Hong Kong: A socialist election campaign

Socialist Action (CWI) stands candidate for first time

Despite its surface opulence, Hong Kong suffers from chronic social problems. OECD figures indicate that average spending on housing, health, pensions, employment and training and family services comes to 19.2 percent of GDP. But last year Hong Kong spent only 5.8 percent of GDP on these areas.

The district council elections in Hong Kong on 6 November were the first in which Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong) has stood. In fact, it was the first-ever electoral challenge of CWI forces on Chinese territory. The aim was to build support for socialist ideas, not just in Hong Kong but also amongst leftward moving youth inside China. We wanted to get people to think and to interest them, utilising the election machinery that the capitalists have set up.

Street Station in Un Chau Street

The campaign was used very effectively as a platform to publicise socialist solutions in an area of Hong Kong with high youth unemployment (12 percent) and with one in five families living below the poverty line.

We stood 22-year-old Sally Tang Mei-ching in the working class constituency of Un Chau and So Uk (electorate: approximately10,000). The seat is one of the safest in Hong Kong for the pro-Beijing party DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong ), and there was no realistic prospect that our candidate could win. Nevertheless, we got 493 votes – 8.4 percent. A good start accompanied by gains in terms of influence, experience and support.

Fair elections?

Even by comparison with other countries, the district council elections in Hong Kong are loaded heavily in favour of the capitalist establishment. It is a ‘controlled’ capitalist democracy – a ‘dictocracy’– over which the Chinese dictatorship rules using control mechanisms inherited from the British colonial administration.

The district councils (18 of them) are purely advisory bodies, created under British rule to provide a façade of ‘democratic involvement’. One-fifth of the seats are appointed by the unelected Chief Executive, with the entire system dominated by government bureaucrats in league with corporate interests.

Notwithstanding Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s laughable claim that “Hong Kong’s electoral system is fair, open, just and transparent”, evidence is already emerging of widespread electoral fraud perpetrated by the pro-government camp. In the seat of Mei Foo South, for example, 13 adults with different surnames were registered at one address – an apartment owned by a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC – a Chinese government body) from the neighbouring Guangdong province. In another case, a voter was registered as residing on the 32nd floor of a 21-storey building!

Extremely lax I.D. controls and a complete absence of cross-checking between government departments make it easy for the wealthiest parties – i.e. the pro-Beijing camp – to manipulate the results by registering ‘phantom battalions’ of supporters in key seats.

The overall voter turnout this time was a relatively high 41.4 percent, compared to 38.8 percent in the district council elections of 2007. There were a record number of 120,000 new voter registrations, of which 90,000 were aged over 50. (Youth participation in these elections was correspondingly low, in stark contrast to last year’s anti-establishment by-elections.)

Un Chau Estate, Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong

Revenge for 2010

The scale of fraud and vote-rigging in these elections will never be fully known, but was massive. Such abuses are easier in the district councils, elected according to a ‘Westminster model’, than for the Legislative Council, where a PR system applies (for the 50 percent of seats elected by popular vote). There was a well-orchestrated campaign by Beijing’s political managers, on a seat-by-seat basis in some cases, to weed out ‘trouble-makers’ and inflict a demonstrative political defeat upon the ‘pan-democratic’ opposition in the run up to what will be more important elections next year.

Beijing’s target was especially to punish the three ‘radical’ parties that defied it last year, when they resigned their parliamentary seats and forced citywide by-elections to demand democratic elections. As Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit commented, “Beijing… can get as many votes as they want. We were surprised about where their votes came from”.

There is great pressure on all political parties and candidates to view the district council elections as non-political. This is an idea cultivated by the capitalist establishment, which stresses ‘community work’ and a candidate’s ‘good local record’ and disapproves of ‘political sloganeering’. Most parties including those in the pan-democratic camp, are content to play this game, engaging in non-political philanthropic work, such as handing out ‘moon cakes’ and picking up litter.

While socialists will not shirk from local ‘casework’, helping residents fight bureaucracy and secure individual justice whenever this is possible, Socialist Action refused to fall into the ‘moon cake’ trap. What we offer is a political alternative to capitalism and authoritarian rule. The establishment camp, DAB etc., have more and better ‘moon cakes’!

Crowd gathers to hear Leung Kwok-hung supporting Socialist Action/LSD candidate Sally Tang mei-ching

A mass campaign

Despite an abundance of limitations and obstacles, Socialist Action stood in the district council elections and the decision paid off. In Un Chau and So Uk the campaign included handing out more than 50,000 leaflets, knocking on over 5,000 doors and phoning hundreds of our promises to remind them to vote. The Socialist Action campaign saw leaflets produced in four languages (Chinese, English, Tagalog and Urdu). We met a very good response especially from ethnic minorities, with many Pakistani and Nepali youth and workers supporting us.

