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The beginning is the end is the beginning – on the ‘Taiwanisation’ of Hong Kong campaigns

At the request of the author, this is an extended version of the post that appeared here last week.

Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, desperately tried to retain his composure. He looked at the massive speaker’s desk in front of him. There were only a few metres were between him and the angry man in the red shirt. It should have been a routine visit to the legislature. Now ‘Mad Dog’ Raymond Wong kept shouting at him. Wong was visibly outraged by the governments’ indifference towards the elderly and a few moments later he should throw bananas towards Donald Tsang. This historic Wednesday in October 2008 saw a significant change in Hong Kong’s politics. It was the beginning of ‘radical’ politics, ‘Taiwanstyle’.

Three years later, in November 2011, the pan-democratic camp suffered a major defeat in the in the Hong Kong District Council (DC) Elections. Particularly hard hit were Raymond Wong and other so-called ‘radical’ democrats. The mainstream media was quick to conclude that this would be the end to their ‘radical and confrontational’ tactics (SCMP). But is this really the case?

Although the myth of Hong Kong people’s political apathy (DeGolyer and Scott 1996) has long been refuted, remnants of the ‘stability narrative’ (Ku 2002, Lam 2004) have contributed to the conception that Hong Kong people have to voice their political opinions in a ‘rational, peaceful and legal way’ (Hong Kong’s Information Service Department 2011). Although Hong Kong could best be described as a semi-democratic system without universal suffrage, the rule of law, civil liberties and freedoms are still guaranteed. This might have led to the consensus, among the administration, the media and the academic establishment that mass protests and Legislative Council (LegCo) debates are the ‘right’ way to articulate political options and any other forms are labeled as ‘radical’.

Indeed with the formation of the pro-democratic, grassroots oriented and left-wing League of Social Democrats社會民主連線 (LSD) in 2006 and the subsequent election of ‘Big Guy’ Albert Chan陳偉業, ‘Mad Dog’ Raymond Wong 黃毓民and ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung 梁國雄 to the 2008 LegCo, a more innovative, energetic and confrontational style of politics and campaigning entered the political scene. All three legislators are veteran politicians and social and political activists. Radio host Wong has strong personal and educational links toTaiwan. Government representatives, pro-establishment and pro-Beijing figures were quick to condemn the actions of the trio in the LegCo as rowdy behaviour imported fromTaiwan(Wen Wei Pao 2010). This value judgement has been readily picked up by the mainstream media and not challenged by the academic establishment, avoiding any critical discourse of ‘Taiwanisation’. The following analysis is based on several years of continual and on the ground fieldwork, and extensive interviews with politicians from all political backgrounds.

It is important to point out that Taiwanpolitics is generally negatively framed by the mainstream media and the administration, particularly during the Chen Shui-bian era. Therefore connections of politicians and parties to Taiwanare frequently used to imply creating chaos and advocating separatism (footnote 1). Yet for observers of both Hong Kong and Taiwan politics and campaigns, the influence of Taiwan election campaigns and strategies is a long-standing phenomenon (footnote 2). The colourful style of campaigning with flags and banners is reminiscent of Taiwan and pan-democratic parties have also employed similar voter allocation strategies (Ma and Choy 2003). Hong Kong political parties and researchers have sent delegations to observe Taiwan politics and elections on a regular basis. The effects were obvious in the 2008 LegCo election campaign. Candidates from all backgrounds employed gestures directly copied from Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 campaign literature.

Indeed the Democratic Party (DP) produced a short Youtube clip which was inspired by the iconic KMT clip ‘The power to change’.

The LSD fully embraced the entire spectrum of ‘Taiwanstyle’ campaigning. Taiwaninspired campaign elements included a large rally before the voting day, in fact the first of its kind in Hong Kong (footnote 3), the frequent use of gimmicks as well as the branding of its star candidates including comics, posters, and small toy figures. LSD candidates speeches were down to earth, spontaneous filled with foul language and particular in televised debates, very aggressive towards the pro-establishment camp.

The rise of the LSD can be largely explained by the frustration of a significant sector of society which feels alienated by the political establishment. The rapidly growing wealth gap inHong Kong, steady rising living costs and astronomical housing fees have met by no effective, coherent and long-term strategy of the administration. In fact the Hong Kong government is perceived as increasingly unresponsive to the demands of the people without real public consultations and accountability as well as democratic progress (DeGolyer et al. 2010). These issues, its charismatic leaders and a sophisticated new media and social network strategy of the party contributed to the great support from particularly young voters and followers.

Taiwanese theatre politics (Fell 2007) was subsequently introduced into the LegCo.  LSD legislators would frequently throw symbol laden items in the chamber at government members and verbally attack Donald Tsang for the administrations’ inadequate financial support of the grassroots.

