The main pro-establishment candidate won last Sunday’s by-election in Kowloon West by a substantial margin, dealing a major blow to the hopes of her main competitor. The Legislative Council seat in question was an important prize for her chief opponent after the setbacks Hong Kong’s democracy movement has suffered during the past two years.

”By-election results – click to view.”

Results for the three main contenders:

Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan【陳 凱 欣】, independent, pro-establishment: 106,457 votes
Lee Cheuk-yan【李桌人】, Labour Party, pro-democracy: 93,407 votes
Frederick Fung Kin-kee 【馮檢基】, independent, pro-democracy: 12,509 votes

And for the other two:

Ng Dick-hay【伍 迪希】, independent, 1,650, votes
Judy Tzeng Li-wen 【曾麗文】, independent 1,307 votes

Rebecca Chan
Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan. File photo:

There have been two by-elections in Kowloon West this year. At 44% of all registered voters, turnout rates were almost identical in both – compared with a 58% turnout rate in this district for the last, 2016, full Legislative Council election.

It was a Pyrrhic victory for Frederick Fung, who insisted on joining the race to prove a point, which he did. Without his voters, other pro-democracy candidates apparently cannot win in Kowloon West. But without their voters, neither can he. Nor is this just a feature of politics in Kowloon West.

For Hong Kong’s democratic camp as a whole, the problem is the same as it has been for the past two decades. Pro-democracy candidates like to contest elections for many different reasons. This might not matter, except that their pro-establishment adversaries have long since mastered the basics. Pro-establishment candidates are guided by the pro-Beijing loyalists in their midst, who are in turn guided by Beijing and the discipline of its Communist Party.

They all now function as a team and contest elections for the most logical of all reasons: to win. The prizes are seats in Hong Kong’s representative councils, that are then used to advance the official agenda.

This problem for democrats is ironic since their current democracy movement began in the 1980s and 1990s by uniting around the demand for democratic elections. The struggle then was with old-style colonial conservatives and pro-Beijing loyalists who were initially dead-set against the idea.

Frederick Fung
Frederick Fung. File photo: In-Media.

The effort to overcome democrats’ desire to compete against each other has been constant since the early 2000s – and remains a thankless task. For every contest saved, another has been forfeited. But given the circumstances, this latest loss in Kowloon West has probably registered the greatest impact and one that will be difficult to redress.

Kowloon West

Kowloon West is one of Hong Kong’s five Geographical Constituencies that together choose, by direct universal suffrage election, 35 members of its 70-seat Legislative Council (LegCo). Six of the 35 are elected from Kowloon West, which accounts for close to half-a-million of Hong Kong’s 3.8 million registered voters.

The six legislators represent a population with the full range of incomes. The sprawling constituency includes Kowloon City around the old airport on the East; Yau Ma Tei to the west; the tourist district of Tsim Sha Tsui facing south; and heading north along Nathan Road, the market streets of Mong Kok; plus, Frederick Fung’s old Sham Shui Po bailiwick.

Dividing lines

Kowloon West was hard-hit by the government’s drive to disqualify legislators newly-elected in 2016. Official targets were those who demonstrated too much spirit left over from Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy-Umbrella Movement. Its 79-day street blockades were provoked by the lack of progress toward a wholly-elected LegCo. Kowloon West thus lost two of its six new legislators. The official charge was disrespect by legislators-elect while taking their oaths-of-office during the swearing-in ceremony.

The by-election on November 25 was held to replace one of the six. The other was replaced earlier this year, but the results did not bode well for idealistic post-Occupy politicians. Voters responded to democrats’ flawed fractious campaign by electing the pro-Beijing candidate instead.

claudia mo by-election statement
Claudia Mo reads a statement after democrats lose the Kowloon West by-election. File photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Hong Kong’s political community as a whole breaks along two main dimensions: pro-democracy or pro-establishment. The latter includes pro-Beijing loyalists, business people, and old colonial-style conservatives who don’t much like populist initiatives of any sort. There are of course multiple variations along each of the two main dimensions.

Kowloon West’s past elections have tilted pro-democracy and four of the six legislators elected in 2016 were democrats. The two who were disqualified displayed more of the post-Occupy brand of dissent – anger and disappointment that all share – over official backtracking on the promises made by Beijing in 1997. A wholly-elected Legislative Council was one of the promises.

Many in the post-Occupy generation have concluded that those promises, made at the time of Hong Kong’s transfer from British back to Chinese rule, were an illusion, or a deliberate deception, or maybe China’s leaders have just changed their minds.

