Hong Kong: A sharp shift to the left

Anti-establishment mood leave government and business leaders in state of shock

A sharp shift to the left

The 7 September elections to Hong Kong’s pseudo-parliament, the Legislative Council (Legco), were hugely important for the future of the territory and, in the longer term, also for mainland China. The results have been described as “stunning”, “unexpected”, and “surprising” in newspaper commentaries. The International Herald Tribune (8 September) spoke of “a sharp leftward shift” in which “pro-business candidates lost out”. The League of Social Democrats (LSD), a left-leaning electoral alliance formed just two years ago, defied most predictions to finish with ten percent of the popular vote. The League’s election slogan, “No struggle, no change”, marked it out from the grey mass of political parties and groupings. As The Standard noted, “The success of the radical League of Social Democrats in Sunday’s election should set alarm bells ringing in the government.”

Big setback for Beijing

And it is not just Hong Kong’s unelected bureaucrat-government, led by the hapless Donald Tsang that is a cause for alarm. Tsang’s paymasters in Beijing will also have been shaken by these election results, coming just two weeks after the most expensive Olympic Games in history. The organisation of the Beijing Olympics won plaudits from the world’s capitalist press – the general verdict afterwards being that hosting the landmark event had “strengthened China’s rulers”. The voters of Hong Kong, and an eruption of angry street protests in three mainland provinces, contradicts this assessment. The ruling CCP dispatched China’s 51 Olympic gold medallists to Hong Kong, just days before polling day, to spread some patriotic ‘feel-good’ and lift Tsang’s sagging popularity. Less than one in three of Hong Kong’s population is satisfied with his government’s performance. This was just the latest in a series of moves by Beijing to “woo the middle-class in Hong Kong” and defuse mass pressure for swifter implementation of universal suffrage. Last year, Beijing designated the year 2017 for direct elections for the post of Chief Executive (Prime Minister), while for the Legco, free elections would apply “not earlier than 2020”. At the same time, the central government has pumped funds into the territory to boost economic growth, which was 6.1 % last year and 6.8 %, in 2006. Despite this, Beijing’s political representatives in Hong Kong failed to make the headway they had confidently predicted, while the most clearly identified anti-establishment candidates did spectacularly well. This reflects the fact that working people have not benefited from the booming economy.

An editorial in the South China Morning Post expressed the mood of shock and disbelief among Hong Kong’s political and business elite: “The biggest winners are the independent mavericks and veteran provocateurs.” On a more serious level, this mouthpiece of the capitalist class noted: “In general, candidates who tackled livelihood issues and appealed to the working class did well, those perceived to favour business interests did not.” (Editorial, SCMP, 9 September 2008).

Not only the pro-Beijing camp was wrong-footed by the election results, but also the ‘moderate’ sections of the pan-democratic camp. Pan-democratic parties, like the Civic Party, stressed negotiations with Beijing in recent years and – in practice – acquiesced to a slower tempo of democratic change. As Augustine Tan noted in a posting on Asia Times Online: “The rise of the radicals was probably the most ironic result of Sunday’s poll. It had been widely believed, even by the leaders of the pro-democracy camp, that pro-Beijing candidates would sweep the board, the Democratic Party would be reduced to a minor role, the Civic Party would assume leadership of the anti-Beijing forces, and the enigmatic “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and his newly-formed League of Social Democrats would be history. The new reality: slight numerical improvement for the pro-Beijing sector, slight losses for the Democratic and Civic parties but big gains for the League of Social Democrats (LSD). Previously they had two seats, now they have three, and all three were won with handsome majorities.”

“Anti-business atmosphere”

Long Hair has a track record of opposition both to Hong Kong’s capitalist establishment and the authoritarian rule of the CCP. In July, he was refused entry to mainland China on a humanitarian visit to the Sichuan earthquake zone, even as the travel ban on other pan-democrat lawmakers was lifted. During the Olympic Games, in August, Long Hair was ejected from the equestrian arena (these Olympic events were staged in Hong Kong) for holding a banner and shouting, “End one-party rule!” He has supported causes, like the right of self-determination for Tibet, which were far from popular in the atmosphere of heightened nationalism prevailing earlier this year. In addition to Long Hair, it’s most well-known figure, the LSD saw Albert Chan Wai-yip re-elected to the Legco, while the group’s chairman Wong Yuk-man, a well-known radio presenter, nicknamed “Mad Dog” by a hostile media, was elected for the first time.

