Armed with two dozen flags and banners, several boxes of hastily printed pamphlets, and a shopping trolley for transporting these supplies, we were a ragtag group of volunteers united by a WhatsApp group and hopes to make our neighbourhood a better place.
For weeks, our motley crew campaigned relentlessly to promote an independent, pro-democracy candidate in the 2015 District Council Elections. Our opponent: a conservative, pro-establishment figure with decades of service on the District Council (and its precursor, the District Board) and strong real estate business ties in the community.
Across Hong Kong, stories have surfaced of surprise victories by aspiring young challengers successfully toppling incumbents with local connections and deep pockets. Unfortunately our story is not one of these. We lost.
Ordinarily, this is the time to shower each other with praise and compliments, and words of encouragement and comfort. But, like a sports competition, an election concludes with a winner and a loser, and there is little consolation in the cold, hard fact that we were the latter. Nevertheless, while I cannot speak for my comrades-in-arms, I for one look back on the past few weeks with a faint smile on my face.
We fought an honorable battle. To say that we were campaign novices is an understatement. At 5:59 pm on the Friday before election weekend, a dozen of us were still huddled up at the post office licking stamps for pamphlet mailings! In a constituency with traditionally low voter turnout, our candidate secured 40% of the votes. To put that result in perspective, the Civic Party fielded a contender in the same neighbourhood back in 2011, and despite having the collective muscle and experience of a political party proper, walked away with only 34% support.
As if the cards weren’t stacked against us enough already, there was some gerrymandering thanks to GovHK, siphoning off several hundred voters from a more affluent segment of the district who would have been our target “clientele”. Voters are hungry for change, and tales of heavyweight politicians on both sides of the political divide being “uprooted” (that’s right, Tree-Gun) by fresh faces are a testament to these desires.
The campaign and election process itself was an eye-opener, an invaluable lesson for us all, in what the political landscape in Hong Kong has become. We witnessed first-hand the cadres of fresh-off-the-bus mainland Chinese arriving to campaign for the candidate in the adjacent constituency. We counted the legions of elderly escorted by their “grandchildren” to the polling station, some barely able to walk, constantly having “candidate-number-one, candidate-number-one …” whispered in their ear. Despite the prodding, in the ten meters between the registration table and the voting booth, a few experienced short-term memory lapses and forgot their voting “instructions”, which was hugely comical.
We found that our street ads occasionally and mysteriously vanished into thin air, while our mailings to entire building blocks were conveniently and erroneously misdelivered. Despite these incidents and a few minor squabbles on banner placements, our opponent did not resort to some of the despicably unscrupulous tactics seen in other, more rowdy neighbourhoods. So hats off to him, for exercising at least some degree of restraint.
We learned a great deal about the neighbourhood itself. Despite having lived there for over six years and close to 30 in an adjacent suburb, I had not fully grasped the extent of the socio-economic divides that were present in what has traditionally been considered a homogeneous “middle-class” district. Poverty and income inequality, particularly among the elderly – which I had written a great deal about previously – remain the primary culprit behind the continued effectiveness of so-called 蛇齋餅糉 tactics, the courting of elderly voters with freebies, usually foodstuffs and delicacies (literally translates to “snake, vegetarian feast, cakes, and dumplings”), practices that in any other civilized country would almost certainly amount to vote-rigging or outright corruption.
As a society, Hong Kong remains divided as ever, and the political chasm is unlikely to mend or narrow in the foreseeable future. Sadly, this can only bode well for the CCP, which thrives on division. After all, the Communists came to power through “divide-and-conquer”, in a climate where even family members turned on each other. That said, I don’t buy the idea of reconciliation. The battle lines have been drawn, the barbarians are at the gate, and the brutes won’t hesitate to get their hands dirty. As Hongkongers we have to pick a side and stand our ground. I am invigorated in defeat, and ready for even more challenges ahead. Bring it on.