by Suzanne Pepper

The more things change, the more they seem the same. Another Hong Kong election is just around the corner. Preparations for September’s Legislative Council poll are well underway and, public health conditions permitting, it will be held on September 6. 

Buoyed by last November’s District Councils election, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp has high hopes for another landslide victory – or at least they did until the recent mass arrests raised the spectre of more disqualifications.

The April 18 arrests involved charges of participation in illegal assemblies during last year’s anti-extradition law protests. 

But in the midst of those protests, last August, University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting was granted an early release from prison pending an appeal against his 16-month sentence. This was imposed for his role in launching the 2014 Occupy-Umbrella Movement.

The terms of his release being very liberal, he has picked up where he left off, this time with another ambitious plan for victory in September.  His new rallying cry:  “A  Legislative Council majority Is the most lethal constitutional weapon.” Friend and foe alike must brace for the fallout if this latest bright idea goes the way of all his others.

Occupy: the first lethal weapon

In early 2013, Benny Tai published a short article with an eye-catching title:  “Civil Disobedience, the most lethal weapon.”  What can Hong Kongers do when the chances of Beijing allowing genuine universal suffrage elections in Hong Kong are not great, he asked. 

Benny Tai. Photo: HKFP.

His answer: do something else, like preparing a weapon more lethal than all the demonstrations and protests they had tried so far. 

The weapon he proposed in that January 2013 article was the occupation of Hong Kong’s busiest downtown streets for a few days, as a means of forcing Bejing to see the light and change its stubborn stance.  The promised universal suffrage elections had been delayed for a decade, despite being written into Hong Kong’s new post-colonial Basic Law constitution. 

He thought about 10,000 people would be enough, to include pro-democracy opinion leaders, political reformers, activists, students and the like. His idea was to emulate the non-violent civil disobedience campaigns of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi in India and civil rights icon Martin Luther King in the United States.

Ultimately, his idealistic Occupy Central campaign erupted into a movement that blockaded major city streets for 79 days in the fall of 2014.  Despite the disruption, it remained largely non-violent.  But it also evolved and fragmented along a multitude of lines he never envisaged.

File photo: inmediahk.net.

The article appeared in the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal on January 16, 2013, just before the Lunar New Year break.  By the time the holiday ended, his idea had taken hold. 

And by the time Beijing again rejected the idea of Western-style universal suffrage elections for Hong Kong – in a decision announced on August 31, 2014 – the city was alive to the campaign Benny Tai and his friends been working to promote for over a year.

In due course, he and his friends were arrested and charged with various public order offences.  So meticulous were the investigations that the trial took government prosecutors years to prepare and did not get under way until late 2018.

In the meantime, Benny Tai’s civil liberties were not restricted, and he remained impervious to the waves of derision flowing from pro-Beijing sources. But instead of playing it safe during the years before his trial, Tai turned his attention from campaign mobilising to election strategising.

Benny Tai on the day he would be jailed. Photo: Citizen News.

2016:  Operation Thunderbolt

Since reforming the system was on indefinite hold after Beijing refused to budge in 2014, Benny Tai’s next idea  —  for the Legislative Council (LegCo) election in 2016  —  was to try and maximise the prospects of pro-democracy candidates under the existing patchwork of unreformed rules.

These had been designed to give maximum advantage to pro-Beijing loyalists and their pro-establishment allies. The rules were also designed so as to make it nearly impossible for their pro-democracy counterparts to win majority representation in Hong Kong’s 70-seat legislature.

Tai chose another eye-catching tagline for his new idea and dubbed it Thunderbolt.  Later he changed it to ThunderGo. It targeted both candidates and voters.

Hong Kong’s 70-seat legislature is a half-half mix of directly and indirectly elected seats.  Those directly elected from five Geographical Constituencies are further constrained by the proportional representation method of allocating votes.  The other half of the legislature is elected by Functional Constituencies.  These are occupational categories disproportionally designed to favour pro-establishment representation.

Legislative Council. File photo: LegCo, via Flickr.

As political frustration and fragmentation grew among democrats, so too did the tendency for their candidates to abandon hope of winning.  With that came another urge – to contest elections for other reasons – like just for the fun of it or for the experience itself or gaining name recognition and building future constituencies. 

For many young novices especially, these rewards were compensation enough and might not have mattered – except that their pro-establishment and disciplined pro-Beijing opponents always contested elections for one reason and one reason only: to win.  

The 2011-2012 election cycle for the District Councils and LegCo had been especially sobering in this respect. Benny Tai decided it was time to try and impose some adult supervision.  He aimed to get everyone to accept the idea of voting strategically.

