Triple T Tragedy: The Nautical Disaster of Tsang, Tong, Tiens

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Chris Yeung dissects the fallout of  the week’s momentous political events.


Events unfolded in the final minutes of the anticipated vetoing of the Beijing-backed 2017 universal suffrage blueprint at the Legislative Council on June 18 and thereafter could not be more unpredictable. Finger-pointing within the pro-establishment force over a bungled vote that resulted in a veto of the electoral reform by 28 to eight and the resignation of pan-democratic legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah from the Civic Party he co-founded are obviously unrelated. There is one thing in common. The two episodes are indicative of the growing fragmentation and volatility of the city’s political landscape.


First it was the bizarre blunder by the pro-government camp in their bungled walk-out after Legislative Council President Tsang Yok-sing declared the start of a five-minute voting at the end of a three-hour debate on June 18 on the electoral reform, which began on June 17.

It was originally aimed to trigger a 15-minute break for members to return to their seats for a quorum so that the sick rural chief Lau Wong-fat could arrive on time to cast his vote. It turned out to be a disaster as nine loyalists stayed at the chamber due to a breakdown in communication. Eight cast their votes. One, who was at a loss as to what was happening, did nothing. It resulted in a defeat of the government motion by 28 to eight.

Minutes after they realised the votes were cast and resulted announced, the 30-odd pro-government loyalists made a swift apology outside the chamber for their mistake. It was followed by a blame game among the loyalists. New People Party chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who was in tears at a radio programme, fingered at Ip Kwok-him of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, saying he should take the biggest share of the blame. Ip’s party colleague, Michael Tien Puk-sun, the younger brother of Liberal Party’s James Tien Pei-chun, ridiculed James Tien for a lack of team spirit in last week’s vote.

All hands on deck!

Michael Tien wrote in an article published in the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao that eight colleagues in the pro-establishment camp “boarded a lifeboat” when all others on board  were working hard to repair their ship.

“The ship could have been saved if there had been enough manpower. But eight crew members ignored everything and boarded a lifeboat. The manpower on repairs became not enough. The ship sank and 33 people died at sea.”

Of the eight, five are Liberal Party lawmakers including James Tien. The remaining three are unionist Chan Yuen-han, industrialist Lam Tai-fai and accountancy functional constituency lawmaker Chan Kin-bor.

As the blame game seemed to run its course by mid-week, the publication of instant messages within a WhatsApp group comprised of pro-establishment lawmakers during and after the historic reform vote last week has rocked the camp. It was followed by a witch-hunt. Worse, revelation of President Tsang Yok-sing’s exchanges with group members, some of which related to the strategy towards the pan-democrats, has dealt a body blow to the credibility of Tsang. Tsang insisted he has not breached any Legco rules and his pledge of impartiality. He apologised to both camps. But the pan-democrats said he should make an apology to the public. People Power’s Albert Chan Wai-yip has threatened to move a motion of no-confidence against Tsang.

I quit

As the havoc among the loyalists continued on Monday, legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a founding and now former member of the Civic Party, dropped a bombshell in the pan-democratic camp. He held a press conference to announce his decision to quit the party and to resign from the legislature, with effect on October 1. The party he co-founded in 2004, he lamented, was no longer the same.

He said he has held out hope the Civic Party could “represent the views of the middle-of-the-road people.” “Taking the middle ground approach doesn’t mean you give up the fight for democracy or are being subservient to the central government,” he said, adding the line the Civic Party had taken since the end of 2009 had deviated from its founding values.

The Civic Party ship may remain in good shape with no sign of a shipwreck. Tong could not wait to jump and find a new boat for him to move on in a different direction. Days before last week’s electoral reform vote, he has launched an independent think-tank Path for Democracy, which is mainly comprised of academics who are moderates in the pan-democratic and pro-establishment circles.

Although it is branded a think tank, Tong said he hoped to give a helping hand to young people to contest elections. He did not give details.

True, the divorce of Tong from the party, dubbed the “barristers’ party”, has not turned into a mudslinging match. It has raised questions about the direction and positioning of the party as it prepares celebration for its 10th anniversary.

It was revealed on Monday another founding member of the party, Joseph Chan Cho-wai of the University of Hong Kong’s politics and public administration department, quit the party last year. Chan joined Tong’s think tank as a founding member.

The departure of Tong and Chan is the strongest sign yet of a split within the Civic Party over its political approach towards the central and Hong Kong government. Put simply, Tong and his like-minded colleagues are adamant the party has become too confrontational, if not hostile, towards Beijing. Between the pan-democrats’ confrontational stance and the loyalists’ subservient approach, Tong is hoping to find the third road, or middle-of-the-road political line.

Tong like Tien?

“But eight crew members ignored everything and boarded a lifeboat. The manpower on repairs became not enough. The ship sank and 33 people died at sea.”

Michael Tien

Intriguingly, it bore resemblance to the political brinkmanship that James Tien of the Liberal Party was playing, which has proved to be a dangerous act. He paid the price of his seat in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s main united front body, after he called on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to stand down. The CPPCC kicked him out, saying he has deviated from their resolution to back Leung’s leadership.

James Tien may feel good about the praises from some media and fellow citizens for his and the Liberals’ inaction over the walkout, which has exposed the fragility and incompetence of the pro-establishment camp. But again, that will come with a price, namely Beijing’s trust, for the act of defiance, inadvertently or deliberately, against the quasi-leadership of the pro-establishment camp under the DAB and the Business and Professionals’ Alliance of Hong Kong.

In an act of damage-control, both Leung and Beijing have refrained from blaming James Tien and the 30-odd absentees. A thorough, serious rethink by Beijing about the loyalty of the Liberal Party and the whole set of issues relating to the pro-establishment camp looks inevitable.

On June 24, Leung praised Tong for his “moderate, rational” stance and willingness to forge dialogue with Beijing while warning of the trend of “radicalisation” in the pan-democratic camp. That has effectively poured more salt on the wound of the pan-dems.

It is too early to say whether Tong will succeed in finding the third road in the increasingly tough “one country, two systems” journey. Equally uncertain is James Tien’s dangerous game of “not following the leaders” in the pro-Beijing, pro-establishment camp.

Both are certain to add turbulence to the pan-democratic and pro-government camps in the post-political reform political scene.