The rise of localism in Hong Kong has been met with conflicting interpretations. It is either described as a dangerous threat to mainland China’s control over the city, or as a split within the democratic movement that divides and weakens the populace’s opposition to the central government in Beijing. The latter possibility is voiced as a concern particularly at the ballot box, with fears that localist candidates would split the democratic vote and create a spoiler effect in elections, paving the way for the pro-establishment camp to dominate electoral results. In fact, localism itself too is a disunited force, as activists uphold a variety of opinions ranging from self-determination to outright independence.
The democratic coalition in Hong Kong is diverse, with political actors across the entire liberal political spectrum. To see this phenomenon as a cause for concern that the democratic movement is powerless against the establishment, however, ignores the fact that the pro-establishment camp is just as diverse, if not more fractious, than the pro-democracy camp. Supporters of Beijing in Hong Kong are not a united front that unreservedly opposes the democratic wishes of the Hong Kong people; nor are they lackeys forever bidding the will of the government.
The pro-establishment camp is formed by political and economic actors from diverse backgrounds: trade unionists, indigenous inhabitants, middle class professionals, and elite businessmen. Each social group has a range of conflicting interests in the city – standardizing working hours, determining the minimum wage, indigenous housing rights – that present problems for camp unity at the ballot box against their democratic rivals. Furthermore, the camp is dominated by one party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB). This has provoked bitter dissent from marginalized parties and politicians, and the most recent Legislative Council (Legco) elections have brought the internal grudges and squabbles in the camp to light. Pro-establishment politicians are also currently rivaling one another for the office of the city’s chief executive.
The divisions in the pro-establishment camp reflect the divisions within the highest echelons of the central government in Beijing. Pro-establishment parties in Hong Kong have different resources, contacts, and loyalties with conflicting mainland authorities. Beijing itself is divided, as demonstrated by the political nature of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Rivals of Xi, who have substantial political and economic interests in Hong Kong, also exert enormous influence on Beijing’s policy toward the city through diktats from the Central Liaison Office.
The camp is further divided by the opacity of mainland politics. Rumors and leaks are compounded by contradictory statements and offhand comments by Hong Kong representatives in the National People’s Congress (NPC). A recent pamphlet war between different pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong also adds confusion to which mainland faction the camp should take orders from, and what stance they should take vis-à-vis the democrats. As long as political factions remain in China’s central government, the pro-establishment camp in Hong Kong will continue to remain divided.
Conflicting interests coupled with the lack of transparency in mainland politics contradict the portrayal of Beijing supporters in Hong Kong as a united camp. It also negates the stereotype that the political scene in Hong Kong is a dualistic struggle between democrats and a monolithic force propped up by Beijing. Political contentions over Hong Kong’s future is in fact rendered much more complex by players with opposing interests and loyalties within and without the pro-establishment camp. Two upcoming elections — for the next chief executive in March 2017 and the leadership elections in the 19th Communist Party Congress in the fall — will reveal the full extent of the camp’s future role in Hong Kong politics.
Dissatisfaction with the Chief Executive
Pro-establishment politicians are generally hesitant to openly criticize the chief executive for his failings for fear of repercussion from the central government. Hong Kong’s business community, which dominates the city’s economy and whose commercial fate is ultimately tied to corporate and political interests in the mainland, has historically formed a strong network of mutual support with the Hong Kong government since before the Handover from the British in 1997.
While the past two chief executives have strong ties with the business community, the incumbent Leung Chun-ying does not enjoy similar support after his mudslinging campaign against the pro-business candidate Henry Tang in the 2012 chief executive election. The rift between the business community and the chief executive persisted throughout the latter’s tenure. In 2014, lawmaker James Tien of the pro-business Liberal Party openly asked the chief executive to resign for mishandling the Umbrella Movement protests. No other politician from the pro-establishment camp before Tien had dared to make such an accusative suggestion to the chief executive.
Tien did in the end pay the price for his bold inquiry by being expelled from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CCPCC). This was the first time a representative from Hong Kong was ejected from the country’s highest political advisory body. Tien continued the tirade of “anti-Leung” commentary after his expulsion, serving as the camp’s chief whistle-blower and satirist on social media, frequently mocking his pro-establishment colleagues, the Liaison Office, and of course the chief executive himself.
