Televised candidates’ debates for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections have traditionally been raucous. However, it seems that as violence has spilled onto the streets, the contestants for Sunday’s New Territories East by-election have instead become uncharacteristically calm and respectful.
Among LegCo’s 70 members, only half are elected by universal suffrage, standing for one of five geographical constituencies: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon (East and West), and New Territories (East and West). Television stations typically host debates by constituency, inviting all of a district’s candidates to participate at the same time.
On 26 August 2012, therefore, a record-high total of 19 candidates – plus their teams (some candidates run as a team of individuals, one of whom serves as legislator if the entire team is elected) – were thrown into the wrestling ring that was TVB’s debate for the New Territories East constituency, which lasted only 90 chaotic minutes.
In the lead-up to this Sunday’s election, however, the atmosphere is different. The seven candidates running to replace Ronny Tong Ka-wah accepted debate invitations from both traditional and new media outlets, ranging from the subscription-only NowTV to the satirical online channel TVMost. RTHK even hosted English-language debates, though not all candidates chose to attend.
While the Mong Kok Incident and filibuster tactics were common themes of discussion, candidates were also asked about their views on a proposed universal retirement protection scheme, and even their stance on same-sex marriage (supported only by HK Indigenous’ Edward Leung Tin-kei and the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu).
Regarding local issues, contenders suggested solutions to parallel trading and the lack of car parking spaces, while Holden Chow Ho-ding of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) was slammed for not knowing how many public hospitals there are in New Territories East: he is currently a district councillor in Tung Chung on Lantau Island.
D100 Radio’s debate – only attended by Leung and Yeung – turned into a mutually respectful two hour-long discussion on the similarities and differences in their methods. Leung emphasised that it was important to expand the inventory of tools used in the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong, suggesting a parallel with Martin Luther King Jr being complemented by Malcolm X in the struggle for civil rights. Yeung maintained it would be impossible to sustain the use of non-peaceful methods that go against public opinion, and questioned how Leung would deal with collateral damage to civilians.
The quality of the debates – at least those in the Cantonese language – has not exactly been an “absolute joke” as barrister Joseph Lam Chok claims in the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This is because the limited speaking time for each candidate has been compensated for by the sheer number and variety of debates that have been held. Moreover, voters are choosing a legislator who will work for only half a year; full elections for the Legislative Council are scheduled to take place on 11 September 2016.
There is much more public scrutiny of contenders in Hong Kong than in Taiwan, for example, where every legislative candidate receives a 15-minute slot on local television to present a manifesto, but there is no debate.
Sunday’s contest, the first by-election since 2010, will be important for several reasons. Firstly, pan-democrat legislators fear that if Holden Chow wins the seat, the pro-establishment camp will seize a majority among legislators from geographical constituencies. The count will potentially be 18 to 17 in favour of the pro-establishment side, if we include LegCo President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, who is from the DAB but traditionally abstains from voting. Speaking to the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Chow said he would use this potential majority to amend LegCo’s Rules of Procedure, increasing the obstacles for pan-democrats to filibuster in the future.
Secondly, many of the candidates across the spectrum are part of a new generation of up-and-coming politicians. Only Nelson Wong Sing-chi, expelled from the Democratic Party and now with the Third Side, has ever served as a legislator. For a long time there have been calls to rejuvenate Hong Kong’s political landscape, with Democrat chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing recently announcing that she will not run for re-election this year.
Finally, localist groups (like HK Indigenous) and middle-ground parties aiming to bridge the gap between pro-establishment and pan-democrats (like the Third Side) have organised themselves politically, and will run for LegCo for the very first time. While opinion polls favour Holden Chow and Alvin Yeung on Sunday, these new groups will be hoping to make gains in September, when full LegCo elections take place.
Given the refreshing maturity and accessibility of the candidates’ debates these past few weeks, there is no reason why any of the 940,000 registered voters in the New Territories East constituency should not exercise their civic rights on Sunday.