We also distributed 12,000 copies of our election manifesto, which explained among other things that Socialist Action is part of the CWI and fights for the creation of a new mass workers’ party. A major part of the campaign was our ‘street stations’ every day over a six-week period, with loudspeakers, stall, flags and roll-ups. Activists from the party we were cooperating with – the LSD – told us we had more campaigners than they had at constituency level and we had more activists out on a day-to day basis than our two rivals.

We produced leaflets on healthcare, racism, political violence, police repression, democracy, housing, minimum wage, transport, privatisation and more – 16 in total, two for each week of the campaign. These were distributed at the subway station early in the mornings, thousands each week. We also intervened in other activities during the election period, including the ‘O15’- global ‘Occupy’ day when Sally Tang Mei-ching was interviewed by the South China Morning Post and other media groups.

Several small-scale demonstrations and protest actions were organised during the campaign, including a very successful action against ‘Link REIT’, which runs 180 privatised shopping malls across Hong Kong. Our candidate interviewed small shopkeepers in the local one, which revealed rent increases of up to 300 percent following privatisation. Several businesses had been forced to close. This information was put into leaflets and distributed to the media. Our campaign linked this issue to inflation – at a 16-year high – and to the track record of the other candidates who had supported the privatisation. A giant cheque for HK$9 million, representing the annual income of Link’s CEO, George Kwok Lung Hongchoy, was torn into pieces at the entrance of the mall.

Alliances and tactics

Socialist Action took part in the elections under an agreement with the radical democratic party, League of Social Democrats (LSD). Without this, our candidature would have been ineligible – Socialist Action is not yet a registered party. This electoral alliance allowed us to campaign in the Un Chau and So Uk constituency on our programme and slogans, with all election leaflets and material written by us. Outside of this constituency we called for support for the LSD as the most radical of the major parties which would provide the best basis for struggle after the elections.

This alliance has become the focus of debate with some other lefts, not only in Hong Kong but also inside China. Some critics have claimed that CWI supporters have “joined the LSD” and adapted politically to a non-socialist programme. This is simply not true.

One critic likened our actions to the mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1920s when it opportunistically submerged itself, into the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT)! Our experience has been that ordinary workers, youth and pensioners in Un Chau and So Uk have been much quicker to grasp and support our tactic of an electoral alliance than some self-proclaimed Marxists.

Socialist Action campaign team after door knocking

Differences and discussions with LSD

While it was not our main focus in this election, Socialist Action’s approach and political stance had a certain political influence on the members of the LSD. The idea of candidates pledging to live on a workers’ wage, for example, is not the position of LSD, although it is practiced by its elected legislator, known as ‘Long Hair’.

Socialist Action recognised from the outset that the issue of anti-migrant racism would be a big factor in this election. We made plans to respond to this and urged the LSD to do the same. LSD took a principled position in support of migrant rights and did not capitulate to the establishment’s anti-migrant chorus as for example the Democratic Party scandalously did. But unfortunately the LSD did not confront this issue openly during the campaign in the mistaken belief this task could be postponed until afterwards.

The pro-Beijing camp circulated the most fantastic racist lies. They used this issue as an important auxiliary to the electoral fraud they were involved in. Their lies were not exposed and answered on a mass scale during the election campaign and many LSD members now admit it was a mistake to sidestep the issue.

In Un Chau and So Uk, Socialist Action produced leaflets entitled ‘The truth about the right of abode issue’ (http://chinaworker.info/en/content/news/1604/). We warned against the pro-government camp’s lies and called for a united fightback on jobs and welfare by workers of all nationalities. We did mass leafleting of the local subway and our ‘street stations’. We encountered a lot of confusion and some actual racist abuse; one caller asking rhetorically if our candidate ‘was a Filipino’. However we also succeeded in exposing to some extent the methods of the ruling establishment.

Socialist Action also organised a counter-protest against the racist network ‘Caring Hong Kong Power’ – a thinly veiled front for the DAB and pro-government camp. It was reported in the media but unfortunately the rest of the left missed this chance to show firm opposition, reflecting a serious underestimation of the threat from racism.

After the election results and the setbacks for the pan-democratic camp, the split has sharpened between its compromise wing and its struggle wing. The former is scurrying to get closer to the victors, including its attacks on migrants. There is an urgent need for gathering together those who want to reconstruct a fighting democratic movement; the LSD could provide a real platform for this.