The LSD only fielded five candidates in this – its debut – Legco election campaign. The five received a combined vote of 152,800, from a total of 1.52 million. Only half the 60 Legco seats are elected by voters, under what the South China Morning Post describes as a “a system of mutant democracy” that was designed by representatives of British capitalism (the outgoing colonial power) in conjunction with Beijing. The other half of the Legco is made up of so-called ‘functional constituencies’: small circle contests between representatives mostly of privileged business and professional groups, like bankers, property developers and lawyers. In the half of the Legco that is elected, the pan-democratic camp took 60% of the vote, while the pro-Beijing camp remained on 40%. The main pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) becomes the largest force in the Legco with ten seats, but this is a small consolation when overall the pan-democrats increased their preponderance of elected seats from 18, last time, to 19, today. The DAB is effectively the Hong Kong ‘front organisation’ of the CCP. Mainland CCP officials were sent to Hong Kong to help this party “expand its grassroots organisation” (International Herald Tribune) and mobilise voters. Clearly, the CCP is better at organising sporting events than election campaigns!

‘Long Hair’ did especially well in these elections, receiving 44,700 votes, the second highest vote for any candidate in these elections. In the same constituency (New Territories East), the leader of the most outspoken pro-capitalist party, the Liberals, lost his seat. This party, part of the pro-Beijing camp, suffered an electoral collapse and is now “finished” in the words of its former chairman and founder. The Liberals have been key allies of the Tsang administration in the Legco, but are now resigning from their government or advisory posts in a last ditch bid for political survival. Few commentators give much for their chances, however. “The party has no future except merging with the DAB,” says its former chairman, Allan Lee Peng-fei.

Citadel of capitalism

Hong Kong is widely seen as a citadel of capitalism. It is regularly voted “freest in world” by various right-wing think-tanks, due to record-low corporate taxes and a laissez faire economic tradition. This year, Hong Kong came fourth in the World Bank’s annual ‘Doing Business Report’, behind Singapore, New Zealand and the United States, as the best place for companies to operate.

These election results are, therefore, extremely significant, revealing “an anti-business atmosphere,” according to the right-wing mouthpiece Voice of America.

“One of the most unexpected results was the number of votes Long Hair got,” a top political commentator told The Standard. “This probably means some people are very angry with the current pro-establishment policies.”

The popular image of Hong Kong, as an affluent metropolis, is misleading. Huge social problems abound beneath the city’s glittering skyline. One in four of Hong Kong’s children live in poverty. This is the other side of the ‘small government, big market,’ doctrine that Tsang & Co pride themselves upon. Even some capitalist journals recognised that this year’s election focused around issues such as inflation, jobs, a minimum wage, education and housing. As if surprised by their discovery, the local media said that ‘bread and butter issues’ proved decisive in this election.

The vast majority of Hong Kong’s workforce is trapped in low-paid jobs in the service sector, as almost all manufacturing has been outsourced to mainland China. Inflation, running at over 6%, has squeezed pay packets hard. Rents, among the highest in the world, are a huge burden for working class families. Average monthly wages actually fell by 4.5% in the second quarter of 2008, from HK$11,000 to HK$10,500 (equivalent to 1,350 US dollars).These figures show how Hong Kong’s economy is driven by low-paid ‘McJobs’, involving long working hours. The average working week for shop assistants, a major occupation among young people, is 51 hours. As reported on chinaworker.info, there have been a number of small but successful strikes this year, reflecting mounting anger over low pay and rising prices. The public sector too has seen protests; most recently over a programme to close ten percent of secondary schools, over the next five years.

These factors were reflected in the election results. Hong Kong’s voters went out to punish those groups and parties that stand closest to the corporate pro-Beijing establishment. This was despite the ten percent lower turnout, compared to the 2004 elections, that many believed would hurt the pan-democrats. Even at 45.2%, the turnout in these elections was higher than the 43.6% in the 2006 US Congressional elections. Inflation was a key issue as was the demand for a minimum wage. All parties to differing degrees gave verbal support to a minimum wage, but working class voters clearly placed greater trust in the LSD to fight for this.

Struggle for democratic rights

The election results also shine a spotlight on which social classes and forces stand for ‘democratisation’ in Hong Kong and which are against. Contrary to a popular myth, it is not the ‘business community’ that is pushing for universal suffrage in Hong Kong or China. The pressure comes instead from below, from the most oppressed layers in society: the working class and the poor.

