The National People’s Congress Standing Committee recently ruled that the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections would be postponed for at least a year, in light of the resurgence in COVID-19 cases. Consequently, current legislators would be eligible to serve for at least one extra year, till September 2021. The decision was marred with controversy – ranging from questions concerning its constitutionality, political advisability, and compatibility with principles that the Hong Kong public hold dear, to the more mundane, practical question: should the Pan-Democrats – a battered and discordant coalition – stay, or should they go?
Some radicals amongst them have argued that they ought to boycott an institution that is procedurally illegitimate. Yet others – including the moderate leader of the Democratic Party, Wu Chi-Wai – have insisted that a consensus be sought and reached amongst the coalition on the matter. Remaining in the LegCo would behove Pan-Democrats to meet particular baselines – including pledging loyalty to the Basic Law and other stipulated requirements that allegedly attest to their adherence to “One Country, Two Systems”. Yet Pan-Democrats would be ill-advised in abandoning a critical battleground in Hong Kong’s semi-democratic political system.
Should Pan-Democrats yield their seats and collectively boycott the LegCo, this would only facilitate the near-total takeover of the legislature by individuals enmeshed within the power structures governing Hong Kong. Such a stranglehold would only legitimise and institutionally entrench the Pro-Establishment’s powers, thus stifling both innovation and competition amongst parliamentarians, and dissipating the primary mechanisms that hold legislators and administration alike to account.
What mechanisms are we speaking of here? From tools such as Powers and Privileges to Members’ Bills, Pan-Democrats should make calculated, prudent usage of the available resources in speaking truth to power, in interrogating the administration for its failures and inadequacies over the past year. Yet they must not forsake their endowments by pursuing futile tactics that obviously transgress upon Beijing’s redlines – such as threatening to sabotage the Policy Address, or violent disruptions to legislative proceedings. Independent investigations of abuse of powers should be carried out prudently under the current legislative framework – as opposed to through extrajudicial slandering that attacks the very pillars of this city’s rule of law.
This city needs a viable, articulate and united opposition to keep in check the government and the political establishment. From tardy responsiveness to the COVID-19 Pandemic to ill-thought-through proposals concerning housing reform, from tokenistic education transformations to stunted progress on LGBTQIA+ rights, these are all pressing issues that neither involve the political redlines that Democrats cannot cross, nor can be adequately tackled by a Pro-Establishment bloc that lacks robust opposition. Pan-Democrats should wield their institutionalised powers carefully, in pressing for reforms, concessions, and amelioration to citizens’ quality of life – where the Establishment has failed to.
Pro-Democrats must also engage tactfully with the government on particular issues and learn to compromise on others, so to continually advocate values that are central to their supporters’ worldviews. Liaising with a local administration that is both risk-averse and obstinate, as well as the Central Administration, is by no means a simple task – but politics has always been a thankless task, in this city of 7.4 million.
This obviously requires the Pan-Democrats to become both adept and strategic in their activism. They must compartmentalise their agenda, and separate their pro-democracy and political advocacy – which is necessary, yet clearly not Hong Kong’s sole problem – from livelihood, governance, and macrostructural issues in the city. The latter requires constructive proposals, amendments, and objections, to prevent a political monopoly from forming within the People’s Prong of the legislative-executive-judiciary tricolon. The former entails persuasion, lobbying, and targeted campaigning that does not set up democracy as antithetical to Beijing’s incentives.
Some may accuse me of naivete here. What is the point, when the vice-grip seems to be precipitously tightening? After all, does partaking in the LegCo not lend it perceived credibility and legitimacy?
Legislators are granted an unrivalled mandate to stand for, work for, and represent the people. This is particularly the case for those elected through Direct Elections – as opposed to Functional Constituencies. The former produces advocates for the people; the latter yields representatives of core interest groups. The perceived credibility of the LegCo stands either way – what’s uniquely lost, in a world where Democrats yield their only official platform for effecting change, is the opportunity to incorporate dissenting and disillusioned voices into the corridors of formal power.
If legislators are genuinely more concerned about granting ‘perceptual legitimacy’ to an institution, than fighting for much-needed concessions and improvements to Hong Kongers’ quality of life, then they should think twice about their political values. For far too long, the city has been embroiled in a vicious downward spiral that prioritises political loyalty and ideological purity over issues that afflict the everyday Hong Konger – the Establishment has long grown complacent, and it should be the responsibility of a judicious opposition to keep them in check.