Dispatches From Hong Kong
On the morning after the results of the Hong Kong voting are announced, I'm waiting by Exit A at the Kowloon Bay MTR subway station way up in the New Territories of Hong Kong, dialing and re-dialing my cell phone, trying to connect with a guy who calls himself Cheung Mou, or Long Hair. Long Hair—real name, Leung Gwok Hung, a 48-year-old anti-Beijing activist and self-described "Marxist revolutionary"—is the surprise winner in Sunday's Hong Kong legislative council (LEGCO) elections. He's also the brightest news in the mostly downbeat press accounts of the elections, which are being interpreted by most foreign and local journalists as a setback to Hong Kong's democracy movement, even though 60 percent of the 1.7 million people who voted Sept. 12 cast their ballot for a pro-democracy candidate.
The reason such a huge popular mandate can end up looking like a defeat (the pro-democrats won only 18 seats) is that Hong Kong's legislative system, designed by the British to keep power and control in their hands, does the same thing now for Beijing. Of the 60 LEGCO seats, only 30 are directly elected by the voters in geographical districts—the other half of the seats are chosen by fewer than 200,000 members of "functional constituencies," mostly don't-rock-the-boat-ers from various professions like tourism, finance, and accounting.
As if that weren't a Herculean enough hurdle for the pro-democrats, the 30 district seats are allocated using a byzantine proportional representation system that disadvantages loose pro-democracy party coalitions and helps candidates who run on tightly disciplined, strategic party tickets—like the mainland government's proxy, the DAB, or Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. Independent, non-party-affiliated candidates like Long Hair, who won his seat with just under 61,000 votes, also benefit. (For the complete LEGCO election results, go here.)
I've been living in Hong Kong on and off for the last few years, so I already knew about Long Hair—he's famously pro-democracy, anti-Beijing, and always at the front of every demonstration against Tung Chee-Wah, Hong Kong's wildly unpopular Beijing-appointed chief executive (nickname: Tofu-for-Brains). When I heard Long Hair was running for a legislature seat, I wrote it off, probably like most Hong Kongers, as a ironic publicity ploy.
But then, arriving back in Hong Kong a few days before the election, I happened to pick up one of his campaign flyers at a kiosk outside the train station in Shatin, which is sort of the Flatbush, Brooklyn, to Hong Kong island's Manhattan. Everything in the kiosk was hand-lettered, like one of those crazy booths you see around New York's Times Square, and the red and black flyer was vintage campus radical, complete with a little cartoon of Long Hair, wearing his trademark Che Guevara T-Shirt, delivering a vigorous split-legged kick—it wasn't clear if it was soccer- or Shaolin-style—to the butts of a rotund, bulbous-lipped Tung and Liberal Party candidate James Tien.
Later, I showed the leaflet to William, my Cantonese tutor. He helped me translate the caption: "Kick Out the Protect-the-Emperor Gang." "Protect-the-Emperor," William explained, is an ancient Chinese way of saying "conservative fat cat"; the protect-the-emperor gang are the officials, courtiers, and businessmen whose well-being depends on keeping the emperor in power.
I was impressed that Long Hair's campaign material managed, in one blow, to hit three of Hong Kong's cultural touchstones—soccer, kung fu, and classical Chinese metaphor. So I asked William, a typical upwardly mobile young middle-class Hong Konger—he's 32, speaks four languages fluently, and dresses with the flair of a Hong Kong movie star—whether he thought Long Hair had a chance.
William said he probably wasn't going to vote for Cheung Mou—his vote would probably go to the more serious slate of pro-democracy candidates, "But I think a lot of people are going to vote for him, because he's a jing ji meng sing—a political superstar." William, a huge Cantopop music fan, does not use the word "superstar" lightly. I decided to give Cheung Mou a call. Easy enough—his cell phone number was right at the bottom of his flyer. We made a date.
