue – from the ‘white elephant’ Hong Kong to Guangzhou high-speed train to demands for a minimum wage – the functional constituencies spearhead the establishment’s attacks.
A major achievement of the “516” campaign has been to raise popular consciousness and anger over the functional constituencies. The pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) accuses the “referendum” leaders of “demonising the functional constituencies”. Socialists and chinaworker.info call for the immediate abolition of these undemocratic seats, but this demand alone is not enough. The Legco as a whole is a largely decorative body. Even a fully elected Legco, if constituted on the same basis as today, would not empower the people of Hong Kong. Socialists therefore call for the replacement of the Legco with a genuine People’s Assembly, with powers to stand up to the capitalists and really transform the conditions of ordinary working people. This should be elected on the basis of universal suffrage with members subject to recall by their electors and limited to a skilled workers’ salary. We call for big cuts in the fantastically inflated salaries of Hong Kong’s politicians and top officials. As Chief Executive over one city, Donald Tsang’s pay cheque is fatter than Obama’s!
The struggle will continue
In 1999, the Hong Kong government admitted at UN hearings that the functional constituencies were undemocratic. It described them as “transitional”. But today, much has changed. Despite this being one of the most contentious issues, ministers have backed away from their old position and no longer say the functional constituencies are “incompatible” with universal and equal suffrage. There are clear signs of a plot to preserve them, with some cosmetic changes to make them look less exclusive. One idea being mooted is to create a few new functional constituencies with a broader voting base to give an illusion of fairness. This is what Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, a candidate to succeed Donald Tsang in 2012, meant when he spoke about “one person, two votes” as an option for future electoral reform.
The capitalist elite in Hong Kong is fighting tooth and claw to keep these relics of British colonial rule, because it fears that a fully elected Legco, with a pan-democratic majority, would be under enormous social pressure to address issues like low wages, government-business cronyism, air pollution, and lack of welfare provision. For its own reasons, aside from close ties to Hong Kong’s top tycoons, the Chinese dictatorship has also taken the functional constituencies under its protection. The regime sees them as an extra line of defence against too rapid change. It wants to forestall a situation where a potential opposition figure is elected chief executive.
Therefore, only minimal cosmetic changes have been put on the table in the current ‘reform’ proposal. This includes enlarging the elite group that elects the chief executive from 800 to 1,200 millionaires. Even in future rounds of ‘reform’ discussions, Beijing intends to attach conditions in order to keep control. So, for example, if it agrees to allow the whole electorate to vote for the chief executive in the 2017 election, on the basis of universal suffrage (and this is by no means guaranteed), it will insist on a nomination and vetting mechanism to exclude any candidate who is not accommodating to Beijing’s wishes.
Scope for compromise with Beijing?
Alongside the “referendum” campaign, divisions within the pan democratic camp have come into the open. Leaders of the ‘moderate’ pan democrats who oppose the byelection tactic are increasingly adapting to Beijing’s ‘reform’ agenda and its ‘glacial’ speed. The leaders of the Democratic Party and 12 smaller pan democratic groups launched the Alliance for Universal Suffrage to promote the idea of negotiation and compromise. This is not driven by any confidence that an acceptable compromise with the dictatorship is possible, but more by a desire to escape from today’s political ‘ex-communication’ – a permanent place on the opposition benches – and to be integrated into the establishment.
As chinaworker.info predicted, however, the ‘north winds’ (from Beijing) that some Alliance and Democratic Party leaders spoke about have led nowhere. “What our negotiations have achieved is the revelation of the government’s lack of sincerity,” was the candid admission of leading Alliance supporter, Szeto Wah, a vocal opponent of the “referendum” campaign. How can something that was obvious in advance be an achievement?
With greater flexibility on its part, the central government could have exploited far more effectively what is, de facto, a complete split in the pan democratic camp. Merely the outer appearance of a negotiating framework could have been used to undermine the byelections and the ‘radicals’ and to inflate the bubble of the ‘moderate’ pan democrats. But the scope for meaningful concessions is not great. Rather, as we have warned it is the ‘moderate’ pan democrats who are making concessions. Scandalously, some at least of the ‘moderates’ seem to be ready to vote for the government’s rotten ‘reform’ proposals. Whatever happens, it is clear that in order to satisfy Beijing’s conditions the ‘moderate’ pan democrats will have to transform themselves into ‘democratic’ apologists for a continued policy of manoeuvres and delay in respect of one-person-one-vote. This is not “compromise”, it is capitulation!
The limited wiggle room on the part of the Chinese regime flows from its fear that unless demands for democratic change in Hong Kong are “tamed”, these could at some point rekindle a mass democracy movement on the Chinese mainland. Given the complexity and instability of the Chinese state, the tensions between regions and the centre, escalating factional struggle within government, and hundreds of ‘mass incidents’ every day, this is a scenario that haunts Beijing. Accordingly, the central government prefers to listen to its ‘hard-line’ supporters in Hong Kong, many of whom are plotting against the ‘weakling’ Donald Tsang and his chosen successor and want to grab the chief executive’s position for themselves. These hardliners, including leading DAB spokespersons, argue against any concessions to the pan democrats.
What comes next?
After the byelections a ferocious struggle will open up, with the government of Donald Tsang manoeuvring to get its electoral reform bill passed in the Legislative Council. For this it needs to get at least four votes from the pan democratic group of lawmakers, who, with a third of the Legco seats, can block passage of the bill as they did in 2005. Last week, the ‘neutral’ Legco president Tsang Yok-sing said he will resign in order to vote for the government’s position, thus precluding the need for a fourth deserter. There is much speculation that government lobbyists have already recruited three ‘Judases’ from the pan democrat camp but are not hopeful they can find a fourth. This would explain why they need Tsang’s vote. Tsang, who is thought to be a closet member of the Chinese Communist Party, denies reports that Donald Tsang personally appealed to him to break his pledge of neutrality and vote for the reform.
Socialists and the supporters of the CWI/chinaworker.info have been active in the “referendum” campaign urging workers and youth to turn out and deliver a blow to the establishment. We fight for every extension of democratic rights, even partial reforms, but explain that within the framework of a diseased and disaster-prone capitalist system real democracy is impossible. This is why we link the current struggle to the need for democratic socialist policies and the creation of a mass working class party in Hong Kong. In every major struggle against authoritarian rule, from South Korea to Iran and South Africa, it is the organisations of the working class – using the method of strikes, occupations, and mass uprisings – that have played the decisive role.
It is not enough just to vote on Sunday. We are calling upon workers and youth to vote for the LSD candidates, as this party has been the most consistent in challenging the manoeuvres and lies of the government. After “516” , the establishment will increase its pressure upon the ‘moderate’ pan democrats to accept a path of one-sided “compromise” and abandon any real resistance to the Chinese regime’s agenda. Therefore a powerful showing for the LSD in these elections will represent the best outcome for the fight back against the “compromise” camp. It will also serve as a warning to potential deserters within the pan democratic camp when the reform bill comes before the Legco.
While in the remaining days we must work to maximise the vote on “516”, even more important is to build from this a socialist alternative and a mass workers’ party with a clear programme to fight capitalism. These are issues, which many of the new layer of “referendum” activists, workers and youth, will undoubtedly be discussing in the period ahead.
The LSD, which is a new force and not yet a party in the full sense, does not stand for a socialist or anti-capitalist programme. But a growing number of its supporters, especially youth, are increasingly looking to socialist ideas, a fact welcomed by the CWI as a potentially crucial development.