Hong Kong: One year since ‘516’ electoral revolt

500,000 protest votes against the political establishment and fake democracy – crucial lessons in the struggle for democratic rights

By Dikang and Jen Left, Socialist Action

The first anniversary of the ‘516’ elections in Hong Kong is an occasion to reflect on the struggle for democratic rights in Hong Kong and China. The events of one year ago were a landmark in Hong Kong’s struggle to throw off an undemocratic political system foisted upon its people by ‘democratic’ Britain, the former colonial power, and preserved almost unchanged by China’s ‘communist’ dictatorship.

On 16 May 2010, despite a boycott by the government and capitalist establishment, 500,787 people voted for candidates associated with the ‘516’ challenge. Although the government would dismiss this, pointing to the 17.1 percent turnout as a ‘flop’, serious bourgeois commentators saw the result as a warning. “As a protest campaign, mobilising more than half a million people to say no to the administration’s political reform proposals was quite an achievement, given the efforts to discredit the vote,” commented Joseph Cheng Yu-shek of City University. “Hong Kong politics is being radicalised,” was the viewpoint of veteran author and commentator Willy Wo-lap Lam.

It is necessary for socialists and democracy activists to analyse and draw up a balance sheet of last year’s struggle and subsequent events including the recent split in the League of Social Democrats (LSD) and fragmentation of other parties. Even within the LSD, and certainly outside its ranks, there are some activists who underestimate the political significance of ‘516’, or have drawn mistaken and pessimistic conclusions about the way forward for democratic rights in Hong Kong. Also, in the light of the groundbreaking revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, in which democratic demands are playing a central role, it is necessary to make an appraisal of the situation in Hong Kong and China vis-à-vis the struggle against authoritarian rule.

In mid-January 2010 five members of Hong Kong’s Legco, a powerless pseudo-parliament, resigned to trigger citywide by-elections. The idea was to stage an unofficial “five districts referendum” (in all of Hong Kong’s five geographic constituencies) to mobilise opposition to the government’s undemocratic electoral reform plan and turn up the pressure for immediate universal suffrage. The Beijing regime snarled that this was a “blatant challenge” to its power, and would “damage Hong Kong’s hard-earned achievements” – a reference to the huge piles of money amassed by the city’s capitalists from their mainland sweatshops and billion-dollar property deals.

Democratic Party seeks “compromise”

The initiative for the ‘de facto referendum’ came from the LSD, the most radical party in the Legco, supported hesitantly by the Civic Party (a skeptical party leadership was overturned by its members on this issue). The dominant – in electoral terms – Democratic Party (DPHK) refused to take part or support the ‘516’ challenge. While it put forward several “tactical” arguments to justify its stand, the real reason was that for a lengthy period the right-wing leadership of the DPHK had wanted to reposition their party as a “moderate” force, acceptable to the Hong Kong establishment and the Chinese dictatorship. In particular, they espoused a policy of negotiation and compromise with the central government, and this party’s representatives secretly entered talks even as the ‘516’ movement was underway.

As socialists warned at the time in Socialist magazine and on chinaworker.info, this was a path of “one-sided compromise”, with the DPHK leaders gaining nothing of substance from Beijing, which has instead used its offer of negotiations (rather than actual negotiations) to “house train” and discipline the so-called moderate pan-democrats. This led in June 2010 to the Democratic Party’s entire Legco group, with two votes splitting away, delivering the crucial votes needed to secure passage of the government’s undemocratic reform package, containing an indefinite extension of the business-controlled functional constituencies and other undemocratic practices.

All such processes have their own logic and the self-abasement of the DPHK leaders before the dictatorship is unlikely to stop in the short-term – barring an outbreak of major mass struggle against the Chinese regime and those who collaborate with it. This compromise line has been reinforced by the split in their ranks, with the departure of the Neo Democrats who opposed the government electoral reform. In both camps very small forces are actually involved: the DPHK membership is just 730 – closer to a ‘sect’ than a party – while the ‘neos’ claim a membership of around 30!

After next year’s ‘election’ of Chief Executive (by a committee of just 1200 mostly wealthy ‘electors’), a new administration will quite probably, under Beijing’s prodding, revive its push for a new security law under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution (Basic Law) containing draconian curbs on freedom of association, links with overseas organisations, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Under Article 23, criticism of the Chinese dictatorship could be punished as “treason” and articles like this one therefore banned. The previous legislative attempt was abandoned in 2003 after a monster demonstration of 500,000 people showed the furious opposition that existed. Next time around the DPHK will be put under great pressure – to show its ‘sincerity’ as a negotiating ‘partner’ – to back Article 23 legislation. This could cause further splits in the Democrats’ ranks, but it cannot be ruled out its leadership will support such draconian legislation perhaps with some cosmetic or secondary modifications.