Tien also unabashedly ran his Legco re-election campaign last September with the slogan “ABC” – Anyone But CY – making obvious his persistent determination to prevent CY Leung from being re-elected at all cost this coming March. Tien ultimately lost his Legco re-election but continued to harangue fellow pro-establishment politicians for supporting the chief executive, voicing disagreement with his own party chairman Tommy Cheung for joining CY Leung’s executive council last November.
One might expect the business community’s dissenting voices to subside after CY Leung announced his intention not to run for re-election in March. His announcement however will most likely have a contrary effect. Various pro-establishment candidates have already seized the opportunity from the chief executive’s announcement to declare their bid. Tien himself made a comeback in the recent elections for the committee members who will select the next chief executive, having received the highest number of votes in his sub-sector. Upcoming elections for the chief executive will therefore most likely create further divisions within the camp. As political interests diverge, one can expect to see more mudslinging and backstabbing among pro-establishment politicians in the months to come.
Vote splitting at the Legco elections
High voter turnout favoring democratic candidates in the Legco elections last September disrupted the pro-establishment camp’s planned voting allocation strategy. The pro-democracy camp also implemented their own strategic voting scheme which caught their pro-establishment counterparts completely off guard. Candidates from different parties within the pro-establishment camp found themselves inadvertently engaged in a competition against one another for enough votes to win seats.
The camp, dominated by DAB, made a last-minute decision to abandon two politicians from the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), Wong Kwok-hing and Tang Ka-piu, in order to allocate more votes to DAB’s Holden Chow and New People’s Party (NPP) candidate Eunice Yung. Ultimately Chow and Yung won the election at the expense of their trade union colleagues. There were even rumors that the decision to abandon the FTU candidates was made by the Liaison Office, who is extremely influential in dictating decisions in the pro-establishment camp but is legally not allowed to openly interfere in the elections.
It is possible that the Liaison Office wants to shift support in the camp away from traditional trade unionist candidates like the FTU to more socially elite candidates like the aforementioned Chow and Yung, who are both lawyers by profession. This shift makes strategic sense for the pro-establishment camp not only because the working class is gradually losing influence due to the decline of the city’s manufacturing sector, but also because lawyers are viewed favorably by most Hong Kongers as a respected profession and worthy of running for public office.
As further evidence of this trend, other candidates supported by the Liaison Office like Paul Tse, Priscilla Leung and Junius Ho, pejoratively known as “godsons and daughters of Sai Wan” – Sai Wan being a moniker for the Liaison Office – are all lawyers. Pro-establishment politicians with legal experience also act as intellectual counterweights against the pro-democracy camp in Legco in a way that grassroots trade unionists cannot. It is also possible that the promotion of independent candidates is part of a divide-and-conquer strategy employed by the Liaison Office which deliberately sows discord to prevent one faction from dominating the camp.
The elections also saw a more ominous episode of infighting between pro-establishment candidates. The Liberal Party candidate Ken Chow Wing-kan was forced to drop out of the race due to blackmail and threats from suspected mainland officials. Many have pointed the finger at his pro-establishment competitor Junius Ho, a candidate supported by the Liaison Office and whose campaign volunteers have been recorded planning to physically assault Ken Chow. James Tien also came out after the elections claiming that the Liaison Office has approached him to ask Ken Chow to withdraw his candidacy in order to guarantee Ho sufficient votes for a seat.
It is hard to imagine that the Liberal Party or FTU do not bear a grudge on the DAB or the Liaison Office for commandeering the direction of the camp and electoral votes at their expense. FTU leaders lamented that the DAB used “dishonorable tactics” to mislead supporters to vote for Chow instead of Wong. It highlights the widening rift between the DAB and FTU who, as the largest and oldest pro-establishment parties in Hong Kong respectively, used to be each other’s staunchest allies.
To add salt to the wound, NPP’s Yung insensitively explained after the election that the reason why her pro-establishment allies from the FTU lost was because they were out of touch with society. Wong and Tang retorted, accusing her of being “scoundrel who spouts nonsense after getting her way”. It is increasingly common to see pro-establishment politicians openly engaging in bitter bickering and mutual blaming for the camp’s aggregate failures.
