Hong Kong: City of Seven Million Politicians

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Hong Kong’s people must not be deterred from political engagement by fear of the unknown.   We need to commit to institutional neutrality and allowing personal freedom in belief so we can all make the contribution to public life that Hong Kong needs.


Declare your intentions

In Issue 7 (September 6, 2013),  Harbour Times called on political parties to act like the democracies they claim they want Hong Kong; to open their doors to many more people.  For that to happen, a certain proportion of Hong Kongers have to walk through that door and put their name down for the cause – whichever cause they choose.  The secret ballot is the cornerstone of modern democracy.  However, some must stand publicly for their views and others must visibly stand behind them.   That means joining political parties and movements.

The question for Hong Kong is if the price of being a party member, or otherwise standing for a cause, is too high a hurdle for a critical mass of people to surmount it.  If so, our political development will be stunted by fear of the unknown.  Brave leaders need brave followers.  Hong Kongers must be free to participate in the debate for their  future.


Brave leaders need brave followers.

Protest OK…

Hong Kongers seem to have no issues with coming out to protest.  Our political culture has evolved to make showing one’s face (albeit occasionally masked) in support of a cause a normal part of activism.  From parents and children to disgruntled senior citizens, every day is protest day in Hong Kong.  Sometimes there are two, three or even four a day.   HT, on one of our many visits to  LegCo, walked into a meeting past one protest and walked out an hour later past a completely different protest.

Our annual protests on major anniversaries have become routine affairs with mass media trying to drum up as much of a news story as they can muster.   But when it comes to putting one’s name down to become a ‘party member’, there seems to be a reluctance to join.


…but Party? Nay.

According to Baptist University/NDi 2010 research report ~14% of Hong Kongers took part in a protest in 2009-2010.  The same report claims 12% consider themselves ‘a member or supporter of a political party.”  But membership, according to party numbers, is much much lower. Supporters in their head, maybe. Signed members: no.

Party membership is perhaps less than 50,000 total, with more than half of that going to the DAB (see page 6-7).  Unions that behave like political parties may cloud the numbers, but pure political party membership is well below this number. This may not be unusual as many modern democracies see their party membership numbers head in only one direction – down.  A recent LSE study showed party participation in Europe ranging from Austria’s high of over 18% of the electorate with the UK at the bottom end of  the range (~1%).  Canada, the US and Australia are still dropping from their 1960s highs.  Hong Kong would be tracking well below the bottom end of countries with registered voters who were actual signed members of a party.

While small, this group of people provide the pool from which we draw much of our political talent – our future leadership.  Anything that deters people from participating in organised politics will stunt our ability to groom talent needed to debate and develop sound policy, present it to the public, secure support and legitimacy, and make it real.  Hong Kong needs every potential recruit in the game.



It has been suggested that the main factor inhibiting party membership growth in Hong Kong is a concern, particularly among young people, that party membership may prove a hindrance to future prospects.  They may have gotten that idea from their parents: a common meme in Hong Kong and in overseas Chinese communities is the idea that parents discourage their children from participating in politics, seeing it as a dangerous and suspect field of endeavour.

There may be something to it.  Leading democrat activists are banned from entering China, an important part of many Hong Kongers’ lives for work prospects and family connections.  Certain classes of government work, such as the police and the exalted rank of Administrative Officer in the civil service, have been off-limits to partisans of any stripe as their objectivity is a prized asset.



By contrast, some professions have job security built in that seems to encourage the freedom to express political opinion.  Senior university professors in Hong Kong are much more prominent players in politics than in other jurisdictions.  With the protection of tenure, they speak out with less fear of reprisal.  In Hong Kong, they are founders of political parties, protest movements, anti-protest movements, think tanks and much much more.  They are senior government appointees, political commentators and perennial dissidents against orthodoxy in everything.  It seems tenure gives them an advantage not only for academic freedom, but also political freedom.

Entrepreneurs, protected by Hong Kong’s strong tradition of property rights, can also swim against the stream and support political movements that may oppose the official line or buck popular trends.  Whether from family firms or companies they created, they can thumb their nose at politicians, media and public opinion alike.  As time goes on, our business community seems to harbour more and more vocal critics of officialdom.


Risky Business?

Young people, normally the radical vanguard of movements, seem particularly timid in Hong Kong.  Democratic political parties cite a willingness of young people to volunteer, but not to join.  They want to help today, but submit to vague apprehensions of future censure (see Amphisbaena Ambitions, HT, September 6, 2013).