His Thunderbolt plans for candidate and voter coordination were not well-received by either candidates or voters, since everyone had grown accustomed to the undisciplined free-for-all of electioneering.  

A demonstration in August 2016 to call for support for Benny Tai’s Thunderbolt plans.

But besides unaccustomed pre-election discipline for all, his idea also included ongoing opinion polls during the campaign.  The idea was to give candidates and voters a realistic idea as to who might win and who could not. 

Both candidates and voters could then behave smartly:  by dropping out in good time, and by choosing from among the best of the remaining candidates with the best chance of winning.

Some veteran democratic candidates, who actually had realistic chances of retaining their seats, probably lost them as a result of Benny Tai’s last-minute Election Day ThuderGo-Votsonar opinion poll messaging.  But they forgave him because he meant well. 

Their places were filled by some of the new post-Occupy dissident candidates with all their new ideas about localism and self-determination.  They were some of the new legislators who were disqualified by Beijing’s subsequent loyalty oath mandate in a saga that remains ongoing.

2019:  Project Storm

Anticipating his trial, the verdict, and likely prison sentence to follow, Benny Tai began his next project a full two years ahead of the 2019 District Councils election.

File Photo: May James/HKFP.

He argued that if democratic ideals were to have any hope of surviving in Hong Kong’s inhospitable climate, given Beijing’s growing influence, the ideals needed to be sustained by a popular base of political workers. 

Since Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils were already established at the neighbourhood level, they were a potential resource for democratic development.  But this was currently going to waste because the councils had all been captured by pro-Beijing loyalists and their pro-government establishment allies. 

Their unlimited resources and dedication to grassroots livelihood issues had consolidated their hold at the neighbourhood level.

Still, he noted that some activists living under authoritarian regimes elsewhere had been able to make some progress in this way, by using whatever limited channels were open to them.  Tai said Hong Kong’s democracy activists should try to do the same instead of letting a  potentially valuable resource go to waste. 

Banners of District Council election candidates in Yuen Long. Photo: InMediahk.net.

But if they were to succeed in this endeavour, activists would have to get to work early by establishing themselves in local neighbourhoods well in advance.  Parachuting in at the last minute just before an election would be a recipe for more disasters.

As with his Thunderbolt idea, even sympathetic observers were not initially impressed. They said Professor Tai, in his ivory tower, probably did not fully appreciate just how difficult it would be for idealistic democracy activists to compete with well-funded pro-Beijing candidates at the neighbourhood level. 

Livelihood issues and the provision of grassroots social services were all that mattered there.

Unfazed, he continued to encourage the dedication of young activists.  Their meetings and comings and goings were carefully followed and photographed by pro-Beijing paparazzi and publicised by the pro-Beijing media.  The news reports were used to help illustrate Benny Tai’s sinister influence on Hong Kong youth.

Later, after his months-long trial along with eight other Occupy activists in 2018-19, he began a series of prison letters.  These were published regularly in Apple Daily, allowing him to carry on as before – from a distance.

Photo: Lampson Yip.

Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests erupted in June, a few months after his prison sentence began in April. He wrote from prison that the huge numbers turning out were creating a change in Hong Kong’s political atmosphere. 

The public even seemed willing to accept the consequences of disruptive violent behaviour.  Tai had insisted on peaceful non-violent protest in 2014, but attitudes now were changing.

Yet Beijing still controlled Hong Kong’s pro-establishment forces and the entire governing structure.  Street demonstrations were not enough to change that fact.  His recommended solution remained as before: elections.

He reiterated the themes of Project Storm and encouraged pro-democracy candidates, and voters, to do what they had never done before by taking seriously the coming election for Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils.

Specifically, he worried, in June, that with 452 District Council seats being contested, only about 300 pro-democracy candidates had so far declared their intention to join the race.

Pro-democracy activist and 2019 District Council election candidate Jimmy Sham at Lek Yuen Estate, Shatin. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Evidently, despite his exhortations, begun two years before, there were still not enough candidates who had been doing the necessary preparatory work beforehand.

But then, unexpectedly, Tai was on hand for the November 24 District Councils election.  He had been serving a 16-month prison sentence that began in April, for the disruptions his Occupy civil disobedience campaign had caused in 2014.  Tai’s application to appeal the sentence was approved and he was released on bail in August, at the height of the anti-extradition law protests.

In June, he had lamented the failure so far to produce enough candidates. No doubt there were too many parachutists among them, but by the time candidate lists were finalised in November, every constituency had a pro-democracy candidate.

Preparations had continued almost out of sight in the midst of the protests that were absorbing the lion’s share of public attention.

