The blows continued to rain down throughout 2017 from Beijing, the Hong Kong government, and the local courts. Democrats and sympathizers worried openly that their movement might not be able to survive with its energy and integrity intact.

They worried that the wider public would lapse back into the comfortable political inertia of pre-reform colonial days. Activists might organize protests and marches but what if no one showed up and voters failed to turn out on Election Days?

For its part, Beijing monitors the number of pro-democracy feet on the ground and votes cast and every disappointing trend is cause to celebrate a pro-Beijing partisan victory.

hong kong democracy occupy universal suffrage umbrella movement
File photo: In-Media.

Too soon to say for certain. But if the first two weeks of 2018 are any indication, the worries were premature. Turnout for the January First New Year’s Day march – protesting against everything that’s going politically wrong in Hong Kong – was much better than expected. 

The next test came a week later, on Sunday January 14, when democrats organized their own volunteer straw poll, and voters did their share by more than doubling the anticipated turnout. So much so that like New Year’s Day, the organizers miscalculated and their preparations were inadequate to accommodate everyone who came out to have their say.

A preliminary selection for the by-election

The heaviest most controversial blows suffered by democrats during the past year were the disqualification of six Legislative Councilors in the oath-taking saga. Many legislators elected in September 2016 added politically incorrect flourishes to their oaths-of-office. Beijing took great exception to these marks of disrespect and issued a decision banning all such extras.

The Hong Kong government then selectively targeted six of the 15 new legislators involved, presumably to teach everyone a lesson. There was no explanation for the specific selection. Hong Kong’s judges then took it upon themselves to enforce Beijing’s ban retroactively and the six seats fell vacant in this way.

Two of the six, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and teacher Lau Siu-lai, chose to appeal their disqualification and are waiting the final court judgements. So only four will be replaced in a special by-election, which the government has scheduled for March 11, soon after the Lunar New Year holiday.

Nathan Law, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai, Edward Yiu.
Nathan Law, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai, Edward Yiu. Photo: In-Media.

Discussions and planning have been underway for months with academic Joseph Cheng Yu-shek still overseeing the candidate-coordination task he pioneered in 2003.

By then, pro-democracy partisans’ factional infighting habits were already well-established. In fact, they extend at least as far back as a political reform drive led by old-time colonial-era rabble-rousers Elsie Elliott and Ma Man-fai in the 1960s.

Joseph Cheng and others set up an advocacy group they called Power for Democracy in 2002. The first major challenge they took on was candidate coordination aimed at reducing factional competition ahead of the 2003 District Councils election.

It was just after the massive public protest that scuttled the government’s attempt to pass its national political security bill and the mission then had been to translate the protest momentum into electoral success.

Still persevering over a decade later – with Joseph Cheng as mentor and Andrew Chiu as convenor – Power for Democracy went to work last September, soon after the government readied its plan for the first by-election to replace four DQ legislators.

After much political haggling, Power for Democracy negotiators convinced the main democratic contenders for the four empty seats to participate in what became an elaborate primary election process. The hopefuls agreed in public and in writing to abide by the results of the process.

This was a major step in the elusive quest for unity that played out most recently in the 2016 Legislative Council (LegCo) election itself. Pan-democrats almost ceded one important seat to the always well-disciplined pro-Beijing opposition because they could not convince all the many aspiring legislators to participate in a primary selection process.

But this time everyone agreed on the need to select the strongest candidates as the best way of retaining all four vacated seats. So, the threat from Beijing administered via the oath-taking saga might, finally, have produced something beneficial for the democracy movement after all – or at least that’s what observers initially thought.

The four constituencies concerned are Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, New Territories East and an indirectly-elected Functional Constituency representing architects and surveyors. The HK Island seat was originally held by Nathan Law Kwun-chung a member of Joshua Wong’s Demosisto party.

Youngspiration’s Yau Wai-ching was elected in Kowloon West and her party-mate Baggio Leung Chung-hang in New Territories East. These two were the most radical and had drafted their own oaths, pledging loyalty to Hong Kong rather than central government. The Functional Constituency seat was held by academic Edward Yiu Chung-yim.

Edward Yiu
Edward Yiu. Photo: In-Media.

As a first demonstration of the new-found unity, everyone agreed not to compete on Hong Kong Island, leaving the field free for Agnes Chow Ting. She made her name as the bilingual spokesperson for Joshua Wong’s student activist group Scholarism when they launched the successful 2012 campaign against the government’s plan for a compulsory national political education curriculum.

