The beginning is the end is the beginning – on the ‘Taiwanisation’ of Hong Kong campaigns

At the request of the author, this is an extended version of the post that appeared here last week.

Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, desperately tried to retain his composure. He looked at the massive speaker’s desk in front of him. There were only a few metres were between him and the angry man in the red shirt. It should have been a routine visit to the legislature. Now ‘Mad Dog’ Raymond Wong kept shouting at him. Wong was visibly outraged by the governments’ indifference towards the elderly and a few moments later he should throw bananas towards Donald Tsang. This historic Wednesday in October 2008 saw a significant change in Hong Kong’s politics. It was the beginning of ‘radical’ politics, ‘Taiwanstyle’.

Three years later, in November 2011, the pan-democratic camp suffered a major defeat in the in the Hong Kong District Council (DC) Elections. Particularly hard hit were Raymond Wong and other so-called ‘radical’ democrats. The mainstream media was quick to conclude that this would be the end to their ‘radical and confrontational’ tactics (SCMP). But is this really the case?

Although the myth of Hong Kong people’s political apathy (DeGolyer and Scott 1996) has long been refuted, remnants of the ‘stability narrative’ (Ku 2002, Lam 2004) have contributed to the conception that Hong Kong people have to voice their political opinions in a ‘rational, peaceful and legal way’ (Hong Kong’s Information Service Department 2011). Although Hong Kong could best be described as a semi-democratic system without universal suffrage, the rule of law, civil liberties and freedoms are still guaranteed. This might have led to the consensus, among the administration, the media and the academic establishment that mass protests and Legislative Council (LegCo) debates are the ‘right’ way to articulate political options and any other forms are labeled as ‘radical’.

Indeed with the formation of the pro-democratic, grassroots oriented and left-wing League of Social Democrats社會民主連線 (LSD) in 2006 and the subsequent election of ‘Big Guy’ Albert Chan陳偉業, ‘Mad Dog’ Raymond Wong 黃毓民and ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung 梁國雄 to the 2008 LegCo, a more innovative, energetic and confrontational style of politics and campaigning entered the political scene. All three legislators are veteran politicians and social and political activists. Radio host Wong has strong personal and educational links toTaiwan. Government representatives, pro-establishment and pro-Beijing figures were quick to condemn the actions of the trio in the LegCo as rowdy behaviour imported fromTaiwan(Wen Wei Pao 2010). This value judgement has been readily picked up by the mainstream media and not challenged by the academic establishment, avoiding any critical discourse of ‘Taiwanisation’. The following analysis is based on several years of continual and on the ground fieldwork, and extensive interviews with politicians from all political backgrounds.

It is important to point out that Taiwanpolitics is generally negatively framed by the mainstream media and the administration, particularly during the Chen Shui-bian era. Therefore connections of politicians and parties to Taiwanare frequently used to imply creating chaos and advocating separatism (footnote 1). Yet for observers of both Hong Kong and Taiwan politics and campaigns, the influence of Taiwan election campaigns and strategies is a long-standing phenomenon (footnote 2). The colourful style of campaigning with flags and banners is reminiscent of Taiwan and pan-democratic parties have also employed similar voter allocation strategies (Ma and Choy 2003). Hong Kong political parties and researchers have sent delegations to observe Taiwan politics and elections on a regular basis. The effects were obvious in the 2008 LegCo election campaign. Candidates from all backgrounds employed gestures directly copied from Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 campaign literature.

Indeed the Democratic Party (DP) produced a short Youtube clip which was inspired by the iconic KMT clip ‘The power to change’.

The LSD fully embraced the entire spectrum of ‘Taiwanstyle’ campaigning. Taiwaninspired campaign elements included a large rally before the voting day, in fact the first of its kind in Hong Kong (footnote 3), the frequent use of gimmicks as well as the branding of its star candidates including comics, posters, and small toy figures. LSD candidates speeches were down to earth, spontaneous filled with foul language and particular in televised debates, very aggressive towards the pro-establishment camp.

The rise of the LSD can be largely explained by the frustration of a significant sector of society which feels alienated by the political establishment. The rapidly growing wealth gap inHong Kong, steady rising living costs and astronomical housing fees have met by no effective, coherent and long-term strategy of the administration. In fact the Hong Kong government is perceived as increasingly unresponsive to the demands of the people without real public consultations and accountability as well as democratic progress (DeGolyer et al. 2010). These issues, its charismatic leaders and a sophisticated new media and social network strategy of the party contributed to the great support from particularly young voters and followers.

Taiwanese theatre politics (Fell 2007) was subsequently introduced into the LegCo.  LSD legislators would frequently throw symbol laden items in the chamber at government members and verbally attack Donald Tsang for the administrations’ inadequate financial support of the grassroots.

The LSD split in early 2011, with Chan and Wong forming the de facto mirror organisation People Power人民力量 (PP). Yet the tactics of both parties remained the same with the PP further increasing the pressure on the government through street blockages following mass demonstrations and a siege to the LegCo building in July 2011.

The LSD’s Long Hair remarked that in fact these forms of resistance and theatre politics are not unique to Taiwan politics during the early years of democratisation. Indeed these are common ways of questioning the legitimacy of existing institutions (footnote 4). Yet the success of Taiwan’s democracy movement, its advanced and sophisticated campaign culture provide an ample resource that due to spatial proximity, language and cultural similarities as well as personal links can be easily accessed.

The recent DC election saw again frequent elements of Taiwanstyle campaigning, for example in the design of campaign leaflets as well as activities. Here again the PP was a front-runner with its appeal to young voters. An interesting observation was the clear reference to the popular Taiwanmovie那些年,我們一起追的女孩 [Once upon a time, the girl we chased together] (footnote 5). The film’s poster was used as the basis for a campaign leaflet by a young candidate targeting voters in his age group changing the film’s title into那些年,我們一起追的民主 [Once upon a time, we chased democracy together] (footnote 6).

The Legislative Council Elections in 2012 will employ a different voting system, favouring smaller parties and ‘star candidates’. Hong Kong’s deep rooted social problems are also far from being solved or even addressed. Adding the rising political awareness and participation of youngsters, the verdict on the fate of so-called ‘radical’ tactics is premature. It looks more like ‘Taiwanstyle’ campaigning is here to stay.

Footnote 1: In 2003 veteran pan-democratic lawmaker Emily Lau stated that Taiwan’s future should be determined by the Taiwanese people. This caused furious reactions by the pro-Beijing camp, asking for her removal from the LegCo and demanding an apology before ‘it is too late to regret’ (Chan 2003; Dao 2003). In late 2011 donations to the pan-democrats made by Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, residing inTaiwan, were used to suggest foreign interference in Chinese affairs (Chan 2011).

Footnote 2: Election campaigning inHong Kongis highly regulated. Campaign commercials in broadcast media are not allowed and expenses are capped at a very low level. Therefore newspaper advertisements are rare and appear only in the last 2-3 days before voting day.

Footnote 3: Personal interview with Albert Chan. October 2008

Footnote 4: Personal interview with Leung Kwok-hung. May 2011

Footnote 5: The official translation of the film’s Chinese title is ‘You are the Apple of my Eye’.

Footnote 6: The subtitle on the leaflet is directed at the Democratic Party and reads: ‘Where has the 2012 universal suffrage in the previous party platform gone? We had agreed upon a timetable and a road map, but where are they now?’


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Malte Philipp Kaeding is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Surrey. He is an Associate Fellow at the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) and a member of the Hong Kong Transition Project.