Even Half a Sentence is Too Much: Another Wasted Opportunity to Improve the Unproductive Political Culture of Hong Kong
by Tak-Hin Benjamin Ngan
As my article “The Unproductive Political Culture of Hong Kong,” published in the April 2004 issue of Monsoon, depicts, the political culture of Hong Kong embodies the unwillingness of both the Hong Kong government and the so-called Pan-Democrats to engage in productive cooperation with each other. I concluded my article by warning that the hostility between the two parties would become “more severe if none of the two parties would attempt to leave their positions at the extremes and start learning the virtues of productive cooperation.” As a lamentation to how both parties, and particularly the Pan-Democrats, have been harmfully unproductive to Hong Kong’s political development, my article ended by suggesting that the Hong Kong politicians “may well just all go home and pray that ‘Politics for Dummies’ will be next in the publication series.”
As strange as it may sound to those who are accustomed to Hong Kong’s unproductive political culture, the situation did begin to change in recent months. Perhaps some sort of “Politics for Dummies” did indeed land in Hong Kong together with its new Chief Executive Mr. Donald Tsang, who replaced Mr. Tung Chee Hwa upon the latter’s resignation on March 10, 2005. Hong Kong’s “political climate” has been improving significantly as evidenced by the increasing number of dialogues between government officials and the anti-government Pan-Democrats. Be this a result of the new Chief Executive’s pro-active and open-minded approach in dealing with opposite voices, or be this an improbable softening of the hostile stance of the Pan-Democrats due to the resignation of Mr. Tung Chee Hwa, Hong Kong’s “political climate” did seem to have been heading towards a more promising direction than it ever had since 1997.
A recent episode in Guangdong, however, reminds one to not be too optimistic about Hong Kong’s political culture. The Pan-Democrats, as described in my aforementioned article, have after all been “playing the role of the 'protestor' who stands in the opposite end of the political spectrum to both the Hong Kong government under Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa, as well as the Chinese government under the Chinese Communist Party.” The unproductive environment in the Legislative Counsel since 1997 has taught one to see the Pan-Democrats as “politicians” who know only how to create turbulence and to do nothing else productive – are the Pan-Democrats, then, capable of engaging in productive cooperation even if opportunities were presented to them? The answer, from the recent Guangdong episode, is a resounding “NO.”
On September 25, 2005, the new Hong Kong Chief Executive led 59 legislative counselors on a historical official visit to Guangdong Province in China. On the one hand, the visit represents a pro-active engagement of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in dialogue with the Chinese government. On the other hand, it also signifies a friendly gesture from the central government in cooperating with and listening to the Hong Kong politicians. Amongst the legislative counselors who participated are the Pan-Democrats from the Legislative Counsel, who joined a two-hour meeting with Guangdong Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang. The meeting, however, was reported to have become a verbal battle between several hard-core Pan-Democrats and Party Secretary Zhang.
A day after the meeting, Singtao News of Hong Kong reported a comment by Party Secretary Zhang regarding his dialogues with the Pan-Democrats during the meeting – “Even half a sentence is too much for those who aren’t on the same page,” an old Chinese saying that is usually used to describe hostile and unproductive conversations. The Pan-Democrats, on the other hand, appeared furious upon their returns to Hong Kong, accusing the Chinese government of being “dismissive” of Pan-Democrat opinions. Once again, as usual, unproductive hostility dominated Hong Kong politics.
What seems most unusual, however, is that both the Chinese and the Hong Kong government are adopting a proactive approach in the hope to break the ice between themselves and the Pan-Democrats - a move that was seldom seen before Mr. Tsang’s reign as Chief Executive. To demonstrate its sincerity, the Chinese government had removed several Pan-Democrats from the “black list,” which banned them from entering the mainland, to facilitate their September 25 Guangdong visit. The Pan-Democrats accepted the invitation - but it turned out that they arrived in mainland China with hostility and turbulence on their agendas rather than to seek rooms for productive cooperation.
Four Pan-Democrats – Yang Sum, Lee Cheuk Yan, Lee Wing Tat, and Leung Kwok Hung, for example, put the slogan “Pingfan 64 (re-evaluation of the Tiananmen Square Incident)” at the top of their agendas as opposed to prioritizing concrete concerns that has to do with the well-being of the Hong Kong society. Leung Kwok Hung, also known as “Long Hair” by most Hong Kong people, further voiced several “suggestions” regarding Hong Kong’s “democratic progress,” while those “suggestions” would actually have violated the Basic Law of Hong Kong if they were to be implemented. Living up to his reputation as a “street protestor,” Mr. Leung further questioned Party Secretary Zhang regarding the “one-party dictatorship problem” in China, hence pushing the tension in the meeting to its peak. Martin Lee, another long-standing “icon” of the Pan-Democratic politicians, even went farther as to suggest that the concerned visit was in fact a “trap” set up by the Beijing and Hong Kong governments in an attempt to use its friendly gestures to entice the Pan-Democrats to “forget what they have been fighting for.”
What is worrisome is not that there exists politicians in Hong Kong who hold minority or even radical opinions, but that another opportunity had been wasted for productive cooperation between the Chinese government and Hong Kong politicians. At the historical Guangdong meeting initiated by the governments of China and Hong Kong, the Pan-Democrats, rather than showing a gesture of friendliness and willingness to productively cooperate, instead, wasted their time on issues that were not directly related to Hong Kong’s well-being or on topics that were created for the purpose of showing opposition against the Chinese government – something that they have always been doing, and unfortunately something that they seem to be committed to in the future to come.
Hostility and unproductiveness still characterizes the nature of Hong Kong politics. Yet, this time, these negative qualities of Hong Kong’s political world was around, only because the Pan-Democrats decided to slap the friendly hands offered by the Chinese and the Hong Kong government. The door for dialogue was opened, and opportunities presented, yet it was the Pan-Democrats who refused to downplay the differences in political stances and engage the friendly hands of their “enemies.” Perhaps a “Politics for Dummies” is no longer appropriate this time– the Pan-Democrats of Hong Kong should instead reach for the mirror, to look and see how and why they themselves are the source of the many problems in Hong Kong’s political culture.
Tak-Hin Benjamin Ngan (’05), currently a PhD student in Economics at Johns Hopkins University, is the co-founder of Monsoon. He graduated from Brandeis University in May 2005 with a B.A. degree in Economics, Politics, and a minor in Mathematics.