Radical political force dealt a serious blow • Pro-Beijing camp jubilant

The League of Social Democrats (LSD) has split. The departure of two of the party’s three legislators, announced on 23 January, deals a heavy blow to the LSD. The news will be met with dismay by a great number of the League’s 150,000-plus voters, who looked to it as a thorn in the side of the pro-Beijing political establishment. Following these defections the League is on the “verge of collapse” according to the South China Morning Post. Unfortunately this is a realistic assessment.

The decision of legislators Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan Wai-yip, who stood on the party’s right, to resign from LSD came as no real surprise. For half a year the League has been locked in an increasingly acrimonious internal battle. Debates over strategy, programme and tactics are normal and necessary for any genuine political party, especially one that aspires to organise mass struggle. But the most negative feature of the LSD’s “civil war” has been an almost complete lack of political substance to the debates. Instead of clarifying political differences, the struggle has seen a tendency for both antagonistic camps to trade personal attacks. This concentration on personalities rather the political content reflects a certain tradition in Hong Kong’s political life, but one that any left force must firmly reject as unhealthy. Much of the argument was aired not through democratic internal structures or members’ meetings but online and through the media, with sometimes bizarre clashes between the factions raging on Facebook for example. For these reasons, while under other circumstances the breakaway of a right-leaning group would be a positive development, opening the way for a leftward shift of the party, this has not been the case here.

Need for politics

The result of this dispute, incomprehensible to a majority of LSD supporters, and the acrimony with which it has been conducted, has been to seriously damage both factions and the credibility of the LSD as a whole. Naturally the government of Donald Tsang and the pro-Beijing political establishment are jubilant over this outcome. The LSD is only four years old and enjoyed rapid and significant electoral success, gaining three Legco seats and 153,390 votes in 2008 (10.1% of the total vote), and re-winning the same seats under the special conditions of last May’s “de facto referendum” with over 280,000 votes. These electoral gains showed the potential for a left force in Hong Kong politics as a challenge to the neo-liberal capitalist establishment, offering a platform for the anger and desperation of the most oppressed layers in society such as the one in six of the population (1.25 million people) who live below the official poverty line in one of Asia’s richest cities.

Despite its considerable successes in elections, with an anti-privatisation and pro-welfare message, the League has not been able to develop a mass or even semi-mass membership base or clearly defined membership structures and branches. It has remained a rather loose “semi-party” with a sizeable periphery of supporters and youth activists who have not joined the party or actively sought to build it. This is partly due to the way the party was founded as an alliance of at least three groupings, some of which were based around leading personalities rather than a clear political orientation.

While the LSD has initiated some impressive struggles, politically it has suffered from an overemphasis on activism, which of course is needed in any mass struggle, but with insufficient debate and discussion on ideology and programme. Partly reflecting the stage of development of the class struggle in Hong Kong and consciousness, the LSD comprises a mix of political trends from youth who identify with socialism and Marxism on one side to nationalist and liberal ideas on the other. These political shortcomings have not been addressed during the inner-party crisis, but they do help to explain why the crisis took on such a serious, sudden and personal rather than political character.

While the LSD has profiled itself as an anti-establishment party, it is unfortunately not a workers’ party, one with an organic connection to workplaces and grassroots union branches. This would have given it a far greater political stability and instilled its members with a higher sense of self-discipline, which is necessary also when it comes to airing disagreements. In the absence of these properties, given the lack of political clarity, the LSD faces a crisis from which it may not recover.

The supporters of the CWI in Hong Kong, Socialist Action, welcomed the emergence of LSD as a possible step in the direction towards a new workers’ party. However, given its unclear political complexion and lack of membership structures, Socialist Action supporters organise separately, while at the same time seeking active cooperation with LSD activists, especially its significant left-wing, in concrete campaigns such as last year’s democracy “referendum” and the struggle for a minimum wage of HK$33 per hour.

People’s Power?

Wong and Chan are politically on the right of the LSD. Wong, the most influential of the two, stands for a mixture of right-wing social democratic ideas and nationalism in the mould of Sun Yat-sen (the founder of the Kuomintang). But it is not the case that their breakaway project, to be called “People’s Power”, is based upon these ideas or any clear political programme at this stage. Their sole motivation up to now has been an “inability to work with” the other main LSD faction organised around LSD chairman Andrew To Kwan-hang. At this stage their programme consists only of attacking the Democratic Party in the run up to the 2011 District Council elections, due to that party’s vote for the government’s undemocratic political reform package in June 2010 and its shift towards accommodation with Beijing.