As Socialist Action explained at the time: “The betrayal of the DPHK leaders was inevitable, flowing from their class position as supporters and small time representatives of capitalism. This is a crucial lesson for the future of the democracy struggle in Hong Kong and China. A new movement must be built on the fighting layers who understand there can be no compromise with the dictatorship… We say this movement must be based on the working class, with a working class political party as the main force for change. To win, this movement must link mass struggles in China and Hong Kong. It must fight to abolish capitalism with its sweatshops, climate destruction and growing gap between rich and poor.” [Leaflet issued by Socialist Action for mass demonstration against government’s ‘reform’, 22 June 2010].

Socialists and the democracy struggle

The CWI and its supporters in Hong Kong threw ourselves actively into the ‘516’ struggle, using it to raise the flag of socialism and explain why the struggle for democratic rights must challenge capitalism in order to succeed. One of our main slogans, on our banner and website throughout the several months of campaigning, was “Realise democracy – Kick out the capitalists!” Our demands included calling for the toothless Legco to be replaced by a “real People’s Assembly” with powers to reverse privatisations, raise wages, build up the public sector and break the power of the capitalist tycoons. This is a way of explaining to broad layers the need for a genuine Constituent Assembly, something that Trotsky took up in relation to China and Spain, and which the CWI raises in the context of today’s revolutions in the Arab world, as an alternative to the corrupt and largely decorative parliaments of toppled or still surviving despotic regimes (Hong Kong is no different in this respect).

Socialists fight for all, even partial democratic reforms, such as the abolition of Hong Kong’s elitist functional constituencies (in which six percent of electors choose 50 percent of Legco seats), while not confining ourselves to such slogans. We explain that real democratic change can only be achieved by mass workers’ struggle against capitalism, for genuine socialism (not the Maoist-Stalinist caricature that applied in China in the past). In particular, we point out the need for a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme as crucial to the outcome of any democratic struggle. This is underlined by events in the Middle East, where we see unfinished revolutions facing many dangers from the still powerful elites that supported the former regimes.

Some left groupings in Hong Kong took a radically different position towards ‘516’, refusing to actively take part because, as they argued, the struggle was not led by “the left”. This is an example of a sectarian approach, of sitting on the sidelines and lamenting the “low political consciousness” of a movement, when the task of any socialist organisation worth the name is to engage in struggle alongside those layers prepared to challenge the capitalists and the dictatorship – even partially and without a fully worked out programme – and through this experience to raise awareness of socialist ideas and the need for a workers’ party.

The group Left 21, for example, took the position that ‘516’ represented a “middle-class democratic movement” and from this fact pronounced its failure – due to “poor mobilisation” – in advance. In the opinion of Socialist Action this argument shows a complete misunderstanding of the real tradition of socialists and Marxists in advancing and fighting for democratic demands and towards mass or semi-mass struggle. Even if ‘516’ was not initiated by workers’ parties or “the left”, but by political groupings based upon radical middle-class layers and students as in the case of the LSD, this brought these forces into sharp conflict with the capitalist establishment and the Beijing regime. In our opinion there is no fundamental difference between this and other mass or partial mass movements worldwide, such as the anti-war movement of the last decade or today’s climate justice and anti-nuclear movements, which, up to now, have not been based primarily on workers’ organisations.

This is an unfortunate weakness, reflecting the rightward ideological shift of trade unions and former workers’ parties in most countries. In Hong Kong too, the HKCTU [union confederation] played no real part in the ‘516’ struggle, other than issuing a call for its members to use their vote. But given that this was a struggle against the Chinese regime and the local capitalist establishment that would clearly galvanise significant layers of youth and individual labour activists, as well as other radicalised layers and draw them into action, it would be the height of sectarianism for socialists to stay on the sidelines and not engage in this struggle. In the first months of last year, thousands took part in demonstrations, rallies and meetings around the city in support of the “referendum” and to organise against the government’s boycott line.

In Socialist magazine we outlined in a constructive way what was needed to build the ‘516’ campaign and connect it more deeply with local communities, schools and workplaces. We raised the idea of organising school strikes or even strikes, and to link this struggle to anti-capitalism and increase the pressure on the ruling class. This is the only way to fight for genuine democracy.

In the absence of a mass workers’ party in Hong Kong, an ‘ideal’ mass struggle cannot be waged at this time. Despite its political limitations (not linking the democracy struggle to the need to overthrow capitalism), the ‘516’ movement utilised the platform of a bourgeois ‘parliament’ to mobilise significant layers in struggle, and in this way exploit the “democratic resources” of capitalism. In their criticisms, Left 21 accused the advocates of ‘516’ of “parliamentary cretinism”, but they themselves regarded the voting rate as the main index and pronounced the movement a failure just because of the “low” voting rate. In Socialist magazine, we repeatedly explained that the most important measures of success were the degree of mass involvement and shifts in consciousness, rather than the final vote, although this too in our opinion was far from being a “failure” as Left 21 claimed.