She went on to become one of the founding members of Demosisto along with Nathan Law and Joshua Wong. Now 21 and just barely old enough to qualify as a candidate, her poise and thoughtful demeanor made her the natural choice to follow in their footsteps.

Underlying the agreement on her candidacy is the common conclusion among democracy partisans that Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, two of the “three sparks” who ignited the Occupy movement in September 2014, were deliberately targeted by the government for re-sentencing last year.

The assumption is that when they were resentenced they were given prison terms in excess of three months by compliant judges for the specific purpose of removing the young men from active political life for five years.

Anyone who has served a prison term in excess of three months must wait five years in order to qualify as a Legislative Council candidate. It followed that almost everyone agreed the Hong Kong Island contest should be reserved for Agnes Chow.

The Functional Constituency seat is filled via a small-circle election. Voters comprise some 7,600 architects and surveyors whose usual preference is for conservative candidates. With few alternatives to choose from, democrats have agreed to back the candidacy of environmentalist and urban planner Paul Zimmerman.

A one-time Civic Party member, he has had his eye on a Legislative Council seat for several years and even gave up his Dutch citizenship in order to qualify as a candidate. Now a naturalized Chinese citizen, he would be the first non-Chinese LegCo member since 1997 when Chinese citizenship became a prerequisite for council membership.

Paul Zimmerman
Paul Zimmerman. Photo: In-Media.

The other two constituencies – Kowloon West and New Territories East – are more problematic and for these an elaborate three-step month-long process was devised conducted between mid-December and mid-January.

First, the hopefuls debated, preparatory to selection by representatives of the participating political parties. As it has done with similar grassroots exercises in the past, the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program (HKUPOP) helped out with steps two and three.

The second step was a formal telephone poll with 2,000 respondents, a thousand in each of the two constituencies. Step three was the most ambitious: in person voting by anyone with a valid HK ID card and some proof of residence in the constituency. The ballots included both electronic and paper.

Also agreed upon in advance was the weight given to each of the three steps. The in-person ballot and telephone poll were given the most credence with each weighted at 45% in making the final choices. The preferences of political party representatives, who typically count for everything in candidate selection, counted for only 10%.

Despite all the effort and planning, expectations were low because of the minimal publicity beforehand and also due to the difficulty of finding suitable sites to set up the improvised polling stations. These were finalized and announced just a week before the scheduled January 14 polling date, with only five in the huge New Territories East constituency and three in Kowloon West.

Everyone had concentrated on solving democrats’ endemic faction-ridden candidate-selection problems and neglected the basics: publicity and logistics. But in the end, it didn’t matter. Voters did the rest.

Organizers had hoped for something like 8,000 voters. Instead 26, 000 showed up in the two constituencies, with long lines and people waiting hours for the chance to register their preferences.

Ultimately the exercise was a success not just because of the popular interest it generated but also because excess candidates and hopefuls got the point ahead of time and, unlike the 2016 Legco election, dropped out of the race before they could do much damage. Only three remained in each of the two constituencies.

The elaborate weighted measurement system also worked. The two winners were clearly the strongest in terms of the public’s preferences. Except that both are men with problems in their past. One might not be allowed to stand as a candidate at all, and the other many not be as popular in the larger constituency as he was with the straw poll voters who turned out on January 14.

Primary Election

In Kowloon West, the prospective candidates were Edward Yiu Chung-yim, Frederick Fung Kin-kee, and Ramon Yuen Hoi-man. Edward Yiu is the academic who was disqualified from his Functional Constituency (architects and surveyors) seat in the oath-taking saga last year.

Frederick Fung has the longest history of all pro-democracy politicians going back to his student days in the 1970s when he fell afoul of colonial district officers due to his agitation on behalf of public housing tenants.

He later made his mark as a moderate, in the 1990s, when he refused to join Martin Lee’s nascent democracy movement. Fung had idealistic cross-border dreams about keeping a foot in both camps and working with both Beijing and Hong Kong democrats.

He soon learned the futility of that ambition. But its dramatic ending only came much later, in the 2015 District Councils election, when he was targeted by the full-force of the pro-Beijing election machine. They wanted and won his District Council seat as a springboard to higher things for one of their rising stars. Deprived of his home base, Fung decided to try for a comeback in Kowloon West, which he represented as a legislator from 2000 to 2012.

The third candidate, Ramon Yuen, is a young Democratic Party member who was looking for political experience. In the last, 2015, District Councils election he won a seat on one of the district’s local councils.