Conflicting messages from Beijing
The link between the divisions in the camp and the divisions in the central government has been brought to the forefront of mainstream reporting by Sing Pao, one of Hong Kong’s oldest pro-Beijing newspapers. For months it has been lambasting the chief executive and the Liaison Office for manipulating elections and cooperating with the city’s organized crime. The newspaper also listed CY Leung and the director of the Liaison Office Zhang Xiaoming as part of a “New Gang of Four” attempting to destabilize Hong Kong by polarizing the city’s politics for their own personal gain.
Sing Pao even went so far as to point to Zhang Dejiang – Chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and Xi’s main rival in the Politburo – for being the man behind the scenes of undue mainland interference in Hong Kong. Zhang Dejiang is, by virtue of being leader of the Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, the man in Beijing to whom the Liaison Office is answerable. Sing Pao accused Zhang Dejiang and the Liaison Office for fostering corruption in the city, giving an example of a local politician bribing Liaison Office officials with a lavish dinner flown from Japan in order to gain a seat at the CCPCC.
It is an open secret that Sing Pao, like many other mainland-owned newspapers of its kind, obtains untold access to sources close to the leadership in the central government. One of Sing Pao’s articles on anti-corruption has been approvingly quoted by the Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission (CDIC) last September, roughly at the time when the newspaper unleashed its tirade against Zhang Dejiang and his associates in Hong Kong. It is also well known that the head of CDIC Wang Qishan is Xi’s second-in-command, and as the chief inquisitor of the anti-corruption campaign has directed much of his operations against the President’s political rivals.
Members in Hong Kong’s pro-establishment camp have thus been pitted against one another as a result of their different loyalties to opposing political factions in the mainland. Adding further evidence to the claim, Sing Pao’s accusations have been fiercely countered by Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, two prominent pro-Beijing newspapers controlled by the Liaison Office. One can almost see a miniature simulacrum of the opaque political strife in the mainland playing out in this pamphlet war between the three pro-Beijing mouthpieces in Hong Kong, with Sing Pao representing the views of Xi and Wang and the other two papers representing the views of the Liaison Office establishment.
The coexistence of conflicting interest groups in the country’s core leadership meant that not all pronouncements from mainland officials or representatives from Beijing necessarily represent the view the central government as a whole. This creates enormous confusion among pro-establishment politicians in Hong Kong, particularly at a time when the city is about to choose candidates for its next chief executive. Every single sign, from a handshake with Xi to a hug with the former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa are scrutinized as possible indications of Beijing’s preference for a particular candidate. Even politicians like Rita Fan – who as a member of the NPC Standing Committee is as close to the Chinese leadership as any Hong Konger gets – have either stonewalled reporter’s questions on the chief executive election or gave hints too faint to substantiate, indicating that they too are kept in the dark.
The 19th Communist Party Congress will be held later this year, where most of Xi’s opponents in the Politburo will retire or be evicted from the leadership. It remains to see whether Xi will be able to exert sufficient control over the authorities responsible for affairs in Hong Kong post-Congress in order to unify the pro-establishment camp under a single banner. Until then, the pro-establishment camp will continue to remain divided, with some groups betting their fortunes on continued loyalty to the Liaison Office, and others hoping for a more authoritative voice from Xi in Hong Kong other than rumors and insinuations from newspapers like Sing Pao.
Ta Kung Pao recently called for the pro-establishment camp to unite behind a candidate loyal to Beijing. While the camp has united on nationalistic issues such as its vehement opposition against independence activists, it is not clear how they can unite in the upcoming elections given that authorities in Beijing are failing to indicate a preferred candidate for the job because of the aforementioned divisions.
Should the electors pick a more hardline candidate that will complete CY Leung’s work and allow greater interference in the city’s politics by the Liaison Office? Or should they elect a moderate who will be willing to concede to the democrats on certain issues such as electoral reform in exchange for stability in the city? Even if Beijing unequivocally makes its preferred candidate known, will all pro-establishment electors respond to the rally? Or will a faction of the camp revolt against the central government as the business community did in the 2012 election?
Until mainland authorities speak to their supporters in Hong Kong with a voice that is both united and persuasive, we will not know. And it seems unlikely to happen any moment now.
Dominic Chiu is a researcher in Chinese politics and US-China trade based in Washington, DC. He has written for Hong Kong Free Press and China Business Review. You can follow him on @dpcchiu.