Hong Kong: Democratic Party betrayal saves Donald Tsang… for now!

Build a real democracy movement – based on mass struggle, anti-capitalism and a working class political alternative

[This is the text of a leaflet issued by Socialist Action (cwi in Hong Kong) for the June 23 “623” demonstration outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco) as the long awaited vote takes place over the unelected government’s electoral “reform” package. Unlike 2005, when a similar package was vetoed with the votes of pan-democratic legislators who hold 23 of the 60 seats (to pass this legislation needs two-thirds or at least 40 votes), this time the government will win with the help of the largest pan-democratic party, the Democrats, which wields nine Legco votes. This party has been engaged in talks, held secret until May, with the Chinese ‘communist’ dictatorship that ultimately rules Hong Kong. In return for more invitations to talk, the Democratic Party leadership seem to have mobilised their entire parliamentary group behind the “reforms”. What is still not clear is whether a minority, possibly two Democrats, may split and vote against the package, although this would not affect the final outcome. This is an unprecedented crisis for the party. The League of Social Democrats (LSD) has denounced the Democratic Party for “betraying democracy” and announced it would not cooperate with the party in next year’s district council elections. A central issue in this struggle is the fate of the elite functional constituencies that make up half (30 seats) of the Legco. These seats, bequeathed to Hong Kong by British imperialism, are chosen mostly by business groups, banks and other elite interests, guaranteeing a majority in the Legco for pro-capitalist interests. For more background on the nature of the so-called “reforms” and why socialists and genuine democracy campaigners are completely opposed, see previous articles on chinaworker.info.]

Democrats’ betrayal – a turning point

The old pan-democratic movement is dead. 23 June will be “a date which will live in infamy” due to the rotten deal struck between the Democratic Party (DPHK) leaders and the government. With the tiniest of fig leaves to cover their betrayal – a pseudo-concession over the new district council functional constituency seats – DPHK puts its name to an indefinite extension of the functional constituencies (FCs) and other undemocratic practises. In so doing – temporarily at least – they have saved Donald Tsang’s political skin.

This marks a turning point for Hong Kong’s democracy struggle. A new movement must be built based on grassroots and youth protests, and upon the fighting traditions established by the “516” anti-government by-election campaign. To go forward important lessons must be learned.

Why did the Democratic Party sell out?

This betrayal has not come out of a clear blue sky – it was the logic of the Democrats’ previous positions. In particular their boycott of the May 16 “referendum” was a clear warning the “moderate democrats” feared mass struggle and chose the road of accommodation with the dictatorship. These leaders have always been closer to the establishment than to the masses and base themselves on the capitalist profit system. The logic of this system, in China’s case and therefore inevitably also in Hong Kong, means continued repressive one-party rule. Foreign capitalist governments recognise this and this is why they tone down any criticism over human rights and why they, for example Britain and the US, support “compromise” with Beijing over Hong Kong’s political system. In a similar vein, while DPHK leaders like Albert Ho Chun-yan pay lip service to “continuing the struggle for universal suffrage” this is not their aim. A real extension of democratic rights can only be won by defeating, rather than supporting, the dictatorship. This requires mass struggle in Hong Kong but also, crucially, in mainland China.

By endorsing Tsang’s “reforms” the DPHK leaders are helping to perpetrate a gigantic fraud. It is the equivalent of a doctor performing a u-turn and recommending smoking as beneficial to human health. Facile arguments about “moving forward” and “compromise” beg the question: Why did the DPHK veto the less-harmful 2005 reform package? By their logic, this cost five years of “progress”. The difference was the political climate at that time, under the impact of the 500,000-strong 2003 demonstration and collapse of Tung Chee-hwa’s administration.

The DPHK leaders will be forced to make new political somersaults and betrayals. Like Dr Faustus who sold his soul to the devil, the DPHK leaders are now “owned” by Beijing. They will come under pressure to distance themselves from criticism of the mass murder of “64” 1989, and to support repression in Hong Kong. This will not, as their spokesmen claim, lead to real talks or actual improvements. Beijing’s bottom line is to keep ultimate control over the political system in Hong Kong, which could otherwise in the “wrong hands” pose a threat to their position in China. They dangle the carrot of “talks” before the DPHK only to use this process to house train its leaders and produce a pliant “opposition” that poses no threat to the dictatorship. This strategy will ultimately fail, however, as mass struggle by workers and the poor, and resistance to the deepening crisis of capitalism will lead to political crisis and decline for all political parties that defend this system – from the non-communist CCP to the non-democratic DPHK.

“Serious governance crisis”

The weeks leading up to the 623 vote have seen an unprecedented political theatre, the aim of which was to facilitate the transfer of votes from the pan-democratic to the government account. Beijing and its capitalist supporters in Hong Kong were not satisfied with a handful of deserters allowing the “reform” to scrape through. They insisted the DPHK leaders deliver all their votes as a bloc. Beijing would not allow the DPHK leaders to keep a foot in both camps (pro-government and pan-democratic) by delivering just the minimum of four required defections. There would be no deal, in other words, unless the entire Democratic Legco delegation performed the kowtow to Beijing. The multi-million dollar fiasco of the “Act Now” campaign, the pro-Beijing side’s “seafood march” on 19 June [40,000 marched in favour of the government’s position, many brought on free busses and given subsidised seafood dinners – Editor], and Donald Tsang’s kamikaze-debate on TV with Audrey Eu Yuet-mee [leader of the Civic Party, opposed to the “reforms” but distancing itself from “radicalism” – Editor], these were all staged to secure the defection of the DPHK leaders into the government camp.

