Hong Kong’s “516” election – half a million people defy the government

LSD’s 278,931 votes to Donald Tsang’s 649 votes – who has failed to muster support?

Since this was published, commentators speak of a “governmental crisis” in Hong Kong as the weak unelected puppet administration of Donald Tsang maneouvres to try to get its undemocratic electoral reform packages passed in the Legislative Council (Legco) on June 23. The League of Social Democrats (LSD) and other groups are mobilising for a big protest on teh day of the vote. The government is trying, and may succeed, in luring four legislators from the “moderate” compromise wing of the pan democratic movement to support it, which is enough votes to pass the bill. The “moderates” opposed the recent “five-districts referendum” (simultaneous byelections across the city) fought by the LSD and Civic Party, which mobilised half a million votes againt a rotten compromise and to demand immediate introduction of one-person-one-vote. Older articles on socialistworld.net and chinaworker.info give more background on the undemocratic electoral system in Hong Kong and political background to the current struggle. Cwi supporters have played an active part in this struggle, fighting for all, even partial, extensions of democratic rights such as the abolition of business-nominated “functional constituencies”. But we also explain the need for a socialist transformation of society and the decisive need for a fighting workers’ movement in both Hong Kong and throughout China to defeat the authoritarian regime.

On “516” (16 May) Hong Kong arrived at a turning point in its political history. Over half a million people turned out to support a radical challenge to Beijing, the Hong Kong elite, and the city’s rigged electoral system. While the election turnout of 17.1 percent has been portrayed as a “failure” by the same establishment parties that sabotaged and boycotted the elections, under the circumstances this was an impressive result especially for the League of Social Democrats (LSD), which saw its vote more than double from 2008.

What did the campaign achieve?

The “516” campaign and its many supporters especially among a new younger generation of democracy activists will now be evaluating this campaign, what it achieved, and what the next steps should be. Socialists organised in the Committee for a Workers’ International (cwi) have been active in this campaign, calling for a vote for the LSD as the party putting forward the most radical initiatives and slogans. Based on our experience in this campaign but also from international movements we offer this contribution to the post-516 discussion.

The goal of staging a de facto referendum may not have been achieved on 516, but this is not the decisive factor in our opinion for measuring what effect the campaign had or what the political repercussions will be. It is a considerable achievement that half a million people voted for a radical anti-establishment platform, in an election despised by the Chinese dictatorship and considered “criminal” by many in the pro-government camp. Unlike most elections internationally this was not about choosing the “lesser evil”. For example, the reason why many if not most of the British electors who picked Gordon Brown did so was not because they support Brown and his right-wing New Labour party but to try to stop the conservative Cameron. By contrast most of those who voted on 516 were highly motivated – these 500,000 votes embody a very conscious level of support.

The campaign also succeeded in raising consciousness among a significant layer of the populace including many who for different reasons may not in the end have voted. Consciousness has been raised especially over the pernicious role of the functional constituencies but also over social issues such as low pay, the housing crisis, privatisation and lack of decent public services. Through the LSD’s campaign a not insignificant minority have grasped the danger posed by the policy of other pan-democratic parties for negotiations and compromise with the Beijing dictatorship, that it is a dead end. But due to the electoral bloc with the Civic Party, necessary to stage a five-district showdown, this message was somewhat muffled – with the Civic Party leadership refusing to openly criticise the betrayal of the “moderate” pan-democrats.

Like any election 516 was only one act – an important one – but nonetheless just part of a much bigger picture. Election struggles are in general (but not always) the lowest form of the class struggle. They do not as a rule rise to the heights in terms of political consciousness or mass action that are a feature of big strike movements or other forms of mass struggle such as we see in Greece and other European countries. This is because elections are an indirect rather than a direct method of struggle. Election laws and the role of the mass media restrain initiatives and involvement from below, especially when no mass workers’ party exists.

Democrats’ de facto boycott

In our last issue, Socialist magazine argued: “The degree of mass involvement is a more important benchmark of success than the vote itself or the goal of staging a de facto referendum”. The movement around these elections did not generate the level of mass activity – of mass meetings or a mushrooming of local grassroots organisations – that many activists hoped for. There are several reasons for this, all flowing in one way or another from the relatively low level of the class struggle in Hong Kong over quite a long period and above all the absence of a mass working class party and fighting trade unions. But the single most important obstacle for the 516 movement was the undeclared boycott by the compromise wing of the pan-democratic movement, especially the leaders of the Democratic Party.

These so-called “moderates” are desperately lobbying for minimal concessions from Beijing that do not remotely meet the masses’ aspirations for universal suffrage. But at this stage the real role of the “moderates” is still not widely understood in society, and so their refusal to support the 516 campaign caused considerable political confusion. Given the atmosphere of threats and denunciations from the government side, the split within the pan-democratic parties cut into the campaign’s support. As columnist Albert Cheng King-hon put it in South China Morning Post (19 May 2010): “The most influential voice against the byelections was veteran pan-democratic leader Szeto Wah… blame him instead of Tsang…” The Democratic Party’s refusal to participate was a “fatal problem” for the 516 campaign, says Cheng.