This group also has a tendency to reject political parties as “unnecessary” – a simplistic and false view, again showing little understanding of the revolutionary tradition of working class organisation and the long, hard lessons of revolutionary victories and defeats. While praising the youth who took part in the ‘516’ movement, Left 21 said, “parties need you, but you may not need parties”. They argued, “the new generation of democrats is a progressive force and they are not necessarily led by political parties”. [Left 21 leaflet, 1 July 2010]. This completely underestimates what is needed in the struggle against the powerful machine of capitalism, in which loose local networks and community groups or spontaneous youth protests are not enough. In contrast, instead of belittling the role of parties which are a crucial aspect of the class struggle, whether one recognises them or not, CWI supporters explained during our active interventions in the ‘516’ struggle, how the “new democratic movement” needs a mass workers’ party as its main force.

Lenin on democratic struggle

Socialists have always shown the key role of the working class in the struggle for democratic rights including universal suffrage. As Lenin explained, “The full development of the productive forces in modern bourgeois society, a broad, free, and open class struggle, and the political education, training, and rallying of the masses of the proletariat are inconceivable without political freedom. Therefore, it has always been the aim of the class-conscious proletariat to wage a determined struggle for complete political freedom and the democratic revolution.” [The Democratic Tasks of the Revolutionary Proletariat, 1906 http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/jun/17b.htm]

But as Lenin explained in the same pamphlet:
“The proletariat is not alone in setting this task before itself. The bourgeoisie, too, needs political freedom. The enlightened members of the propertied classes hung out the banner of liberty long ago; the revolutionary intelligentsia, which comes mainly from these classes, has fought heroically for freedom. But the bourgeoisie as a whole is incapable of waging a determined struggle against the autocracy; it fears to lose in this struggle its property which binds it to the existing order; it fears an all-too revolutionary action of the workers, who will not stop at the democratic revolution but will aspire to the socialist revolution; it fears a complete break with officialdom, with the bureaucracy, whose interests are bound up by a thousand ties with the interests of the propertied classes.” [ibid]

In China’s case the dominant section of the capitalist class is largely incorporated into the current state and does not actively seek its replacement. The Hong Kong capitalists similarly are strong worshipers of the dictatorship in China and oppose universal suffrage in Hong Kong, not just as a threat to the untrammeled privileges they enjoy in Hong Kong, but also because of the destabilising effect this would have in China, where they make most of their money.

They fear a future scenario under relatively free elections in Hong Kong in which parties or political figures outside their control could be elected to lead a government. Even in the absence of a genuine socialist mass party, the election of a “radical” party or figure could unleash a chain reaction whereby mass pressure would grow upon such a government to deliver “real change”, while Beijing is forced to deal with this either by concessions (a dangerous example to other parts of China) or by threats and warnings (you are “exceeding the limits” of SAR status – one country, two systems) or by a military crackdown in Hong Kong (which would be militarily easy, but politically very difficult because of the effects inside China and globally). A number of possible scenarios could therefore unfold once the Pandora’s box of free elections is opened in Hong Kong – from the threat of a military takeover of Hong Kong, after a period of political crisis, to the powerful mass stirrings of the mainland masses opening a “second front” against the regime. The question of a mass socialist workers’ party placing itself at the head of these developments, in Hong Kong and China, would be decisive in determining which variant – revolution or counterrevolution – prevails. That the democracy struggle in Hong Kong could ultimately trigger the downfall of the Chinese regime is something it understands even if many in Hong Kong’s democracy movement do not.

516 Campaign – what did it achieve?

This was shown in the enraged response of Beijing and its Hong Kong proxy parties over the resignation of the five pan democratic legislators last year. The central government immediately declared the “referendum” to be an “unconstitutional act”. Pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong unleashed a typhoon of denunciations and threats. Former Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung warned of “anarchy”, while leaders of the pro-government DAB accused the LSD and Civic Party legislators of  “sedition” and “promoting social conflict”. Property tycoon Sir Gordon Wu accused the two parties of “destabilising” Hong Kong, likening their actions to Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Beijing ordered its proxy parties to boycott the by-elections, thus insuring the five would be returned, but denying them an all-out electoral clash against establishment candidates with much higher participation levels. Such better-safe-than-sorry thinking is typical for Beijing, and shows how little confidence it has in its proxy parties such as the DAB.