Long Hair burst into the MTR station, trailing an entourage of two journalists and three photographers from the Hong Kong weekly magazine Next, a local, tabloidy Chinese-language version of People. With his straight, past-shoulder-length hair and dark brown skin, he looks like a Native American tribal leader with a clamshell Motorola cell phone pasted to the side of his face. Without missing a stride, he nods briefly in my direction, and I fall scampering into line behind Joyce Wong, one of the journalists.
She asks, "Did he tell you to come too? We've been waiting for more than an hour for him." She shakes her head exasperatedly and lowers her voice. "He's not in a good mood. He doesn't want to talk. We're driving him to the LEGCO building to do a photo shoot. Do you want to come with us?"
I used to be a staff writer for Rolling Stone, so I know the first rule of superstar journalism: If you're invited on the tour bus, you go. I clamber into the back seat of the minivan with Joyce, the photographers, and Long Hair. On the highway, his cell phone, mercifully, cuts out, so after the Next reporters have had their chance to ask him, in Cantonese, what his mother thinks of him winning and whether he'll give up his Che Guevara T-shirt and wear a Western suit to LEGCO meetings, I elbow my way into the conversation and ask him for his take on the election results. Suddenly, his laid back Cantonese banter gives way to a focused, fluent, British-accented English.
"The results aren't a setback for democrats; we won something like 60 percent of the vote. But it was a setback for the democratic party politicians. My argument is, and always was, that democracy needs a platform, an agenda."
His criticism of the democratic parties' leadership boils down to two points. First, they didn't work hard enough to expand their platform and their appeal beyond the abstract issues of suffrage and democratic rule. "If you want to get people to the polls, you have to bloody well give them a good reason why they should cast their vote for you. The democrats sat on top of the political capital they built with the two successful July 1 democracy marches. "
But his biggest criticism of the democratic parties is that they were wimps, doomed to lose against a determined and disciplined group of Beijing-backed adversaries. "The Democrats wanted to avoid confrontation. I told them to attack! They told me they didn't want to fight. So I have to do the dog-fighting."
Of course, Long Hair's take on what happened in the election is self-serving—he's an activist, a gadfly who relishes the role of fighter and who can afford to be one, unlike members of the higher-profile democratic parties who must work within the system and have more to lose.
But then I remembered the afternoon I spent a few days before, sitting in Staunton's Bar beside the Mid-Levels Escalator on Hong Kong Island with Hemlock, the British expat whose delicious and vicious blog is the best source anywhere for inside information on Hong Kong's social and political life—he's Hong Kong's answer to James Wolcott.
As I was drinking with Hemlock, he gave me the long and unpleasant rundown of the dirty campaign tricks allegedly pulled by the mainland since the beginning of the campaign season in March. The assaults began with the labeling of democratic candidates as "unpatriotic Chinese" in the China Daily, the party newspaper. Then there were the ominous veiled threats delivered in midnight phone calls to a pro-democracy radio-talk-show host in April. The reports of mainlanders across the border in Guangdong being forced to ask their Hong Kong relatives to send back pictures of their completed ballot papers (taken with their camera-phones) and show them to officials as "proof" their relatives "did the right thing." And, finally, the 11th-hour coup de grâce: the August arrest and jailing—some say framing—of Democratic candidate Alex Ho, across the border in Dongguan, for supposedly cavorting with a prostitute. The ensuing scandal may have cost the Dems a seat.
While Hemlock was going through this litany of Beijing's electoral machinations, I looked out the window to the escalator and noticed that the head of the Democratic Party, Dr. Yeung Sam, wearing a beauty-queen style ribbon across his chest, had taken up a position by the escalator landing and was passing out his campaign literature to the streams of pedestrian commuters gliding up the steep hillside. Yeung, a university lecturer, is about 60, balding, and has a kindly smile, which did not flag during the nearly two hours he stood there, bowing and passing leaflets to every passerby. Even when a citizen rejected his flyer or completely ignored him, he continued to smile and bow, a model of civility and reason.
I remembered this scene and thought Long Hair may have a point. Maybe the fatal flaw of Democrats, in Hong Kong as in the United States, is that against a street-fighting foe, they refuse to take the low road. They are too polite.