In New Territories East, the prospective candidates were: Gary Fan Kwok-wai, Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, and Steven Kwok Wing-kin.

Like Frederick Fung, Gary Fan also has a long history in local politics. Originally a member of the Democratic Party, Gary Fan broke away in 2010 after much intra-party acrimony and then party chairman Albert Ho’s decision to compromise on the government’s modest 2010 LegCo electoral reform package.

Fan wanted a stronger stand then and has since been campaigning for “Hong Kong First” measures to limit mainlanders’ influence here.

pro-democracy primary
Gary Fan and Edward Yiu. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

In 2010, he formed his own new party, the Neo-Democrats, and its members hold several seats on local District Councils. But Fan himself succumbed to the 2016 candidate overload that he did nothing to discourage, losing the New Territories East LegCo seat he won in 2012. Like Fung, he sees the March 11 by-election as his chance for a comeback.

The other two prospective candidates were both young new-generation politicians. Tommy Cheung is a post-Occupy localist or “separatist” in Beijing’s negative terminology. He recently headed the student union at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which is located in the constituency.

The third prospective candidate, Steven Kwok, has recently taken over as head of Hong Kong’s small pro-democracy Labour Party. It has fallen on hard times since the party’s veteran leaders and founding members, Lee Cheuk-yan and Cyd Ho, lost their Legco seats in the candidate overload of 2016.

The results on January 14, put Edward Yiu in first place for the Kowloon West seat. Gary Fan came first in New Territories East. Their respective scores for the three-part contest:

Edward Yiu: 48.43% (phone poll); 78.83 (in-person vote); 69.64% (party preference).
Gary Fan: 60.89% (phone poll); 59.45% (in-person vote); 29.57% (party preference).

Of the four losing candidates in the two constituencies, only the Labour Party’s Steven Kwok scored first on any of the measures. He scored highest in the party preference category, which was counterbalanced by lower scores on the other two measures.

Uncertain Prospects

Meanwhile, prospective voters are left hanging in the balance. Their interest may not yet have waned, but many challenges lie ahead that will try everyone’s patience. It’s reassuring to know that pro-democracy politicians and parties have gone to so much trouble and allocated so much from their campaign savings accounts to reinforce the lesson about factionalism and too many candidates chasing too few council seats.

But no one can escape the headwinds blowing from Beijing and the impact, enforced via the Hong Kong courts, of Beijing’s evolving demands for loyalty. Consequently, two of the just anointed candidates may be disqualified before by-election campaigning gets underway.

Soon after he announced his interest in trying for the empty Kowloon West seat a month ago, Edward Yiu said he was confident he would not be barred because of his disqualification from the Functional Constituency seat in 2016. He said he had consulted with a ranking government official who assured him his risk of not being allowed to run again during the same 2016-2020 term was minimal.

He and others are now more circumspect. Repeated requests addressed to ranking officials including Chief Executive Carrie Lam herself, have been rebuffed with the equivalent of “no comment” responses. Pro-Beijing media sources are adamant that all legislators disqualified in the oath-taking saga should not be allowed a second chance during the current term.
Paul Zimmerman, Gary Fan, Agnes Chow and Edward Yiu. Photo: Kris Cheng/AFP.

Even more disconcerting is the speculation that Agnes Chow will also not be allowed to join the contest. This is because her Demosisto party advocates “self-determination” for Hong Kong. Joshua Wong and his friends have been careful not to join the “independence” advocates or anti-mainlander agitations.

But those distinctions are lost on Beijing, which lumps them all together in the excoriated “separatist” category. Thus, signing the new loyalty oath confirmation form, introduced for all candidates beginning in 2016, may not be enough to save her.

Of course, all the main pro-democracy parties have now come out in favour of self-determination – without any of them defining specifically what they mean by the term. Whether that will give Beijing decision-makers pause remains to be seen. Otherwise, they will have no choice but to ban everyone.

As for the other two candidates, Gary Fan will have trouble mending fences with the Democratic Party and others he has offended but whose support he will need when campaigning picks up in New Territories East.

In the case of Paul Zimmerman, his national origin will probably signify less than the fact that Edward Yiu only won among the architects and surveyors because they did in the 2016 LegCo election what pro-establishment professionals almost never do. They split their votes between two candidates – a mistake they are not likely to make so soon again.

The democratic camp’s prospects of retaining the four seats they lost to the oath-taking controversy are thus far from bright – despite the effort that went into selecting the best possible candidates with the strongest prospects of winning on March 11.

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.