Democrats should run.
It’s by no means an easy choice – but the question is, what would the counterfactual be? A world where they merge and become merely a string of pressure groups?
Or where they seek – through activism that is eventually thwarted by the increasingly taunted restrictions imposed over civil society-based political dissonance and radical politics – a futile way out?
Or, indeed, a bleak future where existing Democrats are relegated to political irrelevance, as new oppositional parties – including ones that are democratic in name only – emerge to take their place?
It’s unclear where the future lies for Hong Kong’s beleaguered democrats, if it is not with contesting the admittedly curtailed and procedurally stringent elections. These elections are likely to possess indubitably higher barriers to entry as compared with previous editions; the vetting is likely to be substantial and substantive, leaving little to no room for maneuvering when it comes to the “redlines” as drawn by the Establishment.
Yet this does not obviate the value of presenting and standing for a different voice within the parliament. Parliamentarians are afforded exclusive access to information, data, and the opportunity to speak with proximity to officials and administrators who wield actual influence over policymaking. It would by no means be a smooth-sailing course, one in which democrats could, pace certain “public intellectuals” of the past, obstruct any and all policy advanced by the government – but at the very least, they’d possess the political capital and social wherewithal to speak up and about issues of public concern; to wield their powers as members of parliament to defend their cause and protect those whom they seek to protect. None of this is to say that these parliamentarians must give up on criticising the arrangements and particularities of the system; ‘tis only to say, that doing politics in Hong Kong would inevitably come with a set of basic expectations that are both more demanding and expansive than the ones prior to 2019.
Lobbying, persuading, convincing, and engaging local stakeholders requires one to be of at least some political standing. Unfortunately for many, pure activists – in Hong Kong, and, indeed, the rest of China – lack both the bargaining power and capacity to pose a viable threat to the powers that be, which substantially impede their abilities to press for changes. Our city is no exception to the rule that power begets and creates more power. In the absence of restricted – albeit extant – power, the discursive and rhetorical flourish of democratic activists would be reduced to little more than performative theatrics that could do very little in dismantling the hegemonic structures of privilege and inequality that permeate Hong Kong today. Sure, Democrats would indeed remain a perennial minority under the new system – there’s no point in denying that. Yet at the very least, they’d be a minority, and not a non-entity. That strikes me as distinctly important.
There is an eminently understandable worry, that democrats would merely serve as a legitimating token for the new electoral rules. Here’s the thing – there’s a blatant clash of expectations and values when it comes to the new political system. Beijing views the legislative reforms as necessary in weeding out the elements that yielded the violent insurgency and uprising in 2019. Democrats view these reforms as the fundamental terminus and coda to democracy in the city. In truth, the window for oppositional politics has shrunk immensely, but the question, now, is for all politicians who care for Hong Kong – Democrats or non-Democrats – to reflect upon the most strategic and instrumentally helpful means through which they can articulate an alternative vision to the mainstream propagandised by the largest establishment parties, as we see it.
And let’s face it – there is no way we can count on existing pro-Establishment politicians to represent the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the poor, the sick, and those who have long been shut out of the matrices of power and corridors of privilege that characterise our establishment. Democrats have a unique comparative advantage over many of those who have risen through and become jaded in the pro-Beijing camp – they are, by design, compelled to face the public, to derive their legitimacy from the public, and to work with the public in channeling their voices through formal apparatus. Democrats are well-equipped to speak to the concerns and needs of the city’s grassroots – though this need not be at all mutually exclusive with their representing pro-democracy elements amongst the city’s middle and wealthy classes.
What this means, is obvious. Those who are keen on staying behind will inevitably face immense pressure, reprobation, and ostracisation from individuals who portray them as turncoats, traitors, and sycophants. They could also be met with deeply unpleasant treatment at the hands and behest of eager opportunists who are keen to conflate the pursuit of democracy with opposition to Beijing. Yet there is nothing un-patriotic about democracy. What’s un-patriotic is mindless toeing of inane and self-imposed lines that neither reflect what’s best for Hong Kong, nor what’s best for the country as a whole.
Democrats should run – to keep the flame of democracy alive, to work with progressives and reformists in the Establishment, to make Hong Kong a better place for all, despite all that it has been through.