“We are very pleased with our election campaign and our vote, with one in three voters supporting us,” says Sally Tang Mei-ching. She stood for Socialist Action, as the CWI is known in Hong Kong, in Sunday’s District Council elections in the ward of Pak Tin. For the CWI’s section, which organises in China and Taiwan as well as Hong Kong, this was a landmark campaign from which it should be possible to build a stronger base for socialist ideas.
These elections, held every four years, were also the first test of the popular mood in Hong Kong since last year’s epic 79-day mass democracy struggle known as the Umbrella Revolution. Socialist Action was active in that movement, arguing the need for the mass struggle to spread to China and explicitly target the overthrow of the one-party regime of the so-called Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Across Hong Kong, the ‘Umbrella’ factor was unmistakable, with a sharply higher voter turnout (47 percent compared to 41 percent in 2011) and losses for pro-government parties. The pro-government camp, an assortment of parties that are slavishly loyal to the CCP dictatorship and big business interests, has traditionally dominated these elections with their massive resources and a culture of vote-buying and manipulation. All 18 District Councils, which have extremely limited powers, are controlled by the pro-CCP camp.
Sally Tang Mei-ching canvassing for Socialist Action
“We decided to stand once again in these elections despite the undemocratic nature of the District Councils, because we need every available platform to spread our message,” says Sally. “We didn’t accept the idea, which even the pan-democratic parties have always gone along with, that District Council elections are not political, just about local issues or handing out moon cakes and bribes to the voters. We fought a campaign on the big political issues: against the CCP dictatorship, against the capitalist tycoons who control everything, for rent control and a rent freeze, for a universal pension system and a 40-hour work week.”
“I was attacked by my BPA opponent as a ‘violent socialist’ – although the only violence in the campaign came from one of his supporters who assaulted one of our comrades,” she says. “Yan accused us of using Cultural Revolution language, which is ironic considering he is part of the pro-CCP camp. This gave us an opportunity to answer his lies and explain what being a socialist means.”
Pak Tin is in Sham Shui Po, which is Hong Kong’s poorest district. Around 90 percent of Pak Tin’s electorate live in public housing. Standing in this area for the first time, the 1,152 votes won by Sally Tang Mei-ching represents a very strong showing. The incumbent, Yan Kai-wing, a member of the pro-business and pro-CCP party, Business and Professional Association (BPA), has held the seat for 23 years.
“My opponent is a political chameleon who started within the pan-democratic opposition, but has since jumped from one party to another and is now in the BPA, a very right-wing neo-liberal pro-government party,” explains Sally. “Many who have voted for him over the years were unaware that he has betrayed the democracy camp and joined a pro-CCP party.”
The incumbent’s voters are mainly older residents and like many councillors this support is based on a patronage system rather than political support. A key part of Socialist Action’s campaign focused on exposing his true record and the anti-working class policies of BPA. These include opposing basic rights such as a universal pension system and a law limiting standard working hours. This political campaign clearly hit the target as Yan’s vote was reduced from 2,888 in 2011 to 2,320 now – a loss of 568 votes. Sally’s vote share at 33 percent (1,152) was an increase from the 28 percent (1,119) achieved in the 2011 election by a challenger from a moderate pan-democratic party, ADPL (Yan Kai-wing’s former party).
This is an answer to those who urged Sally and Socialist Action to tone down any ‘radicalism’ for fear this would frighten away middle-of-the-road pan-democratic supporters. For example, putting the umbrella symbol on all Sally’s election material, leaflets, posters and banners, clearly identifying Socialist Action’s election campaign with last year’s mass struggle, marked this campaign out as unique in the whole of Hong Kong.
Even a crop of newly formed post-umbrella groups, called ‘Umbrella soldiers’ by the media and presented as emanating from the 2014 struggle, actually without exception toned down any link with the Umbrella Movement and toned down politics in general. These new groups managed to win 70,000 votes and eight seats, which has generated a lot of media coverage and general public approval. But capturing seats in itself does not mean so much unless it is linked to a programme and a real alternative. Unfortunately, this is not the case with these post-umbrella groupings who politically can only be described as a less clear variant of the pan-democrats.
In Pak Tin, a clear fighting political alternative allowed Socialist Action’s campaign to blast a significant hole in Yan Kai-wing’s vote from the previous election. In what is now a smaller electorate due to a boundary change, his vote fell while Socialist Action increased the anti-Yan vote both in percentage and absolute terms. After the election Socialist Action will continue to build support in the local area with the aim of organising the opposition layers and unseating Yan Kai-wing in the next election.
Socialist Action’s campaign
“When we decided to stand, we stressed that the vote would not be the main goal, but to build support for our socialist alternative,” says Sally. “But the vote we got is great! And it’s not just numbers but the people who have supported us, very enthusiastically, and that’s despite quite a lot of intimidation and Big Brother tactics from our opponent.”
Socialist Action gave out over 40,000 leaflets in the course of the six-week campaign, to an electorate of around 7,500. Ten different leaflets were used featuring different parts of the programme from pensions and rent control to democratic rights. Minority leaflets in English, Urdu and Tagalog were also used in smaller numbers. The public housing estate was canvassed entirely, some buildings more than once. A register of solid promises – almost 700 with phone numbers – was compiled and almost half of these were phoned in the final week. On Election Day, 49 volunteers were mobilised, half involved for the first time in a campaign led by Socialist Action. Refugee supporters (who cannot vote and are excluded from all basic rights in Hong Kong) played a key role doing letterbox drops getting Socialist Action’s leaflets to almost every letterbox three times over. The feedback showed a high proportion of Sally’s voters carefully read this election material giving some very positive comments.
