Hong Kong Is a Troubling Case Study in the Death of Democracy

Her campaign message was based more on continuing the protest movement from within government than traditional electoral promises. “We are not telling our voters, ‘Hey, vote for us and we will achieve the demands that you want,’ or ‘Hey, vote for us and we can pressure the government into giving in to our demands.’” she says. Such promises, she says, would be lies.

Ho was part of a loose alliance of younger politicians, whose ideas skewed more toward “localism”—a posture roughly rooted in promoting and protecting a Hong Kong identity and way of life separate from the mainland, though it has at times given rise to xenophobia, nativism, and ugly incidents of anti-mainland violence. Localism “includes a multitude of groups with different goals, ranging from advocating greater autonomy to independence for Hong Kong,” academic Ying-ho Kwong wrote in a paper examining the rise of the movement. “Most of them have developed a strong sense of local identity and object to growing political encroachment by the Beijing government into Hong Kong’s political, economic, and social affairs.”

Others in the loosely affiliated group included Winnie Yu, a nurse and chairwoman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, which led a medical workers’ strike in February to force the government to take faster action against the pandemic, and Jimmy Sham, a protest organizer and gay rights campaigner who was physically attacked on multiple occasions last year.

Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, a former land activist and current lawmaker became—at 43, more than two decades older than its youngest members—the elder statesman of the group. Despite some minor controversies—printing her campaign banners at a shop owned by Beijing supporters and effusive praise from activist Joshua Wong that rankled some journalists—Ho won convincingly, capturing some 26,000 votes in the July primary. Yu, Sham, and Chu, as well as 13 others from their camp were victorious as well, sweeping aside more traditional pro-democracy candidates and setting the city up for the possibility of a wave of boisterous, youthful lawmakers who had little time for diplomatic pleasantries and a seemingly bottomless reserve of anger toward Beijing.

Their plan, dubbed the 35-plus strategy, was hatched by legal scholar turned pro-democracy tactician Benny Tai and was audacious in its forthrightness. Protesters a year earlier laid siege to the city’s legislative council building, breaking through its glass doors and windows from outside, before storming the chamber. Now, they planned to use September’s elections to win, as the title suggested, 35 or more seats, seizing control of the city’s main political mechanism from the inside. Then they would set about upending the lawmaking and governance mechanisms, monkey-wrenching the system to “initiate a political crisis,” Ho says. “We are heading to a very dark period,” she added, her message and tone somewhat undercut as she paused to snap a picture of a dainty slice of cake shaped like a wedge of cheese.

It was a high-stakes gambit against an opponent, the Chinese Communist Party, that has for the past seven decades ensured its dominance through control, intimidation, and rule-rigging. The approach fits with the “laam caau” philosophy adopted by more radical protesters last year. The Cantonese phrase, drawn from gambling lingo, suggests a strategy of shared destruction, a sort of Pyrrhic victory that, while damaging Hong Kong, strikes a blow to city leaders and Beijing as well. The idea, for its most fervent adherents, is distilled in the slogan “If we burn, you burn with us.”

With majority control, Tai argued, lawmakers could wield their “most lethal constitutional weapon” and take drastic actions, like withholding approval of the city’s budget, thus forcing Lam to resign. In the most extreme circumstance, Beijing could intervene and dissolve the legislative council altogether—laying bare to the world that the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong has been ruled since it was handed back to China from Britain in 1997 has become irreparably broken.

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