Hong Kong’s Equivalent of Taiwan’s “Third Force”?

by Brian Hioe

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Photo Credit: Sam Tsang/SCMP

MANY PARALLELS have been drawn between Taiwan and Hong Kong by individuals have since the 2014 Sunflower and Umbrella Movements. But as we enter 2016 elections in Taiwan, we might draw further parallels between past November local elections in Hong Kong and Taiwan 2016 elections in regard to Taiwan’s “Third Force” and Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Soldiers.” Namely, both phenomena are elements of post-Sunflower movement civil society in Taiwan and post-Umbrella movement civil society in Hong Kong entering electoral politics.

Between the “Third Force” and “Umbrella Soldiers”, political candidates sometimes are youths in their twenties, and are largely fresh faces who made their entrance onto the political stage after the Sunflower or Umbrella Movements. “Third Force” parties and “Umbrella Soldier” parties are also largely groups that formed after the Sunflower and Umbrella Movements. Prominent “Umbrella Soldier” parties include Hong Kong Indigenous and Youngspiration.

With around fifty candidates running, the Umbrella Soldiers performed surprisingly well in elections with nine Umbrella Solider candidates defeating established lawmakers for the position of district councillor. Umbrella Soldiers were responsible for the ousting of pro-Beijing lawmakers Christopher Chung and Elizabeth Quat as well as, surprisingly, ousting well-established pan-democratic lawmakers Albert Ho Chun-yan and Frederick Fung Kin-kee.

PhotoCreditBBCYau Wai Ching (left) and Dr. Kwong Po Yin (right), two political candidates of Youngspiration. Kwong would be successful in her election bid, displacing the incumbent for the last twenty years, Lau Wai Wing, but Yau would not be. Photo credit: BBC

Successful Umbrella Soldier candidates attributed their electoral victories to building local ties and local voters having become tired of the same politicians being voted into office over and over again. Umbrella Soldiers also attributed success to support by the new generation of voters who had become politicized since the Umbrella Movement and had newly become able to vote. In the case of Chui Chi-kin’s victory over Christopher Chung, this was the remarkable case of Chui defeating a 21-year incumbent by campaigning seven days a week for six weeks and by visiting over 2,000 homes during that span of time. We might note that this is largely the same strategy taken by the Third Force, which also sees much of its electoral base as consisting of young voters who became politicized since the Sunflower Movement.

Going forward, with the surprise victory of the Umbrella Soldiers, the question of their relation to more established democratic parties remains a question. Although Taiwan’s Third Force is untested, the larger question has been their relationship to the DPP. During the course of this election in Taiwan, the Third Force has not ever sought to directly challenge the DPP, running for districts which have traditionally voted blue and hoping to secure the DPP’s endorsement.

Apart from this electoral strategy, Third Force did eventually become more willing to accommodate to the DPP as the election season went on, although some predict that in the near future the Third Force will split from the DPP. However, we see the same dilemma in the case of Hong Kong, with the question of the Umbrella Soldier’s relation to older democratic parties. Certainly, there is no chance of the Umbrella Soldiers allying with pro-Beijing forces, much as there is no possibility of the Third Force allying with the KMT anytime soon, but it remains a question as to how to relate to those with closer political positions who may still be in disagreement.

Campaign video by Youngspiration candidate Donald Chow Sai-kit, who is twenty-three

If some have attributed the victory of Umbrella Soldiers to rising local sentiment, it is a surprise that radical localist groups such as Civic Passion, People Power, and the League of Social Democrats did not actually win any seats. Localism is certainly also strongly present in Umbrella Soldier groups as Hong Kong Indigenous and Youngspiration, however, as we saw in their calls for the deportation of 12-year-old Chinese boy Siu Yau-wai, who lived illegally in Hong Kong for nine years.  But some have credited their success to finding a middle way between pan-democratic reformism and localist radicalism.

Apart from the surprise victory of a small number of Umbrella Soldiers, a winner of Hong Kong local elections was the NeoDemocrats, a group which split off from older democratic parties out of the perception that democratic parties had become too close to Beijing. Although the prospects of a DPP split in Taiwan seem low, this may offer an interesting possibility for Taiwan, should the DPP increasingly conduct foreign relations in a manner which is perceived as being similar to the KMT. What Hong Kong shares with Taiwan is a political spectrum in which the divide between the two major political camps is the relation is in large part dictated by the relation to China, though certainly there are other factors at work than only the ‘China factor’.

It may be somewhat surprising that Taiwanese activists have not in fact, it seems, particularly noticed the Umbrella Soldiers. There are indications that elements post-Umbrella movement civil society are quite directly looking at Taiwan in some cases, as we saw with the formation of the Democratic Progressive Party of Hong Kong in direct emulation of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party. Indeed, it is not a mere matter of borrowing the name of the Democratic Progressive Party for Hong Kong in this case, but actually directly modeling itself after Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party as we see with visits by the Democratic Progressive Party of Hong Kong to Taiwan.

12474086_1540534639591620_3734938859228067662_oThe Democratic Progressive Party of Hong Kong visiting the Taiwanese Democratic Party on December 31st, 2015. Photo credit: Democratic Progressive Party of Hong Kong

But does the surprise success of the Umbrella Soldiers bode well for Taiwan’s Third Force going into 2016 elections? It is hard to say. In part, the political system in Hong Kong differs too much from that of Taiwan for there to be any one-to-one comparison. The victory of the Umbrella Soldiers is for the position of district councilor, which is not exactly the same as Third Force candidates running for legislature. Hong Kong may be facing incursion from China through their proxy agents of pro-Beijing parties, but Hong Kong never had anything like Taiwan’s authoritarian period, which left structures and institutions that persist in the present day political system and give the KMT an advantage in elections. And, as should go without saying, there is the very direct fact that in Hong Kong, all political power is subordinated to Beijing. Taiwan at least has autonomy.

But it may not be surprising, then, if the Third Force does better than expected by many, given that for a long time it was thought that the Umbrella Soldiers stood no real chance of victory. But, even in the case of victory, what would be a question for Third Force is how much of a lasting force it would be. This is the question facing the Umbrella Soldