Democratic Party: Young ‘squabs’ ready to take flight

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The Democratic Party is going for an ambitiously young lineup for the LegCo election. This time has come for the newbies to influence the rules of the game.

The upcoming LegCo election is not all about localism. It will see more political newbies from the younger generation replacing names that have been around since before the handover. This phenomenon is particularly obvious for the Democratic Party, and its implications can be far-reaching.

One can see the determination of the Party’s old doves to let new squabs fly when looking at its LegCo lineup. Among the seven candidate lists (five for geographical constituencies and two for the District Council ‘superseats’) the DPHK is proposing, big names like Emily Lau (劉慧卿; in office since 1991), Albert Ho (何俊仁; in office since 1995) and Sin Chung-kai (單仲階; in office since 1995) head offstage. If they join the list, they will do so far down the lineup where they have no hope of going through, but would like their name recognition to help the list headliners. First-time lawmakers looking to reelection, namely Helena Wong (黃碧雲) and Wu Chi-wai (胡志偉), will lead their Party’s lists alongside James To (涂謹申). The remainder of candidates are all newbies [see Table 1]. Their candidacies will be confirmed by the party’s Executive Committee next month.


Potential Candidates   Constituency    Age (by the time of September)
Helena Wong   Kowloon West    57
Wu Chi-wai   Kowloon East    53
Ted Hui   Hong Kong Island    34
Andrew Wan   New Territories West    47
Lam Cheuk-ting   New Territories East    39
James To   District Council (Second)    53
Roy Kwong   District Council (Second)    33

Table 1

Compared to the likes of Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), Edward Leung (梁天琦) and Baggio Leung (梁頌恆), there may be fewer talking points regarding the squabs [a nickname for young democrats, whose party symbol is a pigeon] who were earlier nominated to lead election work for their party and will be LegCo hopefuls themselves. The DPHK’s status in the pan-dem camp means their transition process matters and is closely watched, particularly concerning outside speculations on internal power struggles between the ‘oldies’ and ‘newbies’.

Talking to HT, however, Emily Lau puts a positive spin on the transition, stressing that the ambitious move is unmatched by what’s planned by other pan-dem parties. For the current chairlady who may step down when her tenure ends on September 30 this year, the party discipline within the LegCo caucus in particular, should be there to stay. “But that discipline can be changed and it’s up to the next LegCo caucus to decide,” she says.

Wu Chi-wai echoes Lau’s remarks, adding that what matters most is that party members are sticking to the core values that that biggest pan-dem party holds fast to.

“In the past ten years or so, we saw Young Democrats taking a bigger role in the party’s affairs as the so-called ‘old heads’ stepped down,” Mr Wu says. “It is very normal for people from the younger generation to do things in their own ways, different from their predecessors, as long as they comply with the party’s non-violence principle. One should however understand that every move is a result of collective decisions by party members. The Democratic Party might have experienced an era of heroism in the past. But even so, that was short-lived and long-gone.”

The talks is that internal struggle within the Democratic Party was most fierce back in 2006, when the so-called ‘“True-Brother” incident (「真兄弟」事件)’ witnessed the unveiling of a plan by ‘reformists’ like then democrat Gary Fan (范國威) to bring down the leadership of Li Wing-tat (李永達) and other party elders, namely Szeto Wah (司徒華). The incident ended with the ‘reformists’ being sidelined, but their calls for change, if benevolent, were gradually answered in the years that followed.

Ted Hui Chi-fung (許智峯) is considered a younger and more radical figure within the party. For the potential Hong Kong Island candidate, the transition implies changes in not just the party’s position but also its internal power structure.

“There had been few changes to the pan-dems’ candidacies for a long period, and I think there is indeed a gap between us [the Democratic Party] and the society since the Umbrella Movement…We were not sensitive enough in response to the online public opinion,” Mr Hui says. “For the ‘oldies’, I think it is their own decision to step down and they have managed the transition well. Our internal candidate nomination mechanism was refined to limit the maximum number of authorised votes held by each member to five. So there isn’t much room for the veterans to exert their influence. They might have preferences over the candidacies, but they had shown restraint from campaigning for them.”

Like Mr Fan before him, Mr Hui stands in the progressive end of the party’s internal division over whether the party should adopt a more radical line or stick to its moderate (‘和理非’, a derogative term used to brand those who denounce violent resistance) approach. Mr Hui, however, has more confidence in the party’s mechanism to adapt to change.

The DPHK, as the largest pan-dem party in Hong Kong, has almost 800 members as of 2015. 30 members seat in the Central Committee, among them 15 makes into the Executive Committee. Hui is among the group of 15.

“It is foreseeable that there will be more checks and balances between the party’s new LegCo caucus and the Central Committee. I see this as a good development though as this will make sure that every issue will have to go through the Central Committee’s Executive Committee,” Mr Hui says. “But at one point, the party and its possible new chairperson will have to respond to society’s aspirations, which depends on whether the society wants us to be a loyal opposition or a more proactive force resisting the administration and Beijing’s influence,” Mr Hui says.

Andrew Wan Siu-kin (尹兆堅), the party’s vice-chairman and another new LegCo hopeful, meanwhile notes the difficulty in repositioning the party in a way that could respond to the fast-changing society while retaining its traditional strengths.

“It was agreed upon at a special general assembly that passing the torch to the next generation would be our overarching theme in the upcoming LegCo election, so logically you’d want to have more young faces in your electoral team,” Mr Wan says. “But as a ‘mainstream’ political party, our strength also lies in the fact that we have a long tradition of district-level engagement thanks to our more experienced members. The strategy to have them in the team worked out well in the past elections, but that may go against our theme this time. So it will be a test of our political wisdom to figure out where the balance should be.”

The LegCo incumbents and hopefuls agree that it will take time for the squabs to learn how to fly, both in terms of their (in)experience, and the need to come up with a code of conduct workable for all.

“You can’t have one ambushing the chairman table [in LegCo] while the rest sitting comfortably on their seats,” Mr Hui says.

“We may need some minor refinements to the party’s constitution to better address the localist movement and to have a louder say in the shaping of the concept,” Mr Wan says.