As in the 2011 elections, when Sally stood in the Un Chau ward, gaining 493 votes, this campaign was fought as part of an electoral agreement with the League of Social Democrats, a radical pro-democracy party. Now, as before, this meant that Socialist Action fought on its own political programme, with its own material, which carried both Socialist Action’s and the LSD logo. The Pak Tin campaign was under Socialist Action’s full control in other words but in coordination with LSD, who also assisted with a lot of legal and technical help. The LSD chairman, ‘Longhair’ Leung Kwok-hung, came out to leaflet and show support several times during the campaign. Three excellent videos of Sally’s campaign were made by the LSD. These gained a lot of views on social media (over 26,000 views for the first video). Financially, Socialist Action was independent, building up an election fund beforehand with over HK$30,000 (US$3,870).
The main difference with 2011 was that Sally was identified as Socialist Action’s candidate on the ballot this time, whereas in 2011, because Socialist Action was not yet a registered organisation, she stood with LSD’s name on the ballot paper. In Socialist Action’s view this electoral cooperation was a win-win arrangement. The LSD benefited from an energetic and youthful campaign identified closely with its other campaigns, while Socialist Action benefited from being linked with a larger force that also offered important assistance.
The LSD stood five other candidates, but as in 2011 did not win any seats. For socialists this is not the main criteria for measuring if a campaign is successful, but rather what the effect has been on consciousness and possibilities for new struggle. But the capitalist and pro-government media are using the failure of LSD and another party People Power to win seats, to pronounce the decline of‘ ‘radicalism’. This sends out a deliberate false signal to shore up the ‘moderate’ compromise-friendly wing of the pan-democrats, who act as a brake on struggle and whose support has been eroded in recent years. Socialist Action’s result in Pak Tin – by refusing to tone down struggle and ‘politics’ – is a clear answer to this establishment propaganda.
What the elections mean
In Hong Kong as a whole the higher turnout took its toll on the pro-government camp whose ability to manipulate elections rests largely on passivity and low participation. This camp’s poor showing was “surprising, given its vast resources” noted The Standard newspaper. These parties still control all of the 18 District Councils, but this is not a true reflection of their support. In the Sha Tin District Council, for example, the pan-democratic parties won half of the seats, but the CCP’s puppet parties can continue to rule because of council seats reserved for a feudal-style rural organisation, which also has reserved places in several other District Councils.
The CCP-controlled machine of the pro-government parties works by directing resources into key seats and engaging in dirty tricks to manipulate the results. Two prominent pan-democratic politicians, Fredrick Fung King-kee (ADPL) and Albert Ho Chun-yan (Democratic Party), lost their seats on Sunday following the last-minute participation of ‘pro-democracy’ spoiler candidates, most blatantly in the case of Fung, who split away enough votes to allow the pro-government side to win. But the fact that the pro-government camp overall went backwards shows that the power of the CCP to manipulate is not unlimited. Partly this is because Beijing does not want to resort too obviously to dirty tricks for fear of a popular backlash.
In this sense these elections are a further setback for Beijing, because a stronger showing in the District Councils would have favoured their efforts to shift the balance in the Legislative Council (Legco) next year, to deprive the pan-democratic parties of their veto power, which comes from controlling one-third plus one of Legco seats. Eliminating the pan-democratic veto is a key aim of Beijing to gain greater control over political developments in Hong Kong and push back the anti-government forces.
The DAB, which is just a front for the CCP and the biggest pro-government party, went from 136 to 119 seats in Sunday’s election, while the Liberal Party (10 seats to 9) and New People’s Party (31 seats to 25) also suffered losses. New People’s Party leader Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said there was a “different political atmosphere” and admitted there was an increased anti-government mood in middle-class areas. In working class areas this mood runs even deeper. In their post election analysis both the pro-government and pan-democratic camps are saying these District Council elections were more politicised, which vindicates the attitude Socialist Action took from the outset.
This politicisation is from below, despite an extremely low level of media coverage and unremitting government propaganda attempting to erase the collective memory of last year’s events. Despite this, as socialists explained, last year’s struggle left a deep imprint. Frustration and anti-establishment hatred have grown following the government’s refusal to make even the smallest of democratic concessions to that struggle. At the same time the living standards of the working class and even middle-class layers have stagnated for years as a result of the world’s most expensive housing costs, inflation, and deteriorating public services.
So, even via the distorted and undemocratic channel of the District Council elections, the anger of the masses and especially the younger generation is being expressed. The record turnout of 47 percent, compares with the previous high of 44 percent recorded in 2003, which came on the heels of the historic struggle to defeat repressive national security legislation known as ‘Article 23’.
An interesting feature is the derisory results of the ‘nativist’ group Civic Passion which stood in six seats, winning none and losing their deposit in two. This right-wing populist and racist organisation has bitterly attacked Socialist Action via social media where it commands an exaggerated presence. Its election fiasco shows that this organisation lacks the ability to organise and sustain real campaigns.
The citywide election results are a further warning to the dictatorship in Beijing and Hong Kong’s capitalist elite. The excellent local response to the Pak Tin election challenge is a pointer of how a socialist alternative can be built in the coming period.