Against this background, despite the low turnout, the votes obtained on May 16 represented a significant anti-establishment protest, and were far from the ‘failure’ the government would claim. As we explained at the time:

“Even with a low turnout due to government sabotage, the radical anti-government platform of the League of Social Democrats (LSD), Civic Party and T12 students received over 500,000 votes. This is not far short of the 604,751 combined vote of the pro-government side in the 2008 Legco elections, based on a much higher turnout (45% as opposed to 17%).” [Socialist Action leaflet issued for the June 23 “623” demonstration outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council]

We also stressed that the total vote, while respectable, was not the decisive measure of success or failure in such a struggle:
“This debate is not merely about votes – a section of the Hong Kong bourgeoisie understand that lurking behind these election statistics is the potential for a social explosion, a political radicalisation of the most alienated and downtrodden layers who were not intimidated by the government boycott nor impressed by the ‘moderation’ of the Democratic Party leadership.” [ibid]

As we explained at the time, voters were not driven by the need to pick the ‘lesser evil’ (i.e. to vote tactically to defeat the worst alternative), so the final vote reflected a conscious protest in support of an “unconstitutional act”.  The vote also reflected class polarisation. Contrary to the much-repeated claim that the main pressure for democratic rights comes from the middle-classes, the highest turnout on May 16 was recorded in Hong Kong’s poorest district Sham Shui Po, where average household income is 20 percent below the citywide average. By contrast, in many luxury residential areas almost no voters turned out. The proportion of young voters taking part, one in four of ‘516’ votes, was higher than in regular Legco elections.

The campaign also raised consciousness among broad layers especially on the nature of the functional constituencies. It magnified the problems of the Democratic Party leadership with its strategy of compromise and capitulation. While the bankruptcy of this policy has not yet been fully exposed before the broad masses, this is the case for a more advanced layer especially of youth. Two months after May 16, the DPHK had to employ bodyguards to protect its contingent in the annual July 1 pro-democracy demonstration. Traditionally a big fund-raising event for the pan democratic parties, the DPHK saw its donations from the demonstrators fall to just one-third of the previous year’s level.

Break-up of pan democratic bloc

It is clear that these events represented a turning point for the democracy struggle in Hong Kong, with the de facto break up of the old pan democratic bloc. Unfortunately, in the absence of a workers’ party capable of disseminating a socialist analysis and conclusions on a mass scale, the necessary process of political realignment has begun but in a confused and contradictory way. A mass workers’ party, rooted in workplaces and local communities, would have been able to mobilise on a much greater scale and use the momentum of the campaign to continue and step up the struggle.

Since ‘516’ all the pan democratic parties have suffered splits or internal crises, with the creation of new “parties” – the Neo Democrats (ex-DPHK) and People’s Power (ex-LSD) – and further new permutations possible. The Civic Party has not yet seen a formal rupture but there are growing tensions within its leading group.

The LSD, which was proclaimed by some commentators the “main winner” of the ‘516’ struggle, recording a vote of 278,931 (up from 114,498 in the 2008 regular Legco elections), has not been able to build upon this due to a long period of internal strife that was dominated by personal attacks and largely failed to clarify political issues. There are important lessons in this. In politics it is not enough to wage a successful struggle; it is also necessary to know how to build upon this, to solidify the gains through mass recruitment and organisation, and wage an effective political defence of already conquered positions. For this to be possible a strong internal political life is needed and membership structures such as local branches, with regular political education and discussion and not just activity. The lack of a clear appreciation of the significance of ‘516’ and its own role in this, going down through its ranks to all members, was surely a contributory factor in the LSD’s acrimonious split earlier this year.

As we explained last year, Donald Tsang’s ‘success’ – with the Democrats’ support – in pushing through his electoral reform package proved to be a pyrrhic victory. The government limps from one political fiasco to another (the budget u-turn, aborted bid for East Asian Games) and Tsang’s disapproval rating has risen to 59 percent, compared to 46 percent in June last year. The establishment camp is in disarray over which of three ‘uninspiring’ – and equally bad – candidates it will put forward to succeed Tsang in next year’s ‘election’ for Chief Executive.

Hong Kong boasts the world’s most extreme wealth gap and “least affordable” housing, with house prices surging more than 60 percent in the last two years, feeding enormous discontent with the government. A recent poll showed that 80 percent want the government to relaunch a subsidised housing scheme (HOS) abandoned in 2002, something it has repeatedly refused to do. Another recent survey showed the monthly income of the poorest 10 percent of families fell from HK$3,100 in 2006 to HK$3,000 today (US$385). These problems, which capitalism cannot solve and can only make worse, insure that the process of political radicalisation will continue and deepen, as will the search for a mass alternative to the pro-government parties and fake “democratic” parties such as DPHK.

Socialist Action cooperates with the LSD in a number of ongoing campaigns, as with other left activists and groups, while continuing to engage in debate and discussion over the way forward. We welcomed the emergence of the LSD – still very much a ‘work in progress’ and not yet a fully formed party – as a possible step towards the formation of a mass working class party in the future. The building of such a party is the key to the necessary political rearmament of the democracy movement in Hong Kong and China as a whole. This must be a workers’ movement, with socialist policies, or it will not succeed.