Given this split in the old pan-democratic movement, which is now out in the open, then the half a million votes gained on 516 for the most radical wing of the pan-democratic movement is an impressive achievement. This is half a million votes against compromise and for a struggle to achieve immediate universal suffrage. This line, against capitulation, is in a stronger position than it would have been without the 516 campaign. This is a big potential base, if this political trend can be given an organised form, for the next phase of the struggle in which the bankruptcy of the compromise line will be more fully exposed.

The immediate task is to mobilise protests for 23 June when the Legco will vote on Donald Tsang’s undemocratic reform package. Massive pressure is needed to warn those sections of the “moderate” pan democrats that are leaning towards supporting this package, with small modifications (over the side-issue of appointed district councillors), that such a betrayal will not be forgotten or forgiven. Notice should be served on any who defect to the government side on 23 June that they will be challenged at the 2012 elections by real democracy candidates. All these factors, underline the need to organise from the 516 voters in order to prepare the next stage of struggle.

“Hong Kong has been radicalised”

This real value of 516 – as a threat to the government and an obstacle to the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres of the “moderates” – is recognised by the more astute bourgeois commentators who have quite noticeably not succumbed to the triumphalist mood in the pro-government camp. “Hong Kong politics has been radicalised,” claimed veteran Hong Kong journalist and political commentator Willy Wo-lap Lam, who argued that, given the boycott, the voter turnout was “quite respectable”. Lam said this “shows that there is at least a strong body of public opinion wanting Beijing to speed up the pace of democracy in Hong Kong”. Similarly, The Standard’s election report concluded, “support for radical policies is growing.”

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, professor at City University of Hong Kong said that while the turnout did not meet the criteria for a referendum, “as a protest campaign, mobilising more than half a million people to say ‘no’ to the administration’s political reform proposals was quite an achievement, given the efforts to discredit the vote.”

“Those that keep stressing the voter turnout is too low are deliberately ignoring the views of a sizable portion of the population,” warned Ming Sing of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. These and other more sober bourgeois analysts are urging the government to adopt a more conciliatory and less triumphalist approach. Some bourgeois commentators are especially uneasy about the surge in support for the LSD, which many have proclaimed the “biggest winners” of the byelection campaign. “This showed that their radical approach is winning support from the public,” argued City University political scientist James Sung Lap-kung. The LSD vote more than doubled from 114,498 in 2008, to 278,931 on 16 May.

Risk for social explosion

This debate is not merely about votes – a section of the Hong Kong bourgeoisie understand that lurking behind these election statistics is the potential for a social explosion, a political radicalisation of the most alienated and downtrodden layers who were not intimidated by the government boycott nor impressed by the “moderation” of the Democratic Party leadership. Particularly alarming for the establishment, the 516 campaign drew its main support from the younger generation, many of whom are stuck in low-paid jobs or face lousy job prospects after graduating from college. The percentage that voted among under 30s was higher than in the last regular Legco election. One in four of total voters on 516 were from the 20 to 29 age group, although this group accounts for only one in seven of the population. The many losers from today’s neo-liberal capitalist policies were the backbone of the 516 vote. The highest polling was in working class districts, with record lows in several districts with luxury housing complexes. Sham Shui Po, the poorest district in Hong Kong, had the highest turnout (21.3 percent).

This helps rebut the verdict of some of the mouthpieces of global capitalism such as the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial proclaimed, “Hong Kong votes no to confrontation with Beijing”, saying that “empty ballot boxes would show acceptance of Beijing’s gradualism”. Similarly misinformed, the Financial Times reporter Tom Mitchell, declared that Hong Kong voters, “do not have the stomach to fight for the right to elect their own leaders”.

One additional factor that reduced the appeal of the byelections was that shift in the economic conjuncture, with the economy rebounding from last year’s recession. GDP grew by 8.2 percent in the first quarter of this year and the government predicts 4-5 percent GDP growth for the whole year, a projection that could yet be wiped out by the economic turmoil spreading from Europe. Still, temporarily, among many people there is an impression that the economy has turned a corner, unemployment has come down, and consumption has returned to pre-crisis levels.

Yet any temporary improvement in the economy has largely bypassed workers and especially Hong Kong’s army of working poor. As the South China Morning Post pointed out in a editorial (17 May 2010): “Wages are still not back to pre-1997 levels and the unemployment rate is more than double what it was then. The rich have remained wealthy, but a rising percentage of the population is poor.” A recent survey from the Financial Secretary’s Office showed that the number of people living in poverty rose 19 percent in the first three quarters of last year.

LSD vote strengthened

Despite the obstacles erected by the government, a virtual media blackout and the negotiation-bandwagon of the Democratic Party leaders, 579,000 turned out in the byelections, of which 500,787 voted for either the five (LSD and Civic Party) or the “back up” candidates from the student group Tertiary 2012 (T12). Over 86 percent of voters therefore supported the platform of universal suffrage now, against the government’s fake reforms. A comparison with the last regular Legco election, in 2008, reveals a huge shift in Hong Kong politics. That election was the first ever for both the League and Civic Party. The combined vote for all pan-democratic candidates (five parties) in 2008 was 881,184. This means that without the Democratic Party, 57 percent of those voters rallied to the 516 campaign. By way of comparison, 500,000 votes based on the 2008 results (19 pan-democrats elected) would translate into around ten Legco seats for the League and Civic Party.

