The Civic Party, Hong Kong’s second-largest pro-democracy party, voted to dissolve on Saturday. HKFP takes a look at the party’s history.
The Civic Party was founded in March 2006 by key members of the Article 45 Concern Group, previously the Article 23 Concern Group.
The Article 23 Concern Group was established in late-2002 by legal professionals including senior counsels Denis Chang, Audrey Eu, Ronny Tong, and Alan Leong, and barrister Margaret Ng, to oppose a government proposal to legislate the city’s own security law.
The government’s attempt sparked mass street protests in 2003, and eventually led to the resignation of then-security chief Regina Ip.
Following the administration’s failed legislation attempt, the concern group changed its name to reflect its focus on pushing for universal suffrage in the city, which was promised by article 45 of the Basic Law.
At the time of its establishment, the Civic Party had over 100 members, six of whom were lawmakers. It was often dubbed “the barrister party,” and was known for representing professionals and middle-class voters in the city.
First democrat in chief executive election
Hong Kong saw its first pro-democracy candidate in the small-circle chief executive election in 2007, after Leong, then a lawmaker, secured enough nominations from pan-democrats to enter the race.
Leong’s candidacy meant that Donald Tsang, who took over from former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in 2005 after Tung resigned citing health reasons, had to take part in the city’s first chief executive election debate. The democrat received 123 votes to Tsang’s 649.
Five Constituencies Referendum
Following the 2007 chief executive election, the party continued to call for universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
However, the Civic Party was embroiled in controversies in 2010, after it partnered with the League of Social Democrats (LSD), a more radical branch of the pro-democracy camp, for the Five Constituencies Referendum.
Five legislative councillors, including Leong and Tanya Chan from the Civic Party, and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Raymond Wong, and Albert Chan from the LSD, resigned from the legislature to trigger a by-election.
The parties saw the election as a makeshift referendum that would allow the public to express their views on whether to abolish the Legislative Council’s (LegCo) functional constituency seats, which were elected by registered voters in special interest groups.
Without any competition from pro-Beijing parties, the five democrats who resigned were re-elected to the legislature, but the by-election divided the pro-democracy camp and was criticised by the pro-establishment camp and some members of the public as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Extradition bill protests and national security
Following the eruption of the extradition bill protests in June 2019, the Civic Party saw its biggest victory in that year’s District Council elections, winning 32 seats. The pro-democracy camp secured a political triumph in that election, taking control of 17 out of 18 councils.
Following the 2019 electoral success, several Civic Party members took part in an unofficial primary election in mid-July 2020 for the LegCo race that was scheduled to be held later that year. The primaries were part of the pro-democracy camp’s bid to gain a majority in the legislature.
However, in late July, four Civic Party candidates were barred from running in the LegCo elections along with eight other democrats. Their nominations were deemed not in compliance with requirements including that candidates must uphold the Basic Law.
The LegCo election was eventually postponed in 2020 with the government citing Covid-19 health concerns.
In November 2020, three Civic Party lawmakers – party leader Alvin Yeung and members Dennis Kwok and Kwok Ka-ki – were disqualified by the government along with Kenneth Leung of the accountancy constituency.
The government ousted all four after the top decision-making body of China’s legislature passed a resolution which stipulated that lawmakers who promoted or supported Hong Kong independence and refused to admit China’s sovereignty over the city should be considered in breach of their oath of allegiance to Hong Kong.
Their disqualification led to the mass resignation of pro-democracy lawmakers, leaving the LegCo with no effective opposition.
Less than four months later, four Civic Party members were among the 47 pro-democracy figures charged under the Beijing-imposed national security law for their involvement in the unofficial primaries.
Yeung, Kwok Ka-ki, Jeremy Tam, and Lee Yue-shun were among the democrats accused of conspiring to commit subversion. The four left the party following their arrest, with Lee the only one granted bail. Yeung, Kwok, and Tam have been remanded in custody since March 2021.
The four former members penned a letter just over a month after they were charged calling for the party to disband.
Citing disqualifications of Civic Party members from the legislature and its election, as well as a potential identical fate for members in the District Council, the four authors said: “the political truth written on the wall is that the Civic Party has completed its historical mission.”
The sweeping security law, enacted in June 2020, criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.
The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.
The city’s legislature also saw a drastic electoral overhaul in March 2021, with the National People’s Congress passing a resolution to ensure that only “patriots” govern Hong Kong. The decision reduced reduced democratic representation in the legislature, tightened control of elections and introduced a pro-Beijing vetting panel to select candidates.
The Civic Party, following the electoral overhaul, did not take part in the LegCo election in 2021. Jessica Leung, secretary general of the party, said after the NPC passed the decision that it would be worth discussing whether the parliamentary system was still a viable path for the pro-democracy camp.
Mass resignation and disbandment
The Civic Party took a further hit in mid-2021 as droves of District Councillors resigned from the party amid reports that the government would require members of the local bodies to take an oath of allegiance. Other Civic Party members left District Councils before the oath-taking took place, leaving the party with no District Council representation.
Discussions of disbanding the Civic Party arose after it struggled to find members willing to take up executive committee posts. None of the existing executive committee members wanted to stay for another term.
Chairperson Leong said last October that it was a “very difficult situation” when he was asked if he could still see room in Hong Kong politics for the party.
“I can only say this is a very difficult situation, that explains why, I think, all seven executive committee members expressed that they would want to step down, and also, as of now, nobody has stepped forward, wanting to take up the positions.”
With members passing a motion in an extraordinary general meeting on Saturday to wind the company up with 30 votes in favour and one vote to abstain, the history of the moderate democratic party officially came to a close.
Leong, in a statement issued after the meeting on Saturday, attributed the decision to wind up the party to a lack of succession to the group’s leadership and financial constraints, and said that “while the Civic Party has not accomplished what we set out to do, there is a time for everything.”
“The world is ever changing. History will tell. Today, the Civic Party is bidding Hong Kong farewell. We hope Hong Kong people will live in the moment with a hopeful and not too heavy heart. Live in truth and believe in tomorrow,” Leong’s statement read.