One of the more amusing aspects of Hong Kong politics is the number of people with no affiliation to or taste for democracy who take it upon themselves to offer advice and instructions to the democratic movement.

There was a particularly hilarious example the other week when Mr CY Leung took up arms in defence of the right of members of the Professional Teachers Union to a vote on the closure of their union rather than have the committee decide it. 

Lo Man-tuen. Photo: Chinese General Chamber of Commerce.

More recently we heard from Mr Lo Man-tuen, occupant of the previously obscure post of vice chairman of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, a United Front appendage. Mr Lo opined in a newspaper piece that the Democratic Party would face a “dead end” if it did not take part in the upcoming Legislative Council elections.

Mr Lo’s theory is apparently that if the Democratic Party boycotted the election it would become a subversive organisation and all those of its members who were currently District Councillors would consequently be disqualified.

As a legal proposition this looks rather dubious. And of course most of the party’s district councillors have already been arrested or persuaded to resign anyway.

Perhaps for these reasons Mr Lo’s idea was not endorsed by another person taking an unexpected interest in the future prospects of the Democratic Party, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam. She said that besides discussion and debate, participation in politics was the “purpose of existence” of a political party.

“A political organisation must have a wish one day to enter the political system to make changes,” she said. A member of the Democratic Party might respond that they did have a wish to make changes. They planned to use the constitutional procedure provided for the purpose to get rid of her. And look where it has got them. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam. File Photo: GovHK.

It appears that, under the national security regime, entering the political system to make changes is a criminal offence. The only legally acceptable reason for entering the system is to support the government.

Mrs Lam proceeded to her usual trick, in which she demolishes an argument which nobody has offered. “If a political organisation said it will never take part in elections … that is bizarre.” The question of never taking part in elections has not come up. Only anarchist groups, and not all of them, reject all elections on principle.

What the Democratic Party has to decide is whether to take part in one particular upcoming election. The one during which most of its members will be in prison, leading to some scepticism about Mrs Lam’s supposedly reassuring observation that the political system in Hong Kong “can surely accept people with different political stances to run in the election.” And in an elegant exercise in combining two incompatible principles she said that “Improving the legislative system is not intended to create a legislature without a plurality of voices in Hong Kong, but to require every candidate to fulfil the requirements as a patriot.”

I am reminded of the British politician who, rebuked for expressing two incompatible ideas in the same sentence, replied that “if you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the circus.”

Democratic Party. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In any case there is clearly a feeling among our lovely leaders that it would be nice to have a few democrats in the new-look Legco. Nothing too ostentatious – single figures, perhaps. No need to provide committee chairmanships or time to debate motions. The Civic Party and the Social Democrats have already decided to give this election a miss. Things are getting a bit desperate.

The trouble is that it is difficult to see the attraction for the Democratic Party. Neither power nor influence are on offer. There will be opportunities to make speeches, but as the media massacre continues will they be reported?

The pay is good, if elected, but the new legal regime presents hazards. A careless word could lead to disqualification. Disqualification could lead to prosecution. Prosecution could lead to prison. This is not a theoretical concept for Hong Kong democrats these days.

And after all, a party committed to democracy must have some standards. Looking at the new-look Legco many democrats will behold elections carefully designed to produce a political poodle, a Potemkin parliament, a counterfeit council, a constitutional fig leaf obscuring the reality of one-party rule. The Liaison Office is planning a political pantomime and the part on offer is the back end of the horse.

Legislative Council. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Why, one has to wonder, is a fig leaf required? Every day we are told that the rule of the Communist Party has done wonders for the rest of China while Hong Kong was wasting time on political bickering. You would think that the likes of Mr Lo and Mrs Lam would be telling us that we were now entering a new Golden Age in which Hong Kong also would benefit from democracy with Chinese characteristics, in which the Party decides everything.

This is not really compatible with a “plurality of voices” and we see every day another voice silenced, another contributor to “discussion and debate” threatened, assaulted or jailed. Clearly this is a necessary part of the new era and should be defended and explained in those terms.

Similarly it is a necessary part of the system that the electoral arrangements should exclude undesirable candidates not only by manipulating the nominations and voting but also by political vetting of any hopeful who survives this process.

The only remaining question, which Mrs Lam seems to have overlooked, is this: could a serious democrat vote for anyone who has got through the sieve and onto the ballot? Groucho Marx said he would not join a club which would have someone like him as a member. Looking at our new political arrangements, democrats may feel something similar.


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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.