The chairman of Hong Kong’s main pro-democratic party resigned on Monday after a disappointing performance in elections at the weekend, after the territory’s chief executive C.Y. Leung backed down over a controversial patriotic education program that sparked widespread protests in recent weeks.
The democratic camp won a total of 27 seats in the territory’s 70-seat legislature, narrowly retaining its power of veto, but failing to make gains on pro-China parties in spite of record turnout figures and growing anti-Beijing sentiment, prompting Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho to resign.
Around 1.8 million voters turned out for the legislative and district council polls, the fifth since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, in results that came as a blow to pro-democracy politicians and a boost to the popularity of chief executive C.Y. Leung.
Ho resigned his position in the face of his party’s failure to win a larger majority, bowing before television cameras in an emotional news conference.
“For the serious failure in this election, I have to accept full political responsibility as the chairman of the Democratic Party,” Ho said.
But he said the party wouldn’t give up its fight to bring universal suffrage to Hong Kong, which has been promised full and direct elections by 2020.
“The Democratic Party won’t lose courage just because of this failure,” Ho told reporters after the results were announced. “This will increase our resolve, and we will continue the fight.”
“We hope that our supporters won’t be disappointed.”
New image needed?
Ho said he thought the party needed to refresh its image, particularly among younger voters, and to move with the times.
Meanwhile, rights activist and Independent Chinese PEN member Patrick Poon said the democratic parties needed to tighten up their campaigns.
“I think that in this year’s Hong Kong elections, the democratic parties lost out because they didn’t run a good campaign,” Poon said. “I think they need to improve on their strategy, because it’s clear that the [pro-China] parties are very good at this.”
“They have a lot of people working in the background, canvassing votes,” said Poon.
Pro-democratic Labor Party legislator Cyd Ho retained her Legislative Council seat from her Hong Kong Island constituency, but said she had scant cause for celebration.
“I don’t think that the pan-democratic camp has much to celebrate today, because we are slowly losing our majority,” she told RFA’s Mandarin service.
“I hope that all of the [democratic] parties and factions will reflect on these elections, and perhaps we can see if we can sit down together and talk about cooperating with each other,” Ho said.
School plans shelved
The results came after Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region (SAR) government withdrew plans for a compulsory patriotic education program a day ahead of polling, following protests by tens of thousands of people who were angry over what they said was an attempt to indoctrinate the territory’s primary and secondary school students.
The decision by chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was picked by a pro-Beijing committee this year, to make the program voluntary for schools amounts to a substantive political concession according to political analysts.
Thousands of protesters have been camped outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters for weeks, dressed in black and chanting for the withdrawal from the curriculum of what they called “brainwashing” propaganda from China’s ruling Communist Party.
Lee Sing-hong, secretary-general of the technical college students’ union Hok Luen, said his union would still go ahead with a boycott of classes on Tuesday, as it had won the backing of more than 180 student groups.
Lee said the government’s concession didn’t mean the end of patriotic education in Hong Kong’s schools, as campaigners said that making the scheme “voluntary” still leaves room for pressure to be applied to schools behind the scenes.
“We don’t believe that Hong Kong needs a national education program,” Lee said. “A lot of other countries only have a citizenship program.”
“We don’t think students should be inculcated so as to accord the highest value to their national identity.”
Bobo Yip Po-lam, spokeswoman for the Civil Alliance Against National Education, said the group would be considering its options in the days to come.
“We think the campaign will continue,” she said. “But it won’t be via hunger strikes and occupation.”
“We will have to think about how to make a comeback [with the campaign], and also put a bit of effort into making sure that the government isn’t able to infiltrate schools so as to carry out its brainwashing work,” Yip said.
Beijing’s continued grip
In the longer term, Sunday’s election results could have a direct impact on whether Hong Kong enjoys full universal suffrage by 2020, as promised by Beijing, or whether the territory’s pro-Beijing political elite will succeed in diluting the proposals and retaining its stranglehold on the city’s political life.
Chung Kim-wah, social policy professor at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, said there was still a political balance in the Legislative Council, however, in spite of losses by the Democratic Party.
“Actually, it is quite evenly divided between right and left, into four main camps,” Chung said. “Now, because there isn’t a single, most powerful force, the government will have to take the attitude of selling its major policies far more than it has had to in the past.”
Pro-democracy parties warn that China has no intention of easing its grip on the regional financial hub, and are suspicious about what form of “universal suffrage” Leung’s administration will propose.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong has been promised the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years.
But journalists and political analysts say that the Chinese Communist Party has redoubled its ideological work efforts in the territory following mass demonstrations on July 1, 2003 against proposed anti-subversion legislation, which the government later abandoned.
A poll carried out by the Hong Kong Transition Project showed that levels of dissatisfaction among Hong Kong residents climbed to 48 percent in August, according to a survey of 1,309 people.
This is the highest level recorded since the 51 percent peak in July 2004, when Hong Kong was recovering from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic.
Reported by Lin Jing and Wen Yuqing for RFA’s Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.