The LSD split in early 2011, with Chan and Wong forming the de facto mirror organisation People Power人民力量 (PP). Yet the tactics of both parties remained the same with the PP further increasing the pressure on the government through street blockages following mass demonstrations and a siege to the LegCo building in July 2011.

The LSD’s Long Hair remarked that in fact these forms of resistance and theatre politics are not unique to Taiwan politics during the early years of democratisation. Indeed these are common ways of questioning the legitimacy of existing institutions (footnote 4). Yet the success of Taiwan’s democracy movement, its advanced and sophisticated campaign culture provide an ample resource that due to spatial proximity, language and cultural similarities as well as personal links can be easily accessed.

The recent DC election saw again frequent elements of Taiwanstyle campaigning, for example in the design of campaign leaflets as well as activities. Here again the PP was a front-runner with its appeal to young voters. An interesting observation was the clear reference to the popular Taiwanmovie那些年,我們一起追的女孩 [Once upon a time, the girl we chased together] (footnote 5). The film’s poster was used as the basis for a campaign leaflet by a young candidate targeting voters in his age group changing the film’s title into那些年,我們一起追的民主 [Once upon a time, we chased democracy together] (footnote 6).

The Legislative Council Elections in 2012 will employ a different voting system, favouring smaller parties and ‘star candidates’. Hong Kong’s deep rooted social problems are also far from being solved or even addressed. Adding the rising political awareness and participation of youngsters, the verdict on the fate of so-called ‘radical’ tactics is premature. It looks more like ‘Taiwanstyle’ campaigning is here to stay.

Footnote 1: In 2003 veteran pan-democratic lawmaker Emily Lau stated that Taiwan’s future should be determined by the Taiwanese people. This caused furious reactions by the pro-Beijing camp, asking for her removal from the LegCo and demanding an apology before ‘it is too late to regret’ (Chan 2003; Dao 2003). In late 2011 donations to the pan-democrats made by Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, residing inTaiwan, were used to suggest foreign interference in Chinese affairs (Chan 2011).

Footnote 2: Election campaigning inHong Kongis highly regulated. Campaign commercials in broadcast media are not allowed and expenses are capped at a very low level. Therefore newspaper advertisements are rare and appear only in the last 2-3 days before voting day.

Footnote 3: Personal interview with Albert Chan. October 2008

Footnote 4: Personal interview with Leung Kwok-hung. May 2011

Footnote 5: The official translation of the film’s Chinese title is ‘You are the Apple of my Eye’.

Footnote 6: The subtitle on the leaflet is directed at the Democratic Party and reads: ‘Where has the 2012 universal suffrage in the previous party platform gone? We had agreed upon a timetable and a road map, but where are they now?’

References:

Dao, Yuan (2003) “Apology should come from Emily Lau”
China Daily HK Edition 22 August 2003 Online. Available HTTP: <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/en/doc/2003-08/22/content_257428.htm> (accessed 27 November 2011).

Chan, Kam-lam (2003) “Censure Emily Lau for Taiwanremarks” China Daily HK Edition 5 September 2003 Online. Available HTTP: <http://www.china.org.cn/english/MATERIAL/74412.htm> (accessed 27 November 2011).

Chan, Tonny (2011) “Lai splashes $60m on his democrat buddies” The Standard 18 October 2011. Online. Available HTTP: <http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?pp_cat=30&art_id=116160&sid=34108425&con_type=3> (accessed 27 November 2011)

DeGolyer, Michael E., and Scott, Janet Lee (1996) “The myth of political apathy in Hong Kong,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, 547

DeGolyer, Michael E. et al. (2010) “Protest and post-80 youth: a special report on the post-80s generation in Hong Kong,” Hong Kong Transition Project, Online. Available HTTP: <http://www.hktp.org> (accessed 27 November 2011).

Fell, Dafydd (2007) “Putting on a show and electoral fortunes in Taiwan’s multi-party elections,” in Strauss, Julia C., and Cruise O’Brien, Donal B. (eds.) Staging politics: Power and performance in Asia and Africa.

Ku, Agnes S. (2002) “Postcolonial Cultural trends in Hong Kong: imagining the local, the national, and the global“ in Chan, Ming K. and So, Alvin Y. (eds.) Crisis and transformation in China’s Hong Kong.

Lam Wai-man (2004) Understanding the political culture of Hong Kong: the paradox of activism and depoliticization.

Ma, Ngok 馬嶽Ivan Choy蔡子強 (2003) 選舉制度的政治效果: 港式比例代表制的經驗 [Political consequences of electoral systems: The Hong Kong proportional representation system].