While the Legco has little real power, these elections pose a major problem for China’s rulers and particularly for Beijing’s key representative in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping, who is also President Hu Jintao’s heir-apparent. Constant manoeuvres and foot-dragging over universal suffrage by the central government have, in conjunction with the effects of neo-liberal pro-rich policies, undermined the Tsang administration just as they undermined his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, who was forced to resign in 2005. Now, Beijing will be even less enamoured with the prospect of elections on the basis of universal suffrage and the possibility of ‘anti-business’ politicians winning a majority in Hong Kong in future. As the South China Morning Post (9 September) noted: “the setback for businessmen in direct elections, and the underperformance by Beijing loyalists, might make the central government more wary of democratisation in the city.”

But more stalling, or an attempt by Beijing to re-impose the absolutism of the British-era, risks triggering a social explosion with implications for the whole of China and especially Hong Kong’s neighbouring province of Guangdong. The central government’s strategy for Hong Kong is part of a complex chess game for maintaining control of China, including unruly regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, and even coaxing Taiwan in the future into a closer formal relationship modelled on Hong Kong’s autonomous status. At all costs, however, the CCP wants to avoid releasing the ‘virus’ of democratic demands from Hong Kong into the 1.3 billion-strong population on the mainland.

As Augustine Tan points out, support for the pro-CCP camp in Hong Kong comes especially from the capitalist class and the privileged: “Beijing chalked up significant middle-class support …More telling are the pro-Beijing camp’s gains in the functional constituencies, which represent business and professional groups.” (Asia Times Online, 12 September).

In equal measure, these social layers are horrified by the electoral gains of the LSD. As Tan notes: “The professionals – lawyers, doctors, accountants – are finding China ever more attractive and the radicalism, represented by “Long Hair” and “Mad Dog” repulsive.”

A new workers’ party?

These elections show the huge need, and also the potential, for a mass working class party offering an alternative to neo-liberalism, authoritarianism and capitalism. This is a feature of the entire world situation, where the complete pro-capitalist degeneration of one-time mass workers’ parties – social democrats and Stalinists – has created a gaping political vacuum on the left. These election results show that Hong Kong and mainland China are very much part of this international process.

The LSD is a very recent formation, launched as an electoral alliance – not yet a party – in 2006. It is a politically heterogeneous formation comprising a wide variety of positions from anti-capitalists to admirers of Scandinavian-style social democracy (something that workers in Scandinavia can testify no longer exists and long ago capitulated to neo-liberalism). While the LSD comprises those like ‘Long Hair’ and his group, the ‘April 5th Action Committee’, that has been influenced by Trotskyist ideas, it also includes Wong Yuk-man, the LSD chairman, who is an evangelical Christian, with reported links to the Kuomintang (the nationalist party that ruled China 1927-49, and had its main base of support in southern China). There will now be attempts by the political establishment and, in particular, by the pro-capitalist leaders of the pan-democratic camp to woo some sections of the LSD into the ‘political mainstream’ and away from any emphasis on protests and struggle. This is a danger that confronts all new left formations elected into capitalist parliaments and can only be countered by building a mass membership and putting down strong roots in the working class communities.

The issue of socialism, and how to build support for socialist ideas, is quite complex in Hong Kong and China, as a whole, where this word often – falsely – conjures up associations with the CCP and authoritarianism. This is particularly ironic given the solid support for the CCP from Hong Kong’s capitalists and parties, like the Liberals. Given the overarching importance of democratic demands and the – stalled – struggle for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, popular propaganda for socialist policies and democratic rights are inextricably linked. It is, therefore, necessary to use the term ‘democratic socialist’ to stress this fundamental distinction from Stalinist or ex-Stalinist political formations. In the Chinese context, however, even this term leads to confusion and is virtually indistinguishable from the term ‘social democrat’, a term that is increasingly discredited among the most conscious layers of workers and youth in Europe, but not yet in Asia.

The spectacular success of the LSD in the elections has, undoubtedly, raised its authority among important sections of workers and youth. This also means that the idea of a new working class party has been placed on the agenda. To attract fresh forces and develop a genuine mass membership, any new left-wing political formation must orientate towards struggle, rather than putting all its focus on electioneering. It must also be completely democratic, allowing freedom of left tendencies, and seek to use its impressive electoral gains as a platform from which it can popularise democratic socialist policies, as the only real alternative to Hong Kong’s thinly disguised authoritarian capitalism.

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September 2008