At first glance, "Stability Is In" doesn’t sound like it would be a very inspiring campaign slogan. But it worked for the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB)—the city’s pro-Beijing, anti-democratic, go-along, get-along party, which scored a major coup on Sunday, winning a third of the directly-elected legislative seats allocated to grassroots political organizations there. It was a landmark victory all the more unexpected for the DAB’s closeness to Hong Kong’s deeply unpopular, Beijing-appointed executive branch. Just last year, one in 10 Hong Kongers marched across the city protesting the government’s draconian anti-subversion laws, supported by the DAB. That was followed by the SARS outbreak in which Beijing-tapped Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa and his allies failed to acknowledge the disease during its critical early stage because mainland officials refused to admit the disease existed.
By the time Hong Kong’s election day rolled around last Sunday, most of the city’s pundits expected the DAB to lose seats, and democratic parties to increase their share. Instead, the democrats mustered only a two-seat pickup. So what went wrong?
Two problems loomed especially large for the democrats. One was that they did not effectively navigate Hong Kong’s complicated electoral system, under which each additional seat a party gains in a given legislative district requires more votes than the last—rules expressly designed to block the emergence of strong political parties. The DAB essentially broke itself into multiple parties for the purpose of campaigning, allowing it to win seats with fewer votes than it would have needed as a single party. The various democratic parties sticking mostly to the old rules faced an uphill claim to increase their share of the legislature. The grandfather of democracy in Hong Kong, former Democratic Party Chairman Martin Lee, almost lost his seat this year as a result. The various parties and individual candidates who constitute the pro-democracy forces that want to give power to the people are going to need to learn how to organize themselves properly.
The second problem was that the democrats have yet to grapple with Hong Kong’s increasing closeness to China. As China becomes the dominant economy in the region, and as Hong Kong’s own economic future becomes more tethered to the mainland’s, the city has begun to embrace its culture roots. As Chinese nationalism sweeps the historically cosmopolitan city, opposition parties who oppose Chinese rule are painted as unpatriotic rather than pro-democracy. This has made it particularly difficult for the democrats to raise campaign funds. To beat their negative rap, Hong Kong democrats need to develop a platform that goes beyond broadening suffrage. People in Hong Kong read more newspapers and listen to more politically oriented radio programs than residents of nearly any media market in the world. The city has a thriving marketplace for ideas—and until the democrats can compete in it, with sound policy platforms on issues like taxation, housing and education reform, they’ll never win enough votes for a majority stake in the legislature.
Despite last Sunday’s setbacks, however, two aspects of the election bode well for Hong Hong’s democrats. First, the city’s religious leaders—such as Bishop Zen, whose Catholic flock numbers some 370,000—have become increasingly active in pro-democracy/pro-suffrage causes. (As well they should: The more influence China’s communist rulers have in Hong Kong, the more inhospitable the city becomes to religious-minded citizens.) This year, local churches’ enormously effective get-out-the-vote programs reached some 500,000 of the city’s 7 million residents, and they promise to play a pivotal role as the democratization debate heats up over the next few years.
Second, voter turnout across the board has been impressive. Fifty-five percent of eligible voters came out for last Sunday’s elections, one of the best showings since the 1997 handover. That’s clear evidence that the public is inclined to participate in the democratic process despite the arcane rules that allow them to choose only half the legislature—not to mention a rebuff to mainland authorities, who have insisted that the people of Hong Kong aren’t ready for self-rule.
Democracy has a future in Hong Kong. But until the city’s democrats can put forward effective platforms and organization, to their chagrin, "Stability Is In" will remain a winning slogan.
Anna Soellner, a former Henry Luce Foundation Scholar in Hong Kong, is the director of outreach and special events at the Center for American Progress.