Lek Yuen Estate, Shatin on the 2019 District Council Election voting day. Photo: May James/HKFP.

A United Democratic Coalition for the District Councils Election was formed and there was a concerted effort to avoid the old habit of more than one pro-democracy candidate contesting the same constituency just so each and every one could have their say.

Joseph Cheng and his Power for Democracy group had persisted in their candidate-coordination efforts since 2003, but with only mixed success.  In November 2019, the shock of hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers turning out in protest –  and condoning far greater disruption than Occupy had produced – seemed finally to have provoked the critical mass Benny Tai hoped to achieve.

At 71% of all registered, voters, November 24’s turnout was the highest ever for a Hong Kong election.  And the balance of power didn’t just shift for a few councils.  Pro-democracy candidates flipped the entire system. 

Voters in celebration. Photo: Galileo Cheng/HKFP.

Before the election, all 18 councils had been dominated by pro-Beijing loyalists and their pro-establishment allies.  Afterwards, all the councils save one had democratic majorities and that one included several reserved seats for rural leaders, who tipped the balance.

A triumph at last!  Tai called the election maybe “the most important in the city’s history”.

2020: The next lethal weapon: a LegCo majority

Actually, the term he uses in his own English translation is a “massive constitutional weapon.”  But in Chinese, the phrase is the same as he used in 2013 to introduce his ideas on civil disobedience.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Benny Tai now has a new plan.   With the Legislative Council election due to be held in September, he has set his sights on the heretofore impossible dream of a pro-democratic majority in the 70-seat council. He elaborated in an Apple Daily column on March 31, titled:  “A Legislative Council majority Is the most lethal constitutional weapon.”

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Posted by 立會過半 on Saturday, 4 April 2020
Benny Tai urges people to register as voters to help the pro-democracy camp win more than half of the seats at the Legislative Council election.

Since Hong Kong has now entered an age of resistance, he explained, we need weapons –  not the real thing –  but weapons that can strengthen people’s will to resist. This resistance can take many forms. 

Since Hong Kong still has elections, people can still use their votes toward that end.  To be effective, however, people need to vote in unison, like the targeted voting that was tried in the 2016 LegCo election.

During the anti-extradition law protests last year, street demonstrations had been effective.  But then the District Councils election, on November 24, was even more so, because people used their votes to turn the entire system upside down.

The LegCo election is fast approaching, he wrote.  People need to be clear about it.  This election is not taking place in an ordinary democratic society but rather within an autocratic environment.  This election is itself like a zone of resistance where people are still struggling for democracy.

So, it is not a place for people who just want to pursue their own aims and use the election to propagate their own political ideas. 

Photo: May James/HKFP.

But if every Hong Konger has the same aim, of seeing this coming election as a means of resistance, then they need to use the vote in their hands like a weapon.  If the objective of winning half the seats in LegCo can be achieved, democrats will have also won decision-making power and the strength of resistance will become a great constitutional weapon.

Of course, then there is the question of what the weapon can be used for – like most importantly for approving the government’s budget. The Chief Executive has the power to dissolve LegCo, but must resign if a new LegCo also does not pass the budget. 

But the Chief Executive Selection Committee will also have changed its composition with the addition of more democratic members – another democratic goal that has just been given a boost with the addition of the newly-elected District Councillors, some of whom are allocated seats on that committee.  

Beijing will thus have a more difficult time controlling the outcome as to who can become Chief Executive, and repercussions would be sure to follow.

There is the possibility of Beijing refusing to recognise the outcome and abolishing elections altogether, or even dissolving LegCo, and ending the “one-country, two-systems” governing formula.  But during this stage of protest, the objective is to pressure the existing Beijing regime, so the possible consequences must be faced.

Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

How might all this unfold? Democrats winning half of LegCo, rejecting the government’s budget, and carrying on the resistance? How to use this weapon in a timely fashion should be for those participating in the resistance to decide.

As for conducting the coming LegCo election, the aim should be to achieve a high turnout of voters to express their views. Those participating in the election need to be part of this process so that voters can understand clearly about the different views on how to use the weapon of a LegCo majority.

Afterwards, regardless of who wins, and under what circumstances the budget might be rejected, everyone should remain together in the resistance.  But it will just be empty talk if, in arguing about how to use the weapon of a LegCo majority, voters do not take the weapon into their own hands.

Hopefully, during the coming election campaign, differing views will not ultimately waste the present rare opportunity for democrats to win a LegCo majority.

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Suzanne Pepper

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 follows the developing story of Hong Kong’s democracy movement as it struggles to maintain its coherence amid the growing pressures of integration within the Chinese political system.