I. The Singularity and Significance of 2016 for Hong Kong
On September 4th 2016, elections for the 6th Legislative Council of Hong Kong will be held. As in the 2012 LegCo elections, 70 seats will be open to contestation, with 35 returned by the functional constituency. More seats will be open for a group of ‘indirectly elected members, representing specific professional and economic sectors, as an element of elected democracy introduced from 1985 onwards, as well as another 35 returned by the geographical constituency.
Although the 2016 HKSAR LegCo election may not attract as much attention and coverage from the international media as the 2016 U.S. presidential election, or Hong Kong’s very own fast-approaching 2017 Chief Executive elections, it is important in a number of ways that make this year’s LegCo election unique from previous years’.
First, this is possibly the most fiercely contested election, with both the pro-establishment and pan-democratic parties locked in competition for votes from supporters of their camps. Similar to recent LegCo elections, the pro-Beijing camp includes established parties, such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong (BPA), Liberal Party, New People’s Party (NPP), and the New Progressive Alliance (NPA), among others. Whilst the pan-democracy camp includes the Civic Party, Democratic Party, Labour Party, etc.
Secondly, Hong Kong will potentially see the greatest change in the LegCo, with many long-time lawmakers retiring, making way for fresh faces. As the individuals who make all the decisions are the very core of LegCo’s operations, these significant personnel changes will potentially shape diverse aspects of Hong Kong politics in different directions. The recent filibusters, for instance, reflect widespread sentiments of futility and frustration about the entire political system of Hong Kong. If one were to alter this lose-lose scenario and move it towards a win-win one, one may need to reform the rules of the system. LegCo may not be able to accomplish this without a fundamental change in its Members’ mentalities and ideologies, and indeed, the Members themselves. Although it is difficult to predict exactly which types of changes will mold the filibuster scenario into a more efficient one.
Thirdly, as a legacy of the Umbrella Revolution of 2014, that began as student groups started protesting against the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC)’s proposed reforms to the Hong Kong’s highly restrictive electoral system, there has been an emergence of young faces, especially from the pan-democratic camp. Amongst them has arisen a radical, pro-independence group, that has found its own audience among the Hong Kong people. Notably, this is the first time that independence and self-determination have featured in a LegCo election.
Traditionally the pro-Beijing functionary constituency, and the pro-democracy/populist geographical constituency, have balanced each other in the Legislative Council. Former LegCo Member and current Executive Council and non-official Member, Mr. Bernard Charnwut Chan commented that among the geographical constituency of the LegCo, about 60 percent have been pro-Beijing, whilst 40 percent have been pro-democracy. This ratio has shifted to roughly 55 percent vs. 45 percent. While diehard Beijing supporters and anti-Beijing supporters amount to 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively, the remaining 50 percent of the population tend to be pragmatists.
Mr. Chan believes that in terms of this year’s LegCo election, more important to the question of ‘whether the 60-40 ratio will move closer to 50-50’, is the question of how much support the newly emerged groups, which are much more radical than traditional anti-Beijing parties, will garner. ‘Will it be 10 percent?’ Or will it be greater or smaller? This can impact the traditional pro-democracy parties — Democratic Party and Civic Party — in propelling them to potentially change their profiles to become more neutral in order to win more swing votes, and indeed more fundamentally, to survive (Chan 2016).
‘It is difficult to tell whether swing votes from pro-democratic voters will switch to moderates or even pro-establishment in view of the controversy of Occupy and Mong Kok riot,’ states Chris Yeung, a prominent political journalist in the city. He futher states that ‘The November Legco by-election shows no major change of swing votes’. Mr. Yeung is founder and editor-in-chief of Voice of Hong Kong, a publication that believes in ‘diverse and pluralistic views of Hong Kong’ (vohk.hk). He has previously served as editor-at-large for South China Morning Post and deputy chief editor at Hong Kong Economic Journal.
Last but not least, the results will have significant implications on two upcoming elections that will further define Hong Kong’s future in 2047 and potentially beyond. They are the Election Committee election in December this year and the Chief Executive (CE) election in March of next year. If the pro-establishment camp does well in the 2016 LegCo election, it will likely help Leung Chun-ying’s reelection bid, which is seven months later.
Noticeably, the timing of the 2016 LegCo election is sandwiched among some of the most critical points on any given Hong Kong timeline in recent years, as well as in the near future, 2014, 2017, 2047. Aspects that currently differentiate Hong Kong from Mainland China, such as the high degree of autonomy and independent judiciary granted by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, may no longer be legally binding. Therefore, the 2016 LegCo election is crucial in juxtaposing Hong Kong’s past, present, and future as the city-state continues to find and define its own identity. It becomes particularly worthy endeavor to dissect the key issues, parties, and open-ended questions involved in this election despite the great degree of difficulty in predicting its outcomes.