Socialist Action will continue to fight energetically for democratic rights and social justice, alongside the LSD and others. In so doing we also emphasise three things: the need for a socialist programme to replace the collapsing capitalist system, the blind alley of ‘parochialism’ (Hong Kong’s fate is linked to mass struggle against dictatorship inside China), and the need to create a workers’ party as the main force to transform society.

Putting up banners for street meeting

The Un Chau and So Uk results

The seat Socialist Action contested of Un Chau and So Uk was formerly two constituencies, with a history of DAB dominance especially in So Uk. Many of the predominantly elderly residents have been relocated in the past year to the newer estate of Un Chau. During the election campaign the DAB did very little open campaigning, which is not necessary or desirable from their standpoint. On Election Day they mobilised vast numbers of supporters and bus-loads of elderly voters. This is a big electoral machine that largely avoids politics.

In the 2007 election, the right-wing pan-democratic party, ADPL, received 2,420 votes and DAB 1,736 in Un Chau. In So Uk the DAP got 3,074 votes and the ADPL 1,245.In the 2011 election, the DAB got 3,403 in Un Chau and So Uk together the DAB 3,403 votes, the ADPL 1,947 and Socialist Action/LSD 493 votes.

In the 27 seats it contested, LSD’s average share of the total vote was 24 percent (far from the ‘fiasco’ presented in the capitalist media). In the four seats where LSD faced off against another pan-democratic candidate (i.e. not only establishment or so-called ‘independent’ candidates), its average share was 7.9 percent. In the Un Chau estate, ADPL previously had a strong base, but its influence is now clearly in decline locally and everywhere else. Compared to the 2003 elections it has slipped from a total of 25 to 15 district council seats.

The 8.4 percent vote for Sally Tang was not just an anti-DAB vote, but also a vote against the pro-capitalist policies and compromise line (vis-à-vis Beijing) of ADPL. We see it as a conscious vote for a young, socialist, grassroots fighter. This is a very encouraging result on which to build.

Socialist Action’s Sally Tang Mei-ching says:

“Thanks to all our supporters and voters – now we must organise for the fight-back against the government and tycoons!”

The pro-Beijing camp falsely believes its election ‘success’ will derail mass anti-government protests

Many people are dismayed by the establishment’s election victory on 6 November. But this result in no way represents the real views of the majority of people. These were anything but ‘free and fair’ elections. The pro-government camp won due to the Beijing dictatorship’s massive financial resources and mobilisation power. They made sure the elections were dominated by manufactured issues – the right of abode for migrant workers and alleged violent protesters. Yet, real life is dominated by the nightmare shortage of affordable housing, inflation, poorly funded public services and the criminal greed of the big corporations.

What did the pro-government camp hope to achieve with these elections? Not just to preserve their control over the district councils (which anyway are powerless bodies). Their control was never seriously threatened. But Beijing and Hong Kong’s millionaire elite want to use this ‘defeat’ of the pan-democratic parties, especially LSD and the ‘radical’ wing, to send a loud message that all resistance is pointless. This will not succeed, even if the establishment’s electoral strategy has succeeded in creating a crisis in the leadership of all pan-democratic parties. Instead of defiantly exposing Beijing’s electoral hocus pocus, these parties are already in most cases shifting to a less confrontational stance. This only underlines the need for a new democracy movement, based clearly on mass struggle not surrender, but also with a clear programme against capitalism.

Hong Kong’s ‘free press’, which largely blacked out the election campaign and the voice of resistance, is now echoing Beijing’s message about a ‘crushing defeat’ for the opposition. But this is not based on facts. True, the pan-democratic parties lost seats compared with 2007 (from 96 to 83, a net loss of 13 seats). But the overall votes of the pan-democratic parties actually increased from four years ago.

FACT: The LSD and People’s Power (PP)*, which have been portrayed as the ‘biggest losers’, actually maintained the share of the vote won by the pre-split LSD in previous elections. Together these ‘radical’ parties got over 45,000 votes. In the case of LSD it got an average of 24% of votes in the 27 seats it contested.

FACT: The pro-government DAB and FTU** combined vote only increased from 30 percent in 2007 to 31 percent this time, with the DAB actually getting 12,000 fewer votes. This is hardly the ‘landslide’ presented in the media. But the iniquities of the election system mean the DAB/FTU increased their seats from 119 to 146.

