In Hong Kong, Market for Flowers and Democratic Ideals
By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW
Published: February 9, 2011
Politics as well as the scent of spring blossoms was in the air last week at the traditional Chinese New Year’s Eve flower market in Victoria Park.
Under thousands of light bulbs that lit up the night sky and illuminated mandarin orange trees, narcissus blooms and pussy willows, a drama played out that revealed a city in a state of high political flux. Young people, frustrated by a lack of progress toward democracy 14 years after the end of British colonial rule, are seizing the initiative from established parties and beginning to reshape the agenda.
Since the 1997 transfer to Chinese rule, the Democratic Party has led a campaign for democracy in the face of resistance from Hong Kong’s conservative, Beijing-appointed leaders and the Communist Party.
The task is Sisyphean, and the Democrats have little to show for it.
Yet Hong Kong is changing, in ways that are spurring calls for democratic reform from new corners. Money is flooding in from a booming mainland Chinese economy, creating wealth but also sharpening inequality and, in some circles, fueling resentment at the opacity of China’s business and political system.
Against this background, seeking perhaps to end a long, frustrating stalemate, the Democrats last year accepted a Beijing-approved constitutional reform package. The deal increases the number of seats in the city’s Legislative Council that are directly elected by the public from 30 to 40, out of a new total of 70 seats. (The other seats are elected under a “functional constituency” system, chosen by a small circle based on professional affiliation.)
The government presented the deal as a first step toward possible direct elections of the chief executive in 2017 and a fully directly elected Legislature by 2020. Chief Executive Donald Tsang called the deal “a triumph of reason.”
But critics denounced what they saw as a betrayal of the pro-democracy camp’s longstanding goal of a fully elected Legislature by 2012. In response, dozens of feisty voices have sprung up on online radio shows that draw tens of thousands of listeners, and at least three new political parties have been formed since December.
Hong Kong is still the freest place in China. At the New Year’s market, alongside the flowers and the Year of the Rabbit-themed merchandise, were stalls displaying the range of civic activity here.
The Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned on the mainland, had a stall. The Roman Catholic Church was there, as were defenders of China’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands, disputed by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus.
Albert Ho, chairman of the Democratic Party, was writing traditional calligraphy for fairgoers, in return for donations to his party, at a stand belonging to the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, a group set up in the wake of the 1989 crackdown around Tiananmen Square.
He said he had been wielding the brush for six hours straight. “People ask for all sorts of things,” he said. “Good health. Democracy in China.”
A young woman requested a traditional proverb: “Study deeply and achieve reason.”
“This is really interesting,” Mr. Ho enthused. “Really interesting.”
There was a hint of sadness as well. In January, Szeto Wah, arguably the city’s most loved democracy campaigner and the alliance’s founder, died of lung cancer, at the age of 79. Mr. Ho, determined to carry on his mentor’s calligraphic tradition, was taking “Uncle Wah’s” place.
But the new democracy advocates were also well represented.
“We don’t depend on politicians. Everyone can take part in politics!” said Ka Lok, 21, at a stand he ran with a friend, Ma Jai, 17. They were selling T-shirts showing Mr. Tsang’s deputy, Henry Tang, sporting devil’s horns. Mr. Tang is especially unpopular among young activists for comments that they could meet “a tragic end.”
Farther down, through crowds so dense a visitor could only inch forward, was a stall occupied by the Web radio station hkreporter.com, and a new political party called Power Voters. High-spirited democracy advocates joshed the crowd, offering wares that made clear their differences with the Democratic Party: blow-up cudgels showing the party’s vice chairwoman, Emily Lau, as a fake “Goddess of Democracy.”
A red-and-yellow cushion mocked Ms. Lau and seven other Democratic Party leaders, including Albert Ho, as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
“The Democratic Party betrayed us,” said Christopher Lau, 34, of hkreporter.com. “They said they would fight for universal suffrage in 2012, but they didn’t.”
“The political landscape in Hong Kong is shifting,” said his colleague Anthony Lam, 34. “No one knows where it’s going.”
The Web site, founded by the filmmaker Stephen Shiu, has a staff of just five, as well as about 30 hosts paid a small amount per show. Google’s Alexa rankings list it as Hong Kong’s 23rd most popular Web site.
Mr. Lam said they considered themselves part of the online, global network of youth-led protest. In December, their Web site posted what it said was a still-unreleased WikiLeaks document claiming to show 5,000 private Swiss bank accounts belonging to senior Chinese leaders — “evidence,” if true, of major corruption among top Communist Party officials.
The specter of China, powerful and unaccountable, haunts many young people.
“A younger generation is starting to succumb to the fact that they have no choice to the economic power of China,” Mr. Lau said. “But we have a profound sense of alienation. It’s a scary place.”
What do they want? “Immediate democracy in Hong Kong,” he said.
Of the new political parties, two — the NeoDemocrats and Power Voters — are explicitly taking on the Democratic Party.
A third, the conservative New People’s Party, led by former security chief Regina Ip, was also represented at the park. Ms. Ip has hinted that she would like the job of chief executive.
“She stands for the knowledge economy and democracy,” said a woman wearing a New People’s Party T-shirt, gathering contact names and e-mail addresses on a clipboard. “It’s true she is not in the pan-democratic camp, but she does want democracy in Hong Kong.”
As for the Democratic Party, it holds that a step-by-step approach serves Hong Kong well and will ultimately increase democracy. Its chairman, Mr. Ho, looking up from his calligraphy, considered its critics.
People like Mr. Lau and Mr. Lam, he said, “are left-wingers, just like Sartre or Camus in France in the 1960s.”
“They want constant revolt against the government. But we are not going to allow them to lead the agenda.”