South ChinaMorning Post (2011) “Grassroots lesson for pan-democrats” South China Morning Post 8 November 2011 Online. Available HTTP: <http://www.scmp.com> (accessed 8 November 2011)

Hong Kong’s Information Service Department (2011) “Henry Tang denounces radical protest” 1 September 2011 Admin and Civic Affairs Online. Available HTTP: <http://www.news.gov.hk/en/categories/admin/html/2011/09/20110901_201256.shtml> (accessed 27 November 2011)

Malte Philipp Kaeding is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Surrey. He is an Associate Fellow at the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) and a member of the Hong Kong Transition Project. 

Published inInternational PoliticsTaiwan 2012

9 Comments

  1. Heidi WANG Heidi WANG

    Perfect analysis!

  2. Heidi WANG Heidi WANG

    The first paragraph is very vivid. Taiwan and Hong Kong are communicating with each other on campaigning, in format and in content. See whether these two small entities with big power of democracy could make a difference in China (P.R)

    • Malte Kaeding Malte Kaeding

      Heidi, Thank you for your comments. I am afraid that is more the other way around. China influencing HK and Taiwan.

  3. Ivan Hon Ivan Hon

    The ‘Taiwanisation’ of Hong Kong politics is indeed a breakthrough in HK politics in the last few years. While ‘old democrats’ (e.g. the members of Democratic Party) have lost their sharp edges, guts and aggressiveness after having been in the LegCo system for so long (some up to 20 years) whereas the members of Civic party are constrained by their professional images and interests, Albert Chan, Raymond Wong and Leung Kwok-hung’s aggressive, radical and confrontational style does contribute to challenging and putting pressure on the clique of bureaucrats, pro-establishment parties and businesses on many issues, as well as bringing the voices and actions of the grassroots in the street directly into the LegCo.
    Nevertheless, their overusing this approach has incurred the public’s negative images of them as well as given bureaucrats and pro-establishment parties a convenient means to denounce them (e.g. Donalld Tsang’s remark on Raymond Wong as a ‘thug’ in a recent Legco Q & A session).
    Finally, the fact that the three have used this appraoch not only to bureaucrats and pro-establishment parties but also to parties and people in the pan-democratic camp (e.g. People Power’s campaign of ‘a vote for a vote’, which intended at taking votes from the Democratic Party during the recent District Council Elections) has led to the split within the pan-democratic camp and weakening of its power.

    • Malte Kaeding Malte Kaeding

      Ivan, Thank you very much for your further insights into the dynamics within the pan-democratic camp. I agree that at the moment prospects are not really good. While PP, LSD and DP are discredited in some way or the other, the united front of the pro-Beijing forces, media and HKSAR government is targeted at the Civic Party e.g. in the domestic helper legal case. Trying to label the party are endangering HK’s future. At the moment the Civic Party seems weak in their responds.

  4. Clark Poon Clark Poon

    Splendid analysis! There has been only a few analysis on the influence of the Taiwanese style on the politics of Hong Kong, valuable source for future researches.
    By the way, the connections between Wong and Taiwan has always been a matter of great controversies, the matter whether he represents Taiwan needs more attention.Is he intended to create upheaval in HK for the benefit of Taiwan.

  5. Malte Kaeding Malte Kaeding

    Clark, Thank you very much indeed for your comments. You mention a really important point regarding the Taiwan connections of Raymond Wong. I have not thought about the possibility of his strategies being beneficial to Taiwan yet. A more ‘chaotic’ situation in HK would certainly benefit the PRC leadership as well in order to call for more direct influence. It might be interesting to see how the elections in Taiwan will impact the strategies of the ‘pro-Taiwan’ forces around Wong in HK.

  6. Clark Poon Clark Poon

    Thanks for the reply, the economic depression faced by the HK people is indeed frustrating as it makes more people discontented to the over-concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few people. This explains why the radicals can take advantage of the situation to extend political influence.
    However, the recent DC election shows the gradual maturity of the Hong Kong people. They know the distinction between district work and the central policy formulation process.
    Similar situations can be seen in Taiwan. People may elect wards from the KMT while electing mayor from DPP.. Tainan and JiaYee are good examples.

  7. Clark Poon Clark Poon

    Friend, as just what I told you before, your analysis is brillant, however, you seem to omit something very important (which I think is a very serious mistake), Radical democrats like Raymond Wong will not only attack pro-establishment candidates but also other democratic candidates perhaps more vigorous. Their approach is always ” You are either with me or against me!!!!!!!”
    In my opinion, they do not bother to be part of democratic co-ordination.They may sometimes aid DAB intentionally or unintentionally..
    In my opinion, they are Seat-oriented in Legco election and absolutely without any ideals.
    You may think that they are charismatic or glorious. However, that may be one side of the coin only.
    Your analysis in the 4th Video about Raymond Wong in the debate is very shallow in one sense by calling them aggreesive. If you understand what Wong is saying , you may find him more that ridiculous.
    I apologize for my firmness in such critics but I am sure that is what you want.

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