There is no popular support for these manoeuvres. In the longer term especially, neither the government nor the Democrats will be strengthened – on the contrary! Latest polls show opposition to the “reform” package hardening. After Tsang’s debate with Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, 45% said they were “more opposed” to the package, compared to 20% who were “more supportive”. Other polls show that support for the package has fallen from 51.2% five months ago to 46.9% in June, the lowest level yet. Tsang wrote a desperate letter to Xi Jinping (China’s Vice President) warning of a “serious governance crisis” putting his own position in jeopardy, if the package failed.

Functional constituencies boosted

Behind all the hype about a “compromise” what amounts to a very small, worm-ridden “carrot” has been thrown to the Democratic Party tops – Bon appetit! Donald Tsang summed up the minimal impact of this change when he confessed, “it will not affect too much our original proposal” (at Victoria Park Rally, 19 June).

Opening the 5 new district council FCs to “all voters” is in no way a democratic advance. The choice of candidates will be kept within a small circle – they will be nominated and drawn from district councillors, where pro-Beijing politicians completely dominate and voter turnout and interest is very low.

As veteran Democrat Martin Lee warned, the amended package makes it harder to abolish functional constituencies. The new seats created give the false impression of being more “democratic” while the power concentrated in the hands of a small super-rich elite is untouched. The change proposed by DPHK leaders strengthens the government’s deception of “one person two votes”, i.e. the claim that keeping FCs is compatible with universal suffrage. [“One person two votes” is a sleight-of-hand to create the illusion that every citizen will have a vote in the geographical constituencies and one in the FCs. In reality, four-fifths of FC seats will be returned by less than 2% of the electorate, maintaining the current bias towards the capitalist elite – Editor]. The Democratic Party has therefore helped the government erect yet another firewall to protect the rotten FCs.

Masses radicalised – “leaders” tamed

The transformation of the DPHK into a “fifth wheel” on the pro-Beijing wagon in no way matches the mood within the general population. Of course temporarily, without a mass alternative in view, many people can fall for the argument that “a small step forward” is better than nothing. But any such mood does not run deep and can rapidly give way to anger and a sense of betrayal. The May 16 by-election results were a storm warning of things to come. This represented the “radicalisation of Hong Kong politics” as The Standard commented. Even with a low turnout due to government sabotage, the radical anti-government platform of the League of Social Democrats (LSD), Civic Party and T12 students received over 500,000 votes. This is not far short of the 604,751 combined vote of the pro-government side in the 2008 Legco elections, based on a much higher turnout (45% as opposed to 17%).

Likewise, the massive 150,000 turnout for the June 4 Tiananmen vigil, one of the biggest ever, also shows the radicalisation taking place and a deepening opposition to dictatorial rule especially among youth who made up 65% of the participants. As part of the Democratic Party’s manoeuvres it kept its real political agenda hidden from the masses on June 4, to prevent any democratic scrutiny of their position. But they cannot play “hide and seek” forever. A massive political backlash is inevitable in future.

Fighting alternative needed

The betrayal of DPHK leaders was inevitable, flowing from their class position as supporters and small-time representatives of capitalism. This is a crucial lesson for the future of the democracy struggle in Hong Kong and China. A new movement must be built on the fighting layers who understand there can be no compromise with dictatorship. The LSD, which has increased its authority considerably through bold initiatives in recent struggles, can play a key role in the political regroupment that is needed. It should turn not to existing pan democratic parties, but to the fresh layers that are engaging in struggle and not yet connected to any party. This potential must be organised. Socialist Action, as an organisation that fights for socialism and workers’ rights, will actively support every step in the direction of a new fighting democracy movement. We say this movement must be based on the working class, with a working class political party as the main force for change. To win this movement must link mass struggles in China and Hong Kong. It must fight to abolish capitalism with its sweatshops, climate destruction and growing gap between rich and poor.

Who are Socialist Action?

Socialist Action is a new organisation fighting against one-party rule and for socialism. We are part of the Committee for a Workers’ International (cwi), which has members around the world fighting against capitalist injustice. Our website www.chinaworker.info campaigns in support of workers’ struggles and for fighting democratic trade unions in China. Cwi parties and groups fight against war and racism (cwi in Israel, Lebanon and Sri Lanka), against privatisation and cuts in services (cwi in South Africa, Brazil and Pakistan), and to organise young workers to fight for decent pay and conditions (cwi in Australia and Britain). Here in Hong Kong we fight against capitalism’s destruction of the climate and the air we breathe, for a living wage and shorter working week. We fight for democratic advances such as the abolition of the FCs and election of government, but point out this alone will not deliver real democracy. For this, we need democratic control and public ownership of the banks and big companies that really rule Hong Kong and the lives of its people. Join our struggle: socialist.hk@gmail.com

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June 2010