I really hate to say this but why on earth do the democrats fall into every trap set for them by the government and its supporters?

Waving banners, throwing objects and provoking forcible removals from the Legislative Council chamber plays right into the hands of the anti-democrats, who have managed to depict democracy advocates as being dedicated to chaos and disruption.

Au Nok-hin being carried away by guards.

The people running Legco do their best to provoke the democrats. They flout the rules of procedure, clamp down on discussion and use the voting power derived from having successfully expelled six democrats to push through whatever the government wants them to push through.

On top of this they have successfully spun a story that depicts democrats as being dedicated to mindless obstruction while “hard working” government supporters are diligently trying to get things done.

At this point you can almost hear the fervent cries of “unfair” emanating from members of the democratic camp, who wallow in the unfairness created by a rigged election system, the bias of the mainstream pro-government media, the abuse of power by government officials and, well, it’s a long list.

However, and although it may be trite to say this: life is unfair and politics is doubly unfair – so get over it.

We are where we are and bleating will not change things. What will make a difference is something that is admittedly very hard to achieve. It involves keeping up the pressure from the streets while using positions that have been gained despite the rigged political system, to calmly focus on the issues that really matter instead of fighting on every possible front.

Let’s start with the matter of street pressure. Hong Kong has no shortage of demonstrations nor indeed of other forms of public pressure. While the levers of power are so firmly held by the anti-democrats, the pressure from the streets cannot be abandoned.

The July 1, 2003 protest.

It was this kind of pressure that stopped the enactment of dangerous anti-subversion legislation and it was this pressure that also prevented government plans for political indoctrination in schools. The government was thwarted by timely protests and in politics timing is everything.

The successes of street protests are counterbalanced by a longer list of failures but some of these so-called failures are nothing of the kind. The best example being the demise of the Umbrella Movement, which did not bring democracy overnight but succeeded in mobilizing an entire new generation and left an indelible impression on the Hong Kong psyche that cannot be erased.

Only those expecting immediate results have reason to be disappointed because public mobilization is a long term process with numerous chances of both success and failure.

However endless and repetitive street demonstrations attended by diminishing numbers of people are hardly likely to produce results. What often works are the kinds of imaginative protest, such as climbing the Lion Rock and draping banners there, but then again doing this repeatedly invokes the law of diminishing returns.

Bigger mobilizations, such as the annual June 4 rally, ensure that Hong Kong keeps the memory of the Tiananmen massacre alive. But what does not work are protests such as the annual SAR anniversary rally, which are about everything and nothing.

The “I want genuine universal suffrage” banner.

Then we come to more complex tactical matters, which involve democrats serving in elected office. By virtue of election they have a mandate and because many of them are diligent they have numerous opportunities to make their mark in these bodies.

They have done so, for example, by exposing the lead in water supply scandal, by defending the interests of workers and, yes, by asking pertinent questions such as those that linger around large payments to the former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

These targeted attempts to hold the government to account and work for the public good make a big impact and are hard to dismiss as simple posturing for the sake of posturing.

On the other hand members of the public could not care less when democrats harp on about how pro-government legislators abuse Legco procedures nor are they much concerned over other procedural matters.

Even worse are undisciplined democrats faffing around with flags on desks, seizing mobile phones from officials and chanting slogans while shaking clenched fists. It tends to look pretty stupid because it is pretty stupid.

Those taking part in this activity might experience the warm glow of being seen to be doing something dramatic but in reality, it is little more than self-indulgence.

File photo: In-Media.

When, for example, pro-government committee chairmen thwart debate as a way of ensuring that the administration is not held to account, democrats should stage dignified walkouts from the chamber and then calmly – and please, briefly, explain why they are doing this.

The public is not stupid, people will pay attention to things that matter but they most certainly will not be impressed by the way many democrat legislators conduct themselves.

Many pro-government councillors are singularly unimpressive; many are staggeringly lazy; few are articulate. Yet they can hardly believe their luck when the democrats fritter away the advantages they possess.

All they need to do is to provoke the democrats, who can then reliably be expected to fall into the trap of distracting attention from the real issues by indulging in pointless behaviour.

When the anti-democrats hold most of the cards, it’s not easy to win this game – but it’s pretty idiotic to consistently ignore the trump cards held by those in the democratic camp.

Finally, and it pains me to say this, the democrats suffer from the lack of a single charismatic leader. Although personality politics is problematic, it is hard to think of a single protest movement that has succeeded without someone of this kind.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship