The Left and The Right, in Hong Kong

By Sunny Choi
Published on June 27th, 2020

The political spectrum is brilliantly diverse in different countries, and Hong Kong is a state with a unique political landscape. Where other countries' political discourse surrounds left-wing and right-wing policies, we see very little of this in Hong Kong. For example, Bernie Sanders is often accused of being “too far-left”, which shows how ingrained the ideas of left and right are in the mind of Americans. We can see that many important issues in those democracies are often irrelevant in Hong Kong, and disagreement might rise when they are entirely uncontroversial in the West.

The left and right of politics is a centuries old part of politics, and began in France, where the more liberal members of the third estate sat on the left of the president. This concept continues to exist today, and some might argue this is what led to the two party system in the United States, and other systems where there are two dominant parties such as the United Kingdom and Canada. However, if one looks at the politics of Hong Kong, one finds that its parties do not use either label.

The two terms are so remote from the consciousness of Hong Kongers that the only real references to the left and right in the vocabulary of Hong Kongers is the term “左報", which translate to “left newspaper”. They refer to newspapers which are or appear to be directly connected to the Chinese government, such as “Ta Kung Pao”. The most likely reason for this is because the Chinese Communist Party would be considered far-left.

Hong Kong has a multi-party system, but the undemocratic system means that the position of the parties are static: there is one group of permanent pro-establishment or ruling parties, and one permanent opposition, or pan-democrats, in the Legislative Council, which is the legislative body of Hong Kong. Their main disagreement lies outside issues which generally do not appear on a typical left-right political spectrum; I would even go so far to say that their differences lie completely outside of it. However, sometimes their policies can resemble those we see in other countries; in this, the pan-democrats would occasionally act in ways similar to the Right, or conservatively.

One reason for this classification is that we tend to see pan-democrats being critical of major spending. However, it is important to note that often they disagree mostly on what it is spent on, and being critical on how it effectively cedes legal power to China, and thus damage the sovereignty of Hong Kong. For example, it is argued that there is little reason for the high speed railway to exist due to many cheaper alternatives. Further, the constitutionality of allowing Chinese officials to execute Chinese laws is questioned. Pan-democrats are often criticized for only knowing how to object; it is important to remember that since they have never had a chance to govern, they have never been able to propose major plans. As a result of this, though they appear fiscally conservative, it is actually a symptom of a different problem.

The main reason that more typical left-right discourse does not occur in Hong Kong could completely be attributed to problems with the existing system. It is generally perceived that the pan-democrats’ most important platform is that of electoral reform, and more recently, investigations into police brutality. Interestingly, the majority of the population support pan-democrats, which can be seen from the election result from the district councils, but has never been able to take the Legislative Council. The reason for this is, of course, functional constituencies, where firms or workers of a particular industry vote for a seat on the council. As a result of this, these legislators are often pro-establishment as it is seen as the choice which would lead to a more stable financial future. In fact, the common perception is that voting for pro-establishment parties is a choice of accepting the Chinese government and its power over Hong Kong, in the hope for financial prosperity. Further, as you probably know, the chief executive is elected by an unelected group of 1200 people called the election committee. As a result of both of these systems, the pan-democrats are unable to govern even though they have popular support.

Although both groups claim to support “雙普選", or double universal suffrage, which refers to a system where both functional constituency and the electoral committee is abolished, the pro-establishment party’s plan also include the electoral committee being the sole body to nominate candidates for election for Chief Executive. This is clearly undemocratic, as this same committee has previously shown to be strongly pro-establishment and included Chinese officials. As a result, double universal suffrage has been delayed for more than 8 years, where neither side is willing to compromise.

More recently, a group of new parties have emerged. They call themselves localists, and sometimes they might reject the term “pan-democrats”. They might believe that the pan-democrats are too moderate. They are focused on the identity of being a ‘Hong Konger”, and believe that their heritage is under attack, and wish to preserve local culture. Sometimes they would also be critical of the level of immigration from China to Hong Kong. A close analogue to this in the west would be nationalism, and can be considered culturally conservative. Although there exist some moderate localists, it is in fact a relatively radical group, and one with a lot of support from the youth of Hong Kong.

A comparison could be made to the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, especially in the face of primarily Islamic immigrants, but there are a few key differences. The first is that the immigrants in Europe are the minority and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, while localists accuse Beijing of allowing mass immigration (150 a day maximum) into Hong Kong in order to dilute the cultural identity and to swing votes to their favor. Secondly, in Europe, a functional democracy exists where discussion and compromises exist, while in Hong Kong the pro-establishment parties are given free reign, and are accused of allowing Chinese interference as well as supporting a further dilution of the identity of the city. Further, Hong Kong is an incredibly overpopulated city which already faces a housing crisis.

In places like America, we find that young people are often more likely to be left leaning. In the west currently, we see right wing populists often arguing against immigration, often based on the same principles. To some, they might feel that it is strange that the youth of Hong Kong would overwhelmingly support these policies. However, could it be that one main reason that the youth of Hong Kong tends more right is that they are desperately trying to preserve their very identity? Although nationalism and right wing populism is often criticized for being stuck in the past and xenophobic, should the same criticism be used against a culture and identity under attack?

Arguably, the reason that neither the left or the right wing exist is because the question of democracy is still unsolved: The people does not elect the head of state, nor a legislative which represents them, With no real solution in sight, the pan-democrats’ policies has no bearing to the government. With a broken system creating a de facto one party state, the opposition is irrelevant; there exist no left or right, only the government.

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