On 11-12 July, over 600,000 people in Hong Kong took part the election primaries of Power for Democracy, the election umbrella for the pro-democracy, anti-CCP forces.
The primaries were to select candidates for the elections in September to the ruling Legislative Council (LegCo) of Hong Kong. The turnout was a morale boost after the National Security Law (NSL) was imposed on 30 June.
There have always been tensions within the democracy movement between the “traditional” democrats and the movement that grew after 2014.
The new movement, loosely referred to as “localist”, was overwhelmingly young and based on street agitation. It grew out of frustrations with the gradualist approach of the existing pro-democracy parties, which appeared locked in a fruitless effort to extract concessions from a Hong Kong government moving in the opposite direction under pressure of Xi Jinping’s desire to absorb Hong Kong into mainland China’s system long before the 2047 deadline for an end to the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement of 1997.
The political differences in Power for Democracy were evident in the primaries. As Lester Shum, former student leader at the China University of Hong Kong and successful candidate in the primaries, put it: “The primary is a battle of different approaches. It is a question of whether we should still allow moderate and appeasing traditional pan-democrats to make up the majority in the legislature… My answer is a resounding ‘no’.”
Amongst electors there is a growing awareness that “One Country, Two Systems” is a damaging illusion and there is a need for genuine autonomy. It is muted because of the new NSL, under which any open call for independence of Hong Kong could lead to a life sentence in prison.
The results, according to one early analysis shared on Hong Kong social media, showed a significant increase in support for the “localists” up from 14% in last November’s local elections to 30% now.
The same analysis claims that support for the “traditional” democrats (Democratic Party, Civic Party, Labour Party, and ADPL) has fallen from 62% to 28%.
The HK Labour Party, closely linked with the pro-democracy HKCTU union confederation, and still seen as tied to the moderate democrats, did not do well in the primaries. Carol Ng, chair of the HKCTU, failed to get selected. That might lead, for the first time in many years, to no representation from any explicit Hong Kong workers’ movement in the LegCo elections.
The courageous leader of the HKCTU, Lee Cheuk Yan, was a central organiser of the most successful street protests of the last year. Unions around the HKCTU also attempted to organise a general strike against the NSL in late June, although they called it off as they felt they had insufficient support.
Despite a considerable growth in unionisation over the last six months, the unions have not been able to demonstrate a working-class power that might complement the direct action of the street movement and inspire those wanting urgent action against growing Chinese repression.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam has warned that the pro-dem primaries may violate the NSL: “I am not saying that they have breached the law but I have to put forward a warning”. Many of the candidates may be banned from standing, some even arrested and imprisoned. Lee Cheuk Yan is threatened with jail.
If the candidates aren’t barred and the September elections go ahead, there will be a need for an election campaign that dispenses with illusions in slow reform via the gerrymandered LegCo, where half of the delegates are not elected by universal suffrage.
And whether an election campaign is allowed or not, the Hong Kong democracy movement needs to win over economically worse-off people currently supporting pro-CCP parties.
It will need to advocate policies that combat the huge inequalities in wealth, provide answers to the housing crisis, and support oppressed migrants and minorities.
Rather than go for isolationism, or look to US or UK banks and corporations to counterbalance Chinese ones, a democratic Hong Kong has to base itself on international working class solidarity, in particular with Chinese workers and their struggle for democratic revolution in China.