Zooming In on Three Elements of Hong Kong’s Political System: Blending Theory and Practice in Hong Kong’s 2016 LegCo Election Case
Firstly, political parties are a new phenomenon in Hong Kong, despite their role in candidate nomination, electoral mobilization, issue structuring, societal representation, interest aggregation, and social integration.. Political parties formed by indigenous Hong Kong citizens did not exist prior to 1989 (Lam 220). Mainland China’s attitude, which has been crucial both in halting and pushing for changes strategically in Hong Kong politics, towards the formation of political parties by the Hong Kong residents, had been ‘consistently a negative one’. The polity of the future HKSAR, as stipulated by the Basic Law, was ‘conceived in such a way that there would be little room for the local parties to develop’ (Kin-shuen 209). There are cultural, political and constitutional constraints on party development. Development is culturally difficult, because of the traditional value on harmony, which is easily disrupted by the rise of political factions (Lau and Kuan 246).
As this framework has certain mechanisms that ‘obstruct members returned by functional constituencies from affiliating with political groups’, Hong Kong’s constitutional arrangements tend to ‘promote fragmentation rather than integration of the Legco members’ (Kin-shuen 211). Secondly, and on a related note, the electoral system has become extremely complicated. One feature is the proportional representation (PR) electoral system, a key British political legacy that was originally intended to ‘secure a close match between the percentage of votes that a group of candidates obtains in an election, and the number of seats they fill.’ It allows a minority candidate who gains less than 10 percent of the total vote share, to obtain a seat in the LegCo, which ‘increases the likelihood of mavericks being able to obtain seats’ in the LegCo (Cartland 285). This happened in NT West and NT East in 2012 election. If we consider this year’s unique scenario with some veterans leaving the stage and new, young faces hoping to gain seats in the legislature, this feature of the Hong Kong electoral system can render the election outcomes unpredictable. Furthermore, it provides possibility for newly founded, arguably radical groups, to conquer seats for themselves.
Moreover, since Hong Kong does not use the ‘first past the post’ scheme in distributing seats, LegCo may end up having a number of candidates for one seat, signifying,that both the democrats and pro-establishment figures alike may assume that they stand a chance in winning seats. This further complicates the scene and hinders the ability to predict who will win.
In addition, as there is no limit on the number of lists in a seat that a party can field, the electoral system becomes more confusing and provided many possibilities for contestants to strategize. It leaves little room for criticism that the system is unjust. This has motivated parties to group candidates into one list with a younger candidate as the frontrunner, and the incumbent placed as second, in the hope that the incumbent’s popularity will help bring both candidates into the legislature with one list.
This strategy, like many others, has brought mixed results. While success is plausible, as illustrated by Audrey Eu and Tanya Chan’s 2008 win in Hong Kong Island, failure is also a real possibility, as exemplified by Tanya Chan and Kenneth Chan’s 2012 LegCo run in Hong Kong Island (Hong Kong Free Press 2016). It is interesting to observe the endless possibilities of strategies both from the supply and demand sides — assuming that aspiring candidates who will hopefully bring positive changes to the city are the good demanded in the market — of LegCo elections. This is related to the third aspect: civil society.
Although political theory proposes an ‘N+1’ model associated with the collective action and free rider problem, where a lack of information necessary for people to push for change, it incentivizes individuals to wait for others to initiate change. This is safer than risking their own wellbeing for society, although contemporary Hong Kong appears to have largely overcome this challenge (Kuran 349). As we can see with the so-called ‘Umbrella Warriors’ and other social activists arising from the Umbrella Revolution in late 2014, information is generally available to constituents and civil society is somewhat present despite the colonial legacy and traditional CCP influence. This still leaves Hong Kong citizens’ counterparts, including the middle-class and social elites in Mainland China, largely apathetic of political issues. Noticeably, the Umbrella Revolution may be a cause of the increase in voter numbers this year: According to the latest statistics in the provisional register, there are now 3,769,032 registered electors in geographical constituencies, a net increase of 75,090 electors compared with last year; the 18-20 age group topped with 40,560 new voters, followed by 21-25 with 18,685 voters (Hong Kong Free Press 2016). A related aspect here is voter psychology, rationale, and possible behavioral patterns. In generalizing voter behaviors, the author of An Introduction to Political Psychology includes several considerations that are relevant to the LegCo 2016 election. Firstly, ‘attention to information can be very selective’, since individuals are interested in diverse issues (Cottam 136).
Psychology studies have also found that the degree to which people are able to retain information varies. According to the ‘impression-based model’ used by political psychologists, ‘the specifics of the information may be forgotten’, the ‘overall impression remains’ and is ‘important to determining the vote’ (Cottam 136). This theory, applied in our specific case of interest, signifies that while LegCo 2016 voters may forget details that they acquire through word-of-mouth, media, personal experience, or other channels, factors such as their emotions towards particular candidates, and/or issues, may ultimately persist over time. They can affect, possibly even dictate their decision-making process. Furthermore, according to Gresham’s law of political information, a small amount of personal information can dominate a large amount of historical information about a past record. Since each member of society has different amounts of personal information, this makes it more challenging to generalize about voters collectively in our LegCo 2016 election case, and may even lead one to question the relevance of attempts at predicting voter rationale.