Given the improvement of face recognition technology and police video recording at protests, it won’t be long before showing one’s face is the same as signing an on-site petition.  Young protestors may be behind the times if they think it is more anonymous to show their face rather than sign their name.  Archived video footage taken by police or other government departments could be linked to individuals years after the fact for political purposes (perhaps making a case for demanding it be destroyed after a certain timeframe).

So far there have been no reports of employers, universities, public housing adjudicators, or any other  major institutions in Hong Kong discriminating on the basis of political affiliation.  Hong Kong’s major corporations have always  remained fairly neutral on these issues.  While they may have personal or competitive vendettas to wage, there has never been a major concern about our homegrown or international employers banning those affiliated with a particular party.  

There are those who quietly question the future of political freedoms in a city where Beijing controlled SOEs become major employers, holding people’s livelihoods in their hands.  No issues have been reported thus far and only time will tell if the rise of Chinese firms in Hong Kong signals a shift in corporate political neutrality.

The media seems to be the biggest generator of heat when individuals are singled out and newly radical groups take up the attack.  Thus far, fears about institutional discrimination based on political identification seem to be associated with the future, not the now.


Hong Kong’s McCarthyism

There are those who would argue that partisans should be banned from public life.  Some are pushing the issue by demanding that public servants declare their allegiances.  The recent Alpais Lam saga was interesting in that various hangers-on to the debate (completely uninvited by Ms. Lam or the police) started to question the independence of first, the police, and later, Ms. Lam.  When an almost retired police officer, Gregory Lau Tat-keung, spoke out, a lengthy debate ensued about the propriety of his actions.

Not to be outdone, Caring Hong Kong Power wangled a meeting with Cherry Tse Kit-ching, Permanent Secretary for Education, and demanded that teachers declare their political affiliation, lest political parties infiltrate our schools and presumably subvert our youth.  Undersecretary Kevin Yeung Yun-hung gave them a typically polite bureaucratic brush-off.  Perhaps he was too polite.  Both police and public school teachers are civil servants.  It would have been encouraging for the Undersecretary to clarify if the government expected civil servants to all declare their political  leanings – or forswear them completely.  One would hope not.

Given the police’s special role in maintaining law and order and their uniquely lawful power of coercion, their neutrality is necessary.  But for the 147,000  other government employees, demanding their neutrality or forcing their disclosure of preference smells of witch hunt.


Keep it professional

The government needs to ensure that its employees deliver quality services in a fair manner to all Hong Kongers without preference.  However, that does not mean purging every person with any political leanings, but rather designing systems that reward excellence in service, whatever the civil servant or customer’s political stripes.

In many places around the world, former and sometimes current civil servants run for public office aligned with a political party.  The countries in question do not seem to overly suffer for it.  Individuals may, from time to time, project bias into classrooms or offices, but it is up to professional civil servants to maintain standards under government oversight. In North America, the most common complaint is the dominance of education by left-leaning teachers and professors who enjoy and perpetuate union support.  Canada, Mexico and the US all suffer this plague.  In Hong Kong, the fault lines are less clear.  HT’s experience suggests Hong Kong civil servants and political appointees, in their private moments, have diverse views and are not monolithic in their aims.

If the civil service became a political opinion no-go zone, a ban could be extended to government contractors.  It could extend to NGOs that bid for government contracts, firms applying for government grants to support research, licenses to import workers and more.  It would be hard to know where to draw the line.  Then it would be clear that a political affiliation was a life sentence of subtle snubs, official opprobrium and diminished prospects.  This is not unheard of in Asia, but alien to Hong Kong.


It would be clear that a political affiliation was a life sentence of subtle snubs, official opprobrium and diminished prospects.


Neutral, Disclosed, Free

If Hong Kong is to remain free and develop an effective political culture that delivers results, it needs to determine where neutrality should be required.  The scope should be very narrow.  Judges, prosecutors and police are obvious (to HT) sectors where neutrality would be vital among public servants.  Beyond that, a strong case would need to be made for restricting political belief or participation in specific job categories.  Otherwise, disclosure for high level civil servants and appointees and strict performance standards would suffice to keep most of government on the straight and narrow.

The current conflicts are a natural result of an expanding political community.   As more and more people become involved in politics, some will come from the civil service and some will enter public service based on their political experience.  

Hong Kong’s current neutrality vis a vis how its major institutions treat people – fairly and indifferent of political affiliation – must be made explicit and defended.  If not, we will lose the critical mass of committed young politicos that will be tomorrow’s leaders.  All that will remain in politics are the crass power seekers who curry favour and game the system.   If Hong Kong keeps it clean, we will reap the benefit of an active and engaged citizenry that sees political contribution not as risky business, but an honourable calling to make our city great.


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