Now we have the incredible situation that the “radical camp” has the Legco members with the highest popular votes in Hong Kong. The League’s Albert Chan Wai-yip and ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung lead the pack with 109,609 and 108,927 respectively. ‘Long Hair’ saw his vote more than double from 44,000 in 2008. These crushing victories must be exploited for maximum political effect in an assembly where 14 functional constituency representatives were returned with 0 votes. Donald Tsang himself received only 649 votes – from the millionaire-stuffed Election Committee.

Pan-democratic break-up

The stage is set for negotiations of some sort between the Democrat-led “moderates” and rather lowly officials from Beijing. This is their reward for distancing themselves from the byelections. Should these talks lead to substantial concessions, then the Democratic Party would recapture its former hold on the pan-democratic camp and the “radicals” would be marginalised. But such a scenario is virtually excluded. This is because the Chinese dictatorship cannot afford to release its grip on the Hong Kong electoral system, for fear of arriving at a future scenario where “516” is replayed not as byelections, but as a conflict between the regime and an elected Hong Kong leader. The regime’s ultimate headache is not what happens inside Hong Kong but the ripple effects of this on mainland China. Whatever ‘reforms’ the regime’s henchmen cook up in the years ahead, Beijing will insist on keeping ultimate control. The only way to achieve a genuinely democratic system in Hong Kong is through a common struggle with the Chinese masses to overthrow the one-party state and the tycoon-led capitalist system. It is a socialist struggle.

The 500,000 who voted to stand up against the government is a very good base with which to start this next phase of the movement – against a surrender to Beijing. The “moderate” line of negotiations and compromise flows from their unwillingness to follow a strategy based on mass mobilisation and struggle. For these politicians, democracy is something to be discussed over the heads of the masses. It was entirely correct for ‘Long Hair’ to attack “secret negotiations” with the one-party state during his first re-election speech.

The starting position of the compromise camp is extremely weak – for assurances that candidates for chief executive in 2012 will not need more nominations than last time (a rigged election!); that functional constituencies will be scrapped in 2020; and that the elections in 2012 and 2016 will be more democratic than previous ones. These demands are vague. The regime might agree that functional constituencies in their “present form” will be discontinued only to sanction new ones subject to purely cosmetic changes.

For the reasons outlined, negotiations between the “moderates” and Beijing are unlikely to yield results, and certainly not satisfy the demands of the masses. The announcement of the first talks with Beijing for 20 years was hailed by Democratic Party luminaries as the ice breaking. But as leading pro-Beijing politician Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai pointed out, “Breaking the ice does not necessarily mean you will successfully catch fish.”

Partly, these talks are a device to coax some “moderate” pan-democrats into supporting the government’s electoral reforms in the Legco on 23 June. The talks will also be used by Beijing to control the “moderate” pan democrats who will now become prisoners. The Beijing regime will insist on “good behaviour” before granting them any privileges. This capitulation flows from the fear these leaders have of a mass movement and their desire to be accepted as part of the establishment. Could the Civic Party be lured into the same trap? This cannot be excluded – the party was torn in different directions during the 516 campaign, with some of its leaders supporting the Democratic Party’s line of negotiations. This party will come under pressure from the establishment to support or join the talks with Beijing, in an attempt to shore up the “moderates”, isolate the LSD and confuse 516 supporters. Relentless criticism and education to expose the compromise approach is the best way to guard against such a development.

LSD – where next?

The LSD has been proclaimed the “main winner” of 516 and is now seen by an important layer as the real opposition to Hong Kong government. Viewed in this light, 516 has had a transformative effect on Hong Kong politics. It shows that significant numbers of people, and especially youth, are prepared to take a stand when a fighting lead is given. The weaknesses of the campaign were the lack of mass mobilisation especially of the working class as an organised and independent force.

The LSD now has a huge opportunity. It should build upon the enhanced authority it has earned in this campaign by launching a mass recruitment campaign and appealing to thousands to join its ranks especially the youth. While the LSD is not a workers’ party, it could begin to gather the forces for a future mass party of the working class. It could for example convene a conference later this year of grassroots’ organisations, radical trade unions, womens’ groups, anti-privatisation campaigners, environmentalists and other organisations to discuss the need for a fighting grassroots’ and working class alternative to the pro-Beijing parties and compromise pan-democrats in the run up to the 2012 elections. The aim should be to struggle not just for democracy but also for a working class agenda against the tycoons and capitalists, actively taking part in struggles by workers, youth and other sections of society. This could take the form of an alliance or coalition of groups within which the LSD would naturally play a key role. Organised democratically and drawing upon the new layers looking for a fight back, such a development would be the best possible outcome from this historic election.

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May 2010