I must admit I felt a twinge of regret late last month when I read the news that the Civic Party had folded up. Chairman and co-founder Alan Leong Kah-kit made the announcement after the remaining members voted almost unanimously at an emergency general meeting to start winding up proceedings as no one was prepared to hold office in the 17-year-old organisation.
I immediately recalled the party’s invitation to me to participate in a debate on the motion “The Civic Party is history” held some years ago. I was to propose the motion, the self-same Leong was to oppose, and the audience comprised mostly of members would vote on the merits of the arguments presented. The moderator was a prominent local journalist.
I was happy to accept the invitation for a number of reasons: I knew many of the party leaders personally and I particularly liked that they were prepared to open themselves up to outside criticism; the party’s working language was English which would remove any awkwardness over communication; it would be a pleasure and a challenge to pit my skills against well educated professionals, many of whom were senior members of the bar and argued complex legal cases for a living.
To say that I lost overwhelmingly would be something of an understatement. As I recall I got a single vote from one of the few non-members present.
The Civic Party at that time was a member of the rainbow-coloured coalition of what might loosely be described as pro-democracy parties. There was something for everyone: Labour for the working man, the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood for the grass roots, the original Democratic Party for the politically conscious, the League of Social Democrats for the more militant, various splinter groups etc each headed by a charismatic figure. I saw the Civic Party as somewhere in the middle, a bit highbrow with academic and legal bias, something of a moderating force. I envisaged it would appeal mainly to middle of the road, middle class persons like themselves with a leaning towards democracy but not keen on anything too radical.
My assessment was wrong.
One immediate warning sign was an attack by a leading party member on the privileges of private sports and social clubs, the implication being that such things were a relic of the colonial era and it was time the facilities were brought into public hands. This seemed to me a total misreading of the situation. It was true that when many of these clubs were first formed their membership had been predominantly expatriate and their operations were quite exclusive. However, developments in recent decades had significantly changed the circumstances: membership of most of them was now substantially or even predominantly local, outsiders were being granted extensive usage of the facilities under revised lease conditions, and account should also be taken of the substantial investment in the facilities by the existing members.
The focus of a moderate party should surely have been to make sure similar facilities were available for use by the less well off. In other words a levelling up instead of a hacking down. As for the membership of the private clubs, it seemed to me that both locals and expats should be prime targets as supporters of the Civic Party. Where was the logic in attacking institutions which their prospective members and voters had paid for and enjoyed?
On the political front, the party in 2009 joined hands with the League of Social Democrats to organize the Five Constituencies Referendum. The idea was that one legislator from each of the five geographic areas covering Hong Kong would resign their seat and then stand for re-election. The resulting by-elections, it was claimed, would constitute a de facto referendum on the pace of democratisation desired by local people. The resignations went ahead in January 2010 and the by-elections were held in May. All five members of the pan democratic camp were duly re=elected, but on a very low turnout of just 17 per cent whereas the original hope of the organisers had been over 50.
Around the same time, the party opposed the reform package negotiated by its rival, the Democratic Party, with the administration which provided for the five additional “Functional Constituency” seats to be elected on a quasi-democratic basis.
Civic Party members have also joined delegations to overseas capitals to lobby for support for faster democratisation in Hong Kong. I must confess this practice has always puzzled me. The capital city we should be focused on is the one in our own country, China. The dialogue we must improve is with Beijing. Washington and London may be nice places to visit, but they have no part to play in Hong Kong’s political development.
Party members also took a leading role in the procedural tussle that delayed enactment of the law dealing with adoption of the national anthem for many months. One does not need to be a political genius to work out how that would have been interpreted by the leaders in the Central People’s Government.
All this said, I shall miss the Civic Party. It had admirable aims and many of its leaders were on an individual basis good people. But collectively it slipped into the posture of attempting to defy Beijing, the road to political irrelevance. The inability to live comfortably with the reality of Chinese sovereignty meant its time was up.