“People’s Power” seems even less likely to develop into a party than was the case with LSD. The two legislators say they have the support of around 100 of the League’s roughly 1,000 members, plus perhaps 100 non-LSD supporters, which is of course not much with which to start a party. But Wong and Chan seem not to want a party, rather a looser electoral “network” which is easier to control.

Happier times: Andrew To Kwan-hang (centre) LSD chairman

Hong Kong already has a plethora of miniscule parties represented in the Legco and based on capitalist politics, some of which are barely big enough to be categorised as ‘think-tanks’. Such is the top-heavy nature of the territory’s polity that the LSD’s 1,000-strong membership made it the largest party in the pan-democratic (anti-Beijing) bloc. Most parties, like the New People’s Party recently launched by Liberal Party defectors and pro-Beijing politician Regina Ip, have only a couple of hundred members. For capitalist parties a mass membership is not needed or desirable; only piles of cash and access to the capitalist media. But a left force, a party that wishes to challenge the capitalist establishment, must build a mass base, and not a “supporters’ club” but rather active, campaigning party structures with living political debates and an accountable leadership at all levels that lives on similar wages to its working class members.

It seems that Wong’s breakaway will link-up with small, largely insignificant pro-bourgeois groups including the ‘pan-blue’ (Kuomintang-linked) China Youth and the anti-Democratic Party group “Power Voters”. This marks a definite turn away from their earlier cooperation with left forces through the channel of LSD, in favour of clearly bourgeois allies. As its name suggests, “People’s Power” will rely on populism but may shift further to the right on social issues. But it will combine this with sharp criticism of the Democratic Party. Completing a picture of splits and new “parties” emerging, the Democrats have also suffered a rupture recently with the formation of the Neo-Democrats, in protest at the leadership’s compromise line towards Beijing.

Mass workers’ party needed

A crucial question upon which the future of the LSD hangs is what the remaining legislator “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung decides to do. “Long Hair”, who is a socialist, was always the LSD’s most important public figure and the single biggest factor in its electoral appeal (as shown by the 108,000 votes he received last May). His record of opposing the authoritarian political system and fighting alongside workers and persecuted groups has made him the most well known political figure in Hong Kong. His decision to give away the majority of his Legco salary to the party and remain in a public housing apartment has earned enormous respect and is an example that workers must demand of all their representatives.

“Long Hair” has kept a distance from the internal feuding and attempted unsuccessfully to preserve unity in the party. With the split now a fact he says he is reviewing his position and has yet to decide his next move. While “Long Hair” is unlikely to link up with “People’s Power”, he may not remain with the LSD either, in line with his desire to keep a distance from both warring factions. The remaining LSD leadership under Andrew To is no more capable of offering a left programme than the breakaway group of Wong and Chan. Without “Long Hair” it is hard to envisage the LSD continuing as a viable political force.

Should the demise of the LSD become a fact, it will undoubtedly have negative consequences especially given the seemingly non-political nature of the split and the great confusion this has caused. An inevitable demoralisation of a layer of activists, not just among LSD members, will be the case unless the party’s left can respond to this crisis with a clear alternative to rally around.

There is an urgent need in Hong Kong for a workers’ party – a party that organises the working class and grassroots independently of the over-represented bourgeoisie. While a workers’ party can and must cooperate even with bourgeois and middle-class political groupings that are prepared to fight for democratic rights, it must maintain complete organisational and political independence. In order to stand up to the pressure of the capitalist pro-Beijing establishment and to organise struggle effectively, such a party must have a distinctly socialist identity, something LSD lacks, even if the exact programme and policies of a workers’ party would naturally not emerge in a finished form from the outset.

The LSD has been a positive factor in Hong Kong politics – as a provisional formation – with the potential to develop into, or provide a bridge towards, a new workers’ party. The abrupt crisis of the LSD means that in its existing form it is now no longer likely to develop in this way. Rather than the disintegration of LSD, which is clearly a real possibility in this situation, what is needed is a strategy to reorganise and reorient the party, or its socialist and left layers, much more clearly towards working class politics. As part of this task it is crucial the lessons of this experience are discussed and grasped by youth and workers inside and outside the LSD. The only way forward is towards the formation of a working class party based on the ideas of democratic socialism.

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