The media, which is often credited for shaping public opinion through methods such as ‘agenda setting’, ‘priming’, and ‘issue framing,’ while often being inaccurate or characterized by speculations, can give rise to more opinions among the public, (Cottam 140). Mr. Yeung, however, opines that ‘[the] influence of traditional media has declined. Social media is more powerful now’. According to the political journalism veteran, the shape and scene of media is often a mere reflection of the broader society and are often a reaction to people's views.
He further comments that the impact of media has often been exaggerated, and that ‘the media will remain divided according to their political stance, as before in this election. Voters are mature enough to be able to tell accusations from truth’. This viewpoint concurs with scholars Lodge and Stroh’s argument that ‘as information is acquired [as political campaign progresses], it is used to enhance, or update, beliefs about a candidate or party’, and can be directly applied in predicting possible voter behaviors in the Hong Kong LegCo election this September (Cottam 136).
According to Ms. Germaine Lau, director and senior policy analyst of the Savantas Policy Institute, pro-democracy newspapers such as Ming Pao are generally more influential than their pro-establishment counterparts, and have more readers. The Institute is a think tank co-founded by ‘a group of Hong Kong belongs with overseas experience who care deeply about Hong Kong’, including Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a member of the LegCo and Executive Council and current chairperson of the New People’s Party (savantas.org 2016).
Overcoming ideological differences that have been worsened by the increasing trend of polarization, as well as working together on constructing a comprehensive ecosystem of social innovation, will be a major challenge for the newly elected 6th Legislative Council of the HKSAR. If the rise of radical pro-independence groups manages to unite the pan-democrats internally, as well as their relationship with the pro-establishment camp externally, this likelihood may increase. However, if the new political landscape becomes even more fragmented than it already has been since its initiation, it will be very difficult to achieve in the short-to-medium term.
Lingering Questions and Suggested Further Investigation
One of the factors that may be worthy of further investigation is the aforementioned external influence that the international community may play. Amid localism fears, Hong Kong citizens’ interest in world affairs has grown substantially. According to a survey for BBC World News, 70 percent of the Hong Kong people surveyed agree that news from other parts of the world is more relevant to them than ever (SCMP 2015). Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s neighbor, Taiwan, and its future development may be another factor that could shape public opinion. Although Mr. Yeung believes that for this year’s LegCo election, Taiwan is not an immediate or direct factor (with which Ms. Lau concurs), he does concede that the Taiwan factor ‘indirectly galvanizes youth and pan-democrats about their aspiration for universal suffrage’, which, as one may surmise, may push for further demands for a full-scale democracy in Hong Kong. Even if calls for independence seem unlikely to be granted in the near future, especially due to economic dependence on Mainland China,, this popular sentiment may not easily evaporate among the youth today. The youth is becoming more influential across industries, as they gradually take over leadership positions across Hong Kong. Furthermore, the sentiment may be further strengthened if they socialize their own children, the next generation of the HKSAR, in more radical ways. Alternatively, one may also argue that as the youngsters mature, they may shy away from radical thoughts such as Hong Kong independence. Perhaps only time will tell.
Meanwhile as ‘tomorrow’ is shrouded in mystery and ‘yesterday’ may remain perceived as tantalizingly unapproachable as the figures and events history textbooks are to the ordinary people in Hong Kong, ‘today’ truly is a present. In order to shift closer to the ideal scenario where the maximum number of individuals’ expectations and aspirations are met, one must seize the day. The 2016 LegCo election offers Hong Kong citizens an opportunity to make a difference, and will be a valuable indicator of when that ideal point may be reached, as well as how.
Xiaoyi is a rising junior majoring in politics and minoring in Spanish at Pomona College. She has contributed regularly to the Huffington Post, USA TODAY, South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Caixin Media (mainland China), and China Files (articles in Spanish). She has also been interviewed by numerous publications, and part of her work was quoted by "Reader's Digest".
She interned first at Caixin Media, one of China’s most liberal and influential media platforms, then at Instituto Cervantes de Pekín's Communications Dept. and China File's Journalism team, North Head Consultancy's public policy team in Beijing, and Asia Financial Holdings in Hong Kong. Xiaoyi has also conducted both independent and guided academic research.
In Claremont, Xiaoyi is COO and former Senior Editor of the Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy. She works for the Pomona College Office of Communications, hosts radio newscasts and TV news reports, and co-founded and instructed at a pilot SAT Program. In addition, Xiaoyi has represented the student body in the Faculty Orientation Committee and student government. She is a Pomona College Scholar (academic honour awarded to top 25% of each class), the 2016 recipient of the Iberian Grant, and member of the National Hispanic Honor Society.
Xiaoyi graduated from an international IB school in China as a Presidential Merit-Based Scholarship Recipient and Founding President of the conservation club Roots & Shoots.
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