In any case, this latest generation of post-Occupy democrats reason that Hong Kong should go its own way in some form, separate from China, because aspirations for a democratic way of life cannot be realised under Communist Party rule.

The second legislator, Teacher Lau Siu-lai, was appealing her disqualification last March. But with reason to believe she might be allowed to regain her seat, she subsequently dropped her court challenge … only to find herself disqualified again. Lau advocates self-determination for Hong Kong as the best means of achieving the promises of 1997.

Chinese leaders in Beijing equate self-determination with independence and Hong Kong’s election authorities were not inclined to debate the fine points of these definitions. Instead, the authorities took the easy way out and barred Lau from the November 25 contest.  Attempts to pick up the pieces and tap other candidates for the two special elections have left Kowloon West democrats in disarray for most of the past year.

The candidates 

The events that made the by-election necessary may have dealt a major blow to local hopes for progress toward electoral democracy. But the candidates themselves provided a fairly representative sample of the political interests at stake for the community as a whole – minus the new brand of post-Occupy commitments to localism, self-determination, and independence.

Lee Cheuk-yan
Lee Cheuk-yan. File photo:

The activist political careers of the two principal pro-democracy candidates – Lee Cheuk-yan and Frederick Fung – extend back to their college days in the 1970s. Both are also similar in that they have always focused on the concerns of wage-earners and low-income communities.

Lee is a founder of the Confederation of Trade Unions and of the Labour Party. Neither can compete with the massive resources of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) that has been an important force here since the late 1940s. Its political wing is Hong Kong’s largest political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).

It can be regarded as the electoral wing of the local underground branch of the Chinese Communist Party that by unacknowledged agreement is rarely discussed in public here.

In contrast, Lee Cheuk-yan’s focus has always been to try and build a constituency for democracy among low-income wage earners.

But in terms of adversarial politics specifically, Lee Cheuk-yan has been a mainstay of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China dating back to the beginning in 1989. This is the alliance that sponsors the annual candlelight vigils in Victoria Park in remembrance of those killed during the crackdown against China’s own democracy movement in that year.

june 4 tiananmen vigil victoria park
Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil. File photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

Lee has helped steer the Alliance through many controversies, the most recent being the objections raised by Hong Kong’s new-wave post-Occupy dissenters, who insist on distinguishing themselves from the older generation known as “pan-democrats.”  The term used to mean all pro-democracy partisans but has now evolved to mean only the older generation.

Many new-wave activists deliberately shun June Fourth because they want to be able to ignore all things associated with China. Especially they want to disassociate themselves from the long-standing ideal of old-time pan-democrats like Lee Cheuk-yan, and also Frederick Fung.

The old-timers’ dreams are fading but for most of them remain unchanged. They want to believe they are working toward a democratic Hong Kong that can take its place within … not independent from … a new democratic China.

Hence Lee is also firmly committed to the controversial “down with one party dictatorship” slogan that is raised each year at the candlelight vigil. Pro-Beijing politicians returned from meetings in the capital earlier this year with a new message: since Hong Kong has freedom of speech, the slogan could be shouted as much as anyone liked. But those who did so probably should not think about trying to contest local elections.

Sure enough, as soon as Teacher Lau Siu-lai was barred from the race last month, loyalist voices were raised against Lee’s substitute candidacy. Yet to surprise all around, and confounding his loyalist critics, Lee’s candidacy was approved for the November 25 election. There has been no explanation as to why his past political sins could be overlooked whereas hers still signify.

Still, the drama was not over, and all of Joseph Cheng’s candidate-coordination skills were not enough to placate Frederick Fung. He has always presented himself as a moderate middle-of-the-roader who keeps trying, not very successfully, to make common cause with the two main political camps.

pro-democracy primary
Election convenor Joseph Cheng. File Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

But despite his political prevarications, he says he remains as committed to democratic ideals as he is to the cause of helping Hong Kong’s needy – and he likes to cite his long record of public service to prove it.

Consequently, his resentment has not abated over the affront he feels he suffered at the hands of fellow democratic leaders, including Teacher Lau. They all judged him to be no longer electable in Kowloon West, with its new-wave post-Occupy voters who were responsible for electing the two disqualified legislators.

Fung was therefore rejected as democrats’ choice for a Plan B contingency candidate. The arguments over Fung actually began during the first special election campaign last March (March 27, 2018 post).   And all this followed an earlier affront administered by the pro-Beijing camp that deprived him of his LegCo seat during the 2015-16 election cycle (FF backgrounder: Nov. 7, 2018 post).