FACT: The ‘moderate’ pan-democrats with the support of the pro-Beijing establishment want to blame the electoral setback on the ‘radicals’ of LSD/PP. But the old pan democratic parties bear the main responsibility for today’s situation, with their sabotage of last year’s pro-democracy ‘referendum’, their capitulation to Beijing over universal suffrage, and their support for pro-capitalist policies that make the poor poorer. The Democratic Party suffered the biggest loss of seats in these elections especially with the defection of the Neo-Democrats (8 seats) in protest over the 2010 sell out. The right-wing pan-democratic twins, Democratic Party (DPHK) and ADPL, have seen their combined tally of district council seats halved since 2003 (120 DPHK/ADPL seats in 2003, reduced to 76 in 2007 and 62 in 2011).

The onslaught especially against the pan-democratic ‘radicals’ was achieved with the help of a massive Beijing-led campaign – meticulously planned – to register more voters in key seats (with widespread abuses suspected – false addresses etc.) in order to topple prominent ‘radicals’ like Andrew To of LSD, and boost support for DAB and FTU candidates. This has given an impression of an upsurge in support for these slave-parties of Beijing, but in reality only one in eight of Hong Kong’s eligible voters supported DAB or FTU in these elections.

Superior resources alone do not explain the success of the pro-government camp, which was also due to the weakness of the opposition parties in terms of organisation, but above all their lack of a clear political alternative.

Smears and racism

The establishment used racism and smear campaigns claiming ‘political violence’ (to discredit the LSD and People’s Power), and ‘blocking development’ (to discredit Civic Party over the Macau-Zhuhai bridge). Socialist Action answered these issues in thousands of leaflets during our election campaign. We warned of the danger of racism, used to divide and defeat mass struggle. We also explained that the same politicians who attack Filipino migrants or mainland immigrants today, also attack the wages, public services, and democratic rights of the majority.

Unfortunately, especially concerning the threat from racism, no other party was ready or prepared to answer this effectively during the campaign. The Democratic Party shamefully echoed the racist line of the government. Others mistakenly argued that this issue was ‘too sensitive’ and should be postponed until after the elections. Such political weaknesses played into the hands of the pro-government camp, helping them sow confusion and shift the focus from their own and the government’s political crimes.

A socialist campaign – for a new working class party

Socialist Action stood in Un Chau and So Uk in an electoral alliance with LSD, the most radical of the major parties, in order to win support for a new working class political alternative. Our aim was to build our organisation, gain experience and support local grass-roots struggles. We are proud to have gained 493 votes (8.4 percent) in our first ever election fight. Some Un Chau residents may understandably be disappointed that we did not get more votes and unseat the DAB, but we always knew that realistically this would require more time, resources and a stronger organisation. We need workers, youth and migrants in Un Chau and So Uk to join Socialist Action and get active in the struggle against dictatorship and capitalism. Votes by themselves are never enough!

In coming mass struggles, which will not be deflected by the outcome of these elections, opportunities will arise to build a real working class party, drawing its initial support from anti-capitalist youth, radical democracy activists such as LSD, migrants, green groups and other fighting layers. Socialist Action’s election campaign was a conscious step towards this much bigger political project.

With the elections out of the way, the government is now blurting out the truth: the economy is in dire straits!

Hong Kong is already in recession, with GDP contracting 1.5% in the last quarter. The euro crisis threatens a new and much more dangerous financial crash than in 2008. For working people this means more misery – a wave of job losses and government demands for ‘sacrifices’ by the poor in order to save the super-rich one percent.

Next year, the ruling elite plans to appoint a new regime headed by Henry Tang Ying-yen and Stephen Lam Sui-lung, with a plan to curb street protests and muffle political opposition using repressive laws including the risen-from-the-dead Article 23. These measures can again be defeated but only by effective mass organisation, not just on the streets, but also by organising in the workplaces, schools and housing estates, and thrashing out a clear political alternative based on the needs and interests of the working class majority.

Socialist Action and our candidate Sally Tang Mei-ching will step up our campaigning work for a stronger socialist alternative against undemocratic and crisis-ridden capitalism. We say:

Smash property hegemony – democratic public ownership of the banks and big corporations!

Mass struggle against Article 23 and single-party rule!

Join the fight-back with Socialist Action!

If you support the ideas and methods of struggle of Socialist Action, then join us! Send in your application today: socialist.hk@gmail.com

Explanatory notes

* In January 2011 the LSD split with the formation of a new populist group called People’s Power. The split was acrimonious and largely focused on personalities, while the policies of the two parties are similar.

** The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) is the local front for China’s ruling Communist Party. The Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) is the Hong Kong affiliate of China’s state-controlled union body ACFTU. Both are right-wing racist parties with strong links to the property developers and tycoons that control Hong Kong’s economy.

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December 2011