Probably, Frederick Fung saw this by-election as his last chance for a political comeback in a district where he had been working since the 1970s. Perhaps that’s why he decided to risk splitting the pro-democracy vote – and throwing another Kowloon West by-election to a pro-establishment candidate -rather than step aside and try to help save the seat for the benefit of the pro-democracy camp as a whole.

Disciplined and well-organised as usual, the pro-establishment forces united in support of Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan. Among pro-Beijing, pro-business, pro-establishment partisans, a Frederick Fung-type direct challenge to an approved candidate is rare – usually contained internally before it can become public knowledge.

Born in 1977, Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan, is a former television journalist and presenter who followed a new path of upward political mobility, one specifically designed for the purpose.

Rebecca Chan
Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan. File photo:

Hong Kong’s new post-colonial government introduced a new Principal Officials Accountability System in 2002. This replaced the old practice of appointing top British-trained civil servants to head government policy bureaus. Those chosen under the new system are political appointees and report to the Chief Executive. The new political appointees must have proven track records in their respective professional fields. All appointments are made by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive but vetted and confirmed by Beijing.

In 2008, this new system was augmented with another tier of appointed deputy bureau heads, and beneath them yet another new category of political assistants. These last are younger people who are supposed to learn by doing through on-the-job training. The idea was to create a pool of reliable government-friendly talent for tasks – such as contesting elections and public consultations – that need both professional expertise and communications skills.

Rebecca Chan was tapped to join this system in 2012. She served as political assistant to the Secretary for Food and Health, Ko Wing-man, until his term ended in 2017. Despite the controversies surrounding his combative boss, Chief Executive CY Leung, Ko himself was a personable and popular public health chief.

Ko Wing-man
Ko Wing-man. File photo:

That made him a first-choice pro-establishment candidate for the Kowloon West vacancy. But Ko refused the invitation, and passed it on to his former assistant Rebecca Chan. She accepted the challenge and ran with his personal endorsement, reinforced by his photograph on campaign flyers designed to look like they were running as a team.

The campaign trail 

The November 25 by-election was a subdued affair and rain on the day itself did nothing to brighten spirits. There was none of the excitement generated by the 2016 general election, that had propelled the post-Occupy generation into LegCo and then out again in short order at Beijing’s behest.

Whether by coincidence or not, the long-awaited trial of the three original Occupy Movement leaders finally began just days before the election and is being held in Kowloon West at its new Law Courts Building. The site is far removed from the scene of the original action, but well-positioned to remind everyone about why the by-election was being held.

umbrella movement occupy trial
Trial of Occupy movement leaders trial began last week File photo:

Campaigning was mostly via online forums and televised debates. Neighbourhood rallies seemed more like staged photo-ops than efforts to meet, greet, and convince voters. The practice of ringing doorbells has been abandoned. But for those interested enough to follow the debates and their coverage in the Chinese-language media, the issues and concerns at stake were clearly drawn.

Rebecca Chan’s introduction to the public as an independent centrist was carefully designed to try and avoid partisan issues, a stand belied by the full range of big-name pro-Beijing pro-establishment partisans who came out to endorse her.

Her message nevertheless followed closely the official-sounding government platitudes about overcoming political divisions, focusing on non-controversial livelihood issues, and working for the benefit of all.

Frederick Fung did not try to hide his anger at being “arbitrarily” side-lined by fellow democrats and he remained unapologetic to the end about splitting the pro-democracy vote. Having made his point, he did not take the high road and bow out gracefully at the end as some expected, considering his long track record as a member of the democratic camp.

YouTube video

He even went so far as to say, during one televised event, that he felt it his duty to speak out and stand up to authoritarian rule especially when it appeared among his fellow democrats! He also went out of his way to reiterate on his campaign fliers all the political commitments he shared with his fellows.

Afterwards, he seemed satisfied with himself and the stand he had taken on democratic principle.  He denied responsibility for splitting the vote, saying it was up to the voters and they did the splitting not him!

It followed that Lee Cheuk-yan was not polite either as he challenged the logic of Fung’s political perambulations over the years.  That theme was also fulsomely endorsed by democrats’ only remaining Chinese-language print-media champion, Apple Daily.

Journalists compiled a useful comparative list of the three candidates’ views based on their platforms and answers to questions during forums and interviews:

On the burning issue of Hong Kong independence that has caused so much trouble for the post-Occupy generation:

  • Lee sidestepped the idea, saying Hong Kong should oppose Beijing’s interference here and strive for the “high degree of autonomy” Beijing promised in the beginning.
  • Fung said he opposed independence but would work to realize the autonomy offered by Beijing’s one-country, two-systems formula as written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution.
  • Chan opposes independence in any form.

On Article 23, the Basic Law-mandated national political security legislation: Lee’s view is that Hong Kong should continue to resist passage, while Fung said such legislation should only be passed after Hong Kong had been allowed universal suffrage elections.

Chan adhered to Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s position that Article 23 legislation is a constitutionally-mandated duty and must be passed. But unspecified conditions should first be met before trying a second time to pass the controversial legislation. The first attempt in 2003 was aborted due to massive public opposition.

On June 4, 1989:  both Lee and Fung think Beijing should reverse its original counter-revolutionary verdict that legitimised use of lethal military force to clear Tiananmen Square of protesters. Chan evaded the question. She said the basic facts of what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 are clear. Attention should be focused on livelihood now.

Standard working hours: Lee advocates a 44-hour work week; Fung a 40-hour week. Chan says labour and management should negotiate, which is the current practice and has made standard working hours unattainable.

Universal pension plan: Lee supports the attempt to achieve this; so does Fung; Chan says only if it doesn’t mean raising taxes.

Same-sex unions: Lee supports gay marriage in principle; Fung does not; Chan is emphatically against.

The list included almost everything except Rebecca Chan’s difficulties with questions about free speech and a free press. They concerned the recent Foreign Correspondents Club controversy and expulsion from Hong Kong of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet. He was in charge when the club invited independence advocate Andy Chan Ho-tin to give a luncheon talk.

Victor Mallet
Victor Mallet. File photo:

Rebecca Chan repeated the official line, saying independence had nothing to do with free speech and journalists should not use their platforms to help politicians promote independence.

Tipping the balance

Despite the careful attention to issues and talking points, the campaigns escalated at the end into a full-throated rendition of partisan politics and the larger issues at stake. Rebecca Chan maintained her “above the fray” composure throughout and let her pro-Beijing allies do the heavy lifting.

The South China Morning Post reported what has until recently been an unreported open secret – in this case about Beijing’s Liaison Office here using its influence to promote Chan’s campaign. Local politicking was initially declared off-limits for Liaison Office personnel who are assigned from Beijing.

Ta Kung Pao did its part with free copies of its daily paper containing whole pages full of garishly-caricatured accusations against Lee for all his political sins including applications for American National Endowment for Democracy funding, meetings with Taiwan independence activists, and so on.

Apple Daily did its best for Lee. “A Win for Rebecca Chan Is a Win for the Chinese Communist Party,” declared one Election Day headline. Almost all the democracy movement’s big names, pan-democrats past and present, also came out on Lee’s behalf: Martin Lee, Anson Chan, Cardinal Zen, Emily Lau, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, the Occupy trial defendants, Joshua Wong, and Agnes Chow.

Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan
Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan. File photo:

Who was not there of course suggested another part of the democracy movement’s story, the part about why Hong Kong democrats still have not come together and why they were still fighting for the one extra LegCo seat they needed just to regain the majority they once held in their limited Geographical Constituency half of the chamber. It votes separately on some important procedural issues that will now remain beyond democrats’ ability to influence.

They were deprived of their majority in that half of the chamber by the six post-Occupy disqualifications. The balance is now 16 to 18, with one disqualified legislator still absent. “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung is still waiting for a judgement on his appeal.

Democrats have no hope of winning a majority in LegCo as a whole, due to the occupation-based Functional Constituencies. These account for 30 of the council’s 70 seats and are purpose-built for the pro-establishment representatives who occupy them. Five seats are hybrids: with restrictions on candidate-selection but elected by universal suffrage. These antiquated arrangements were supposed to be part of the universal suffrage reforms Beijing vetoed in 2014/15.

Legislative Council
Photo: LegCo.

Still, the real loss for the democracy movement on November 25, is suggested by the absentee list, those who did not come out for Lee Cheuk-yan. Besides Frederick Fung, they included two former winners in Kowloon West, representing its most defiant inclinations: one from the pre-Occupy generation, the other post-Occupy.

Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong represented the constituency between 2008 and 2016. And it was actually Wong who pioneered the breakaway from Lee Cheuk-yan’s Victoria Park June Fourth vigil during those years. Wong Yuk-man and his most recent allies from the 2016 campaign trail were nowhere to be seen in Kowloon West on November 25. The other no-show was disqualified pro-independence advocate Yau Wai-ching, who won Wong’s seat in the September 2016 election, much to his chagrin.

Until it becomes possible for these two firebrands – along with like-minded angry, localist, pro-independence others –  to return to some semblance of a united democratic fold together with pan-democrats, the prospects for a new democratic majority seem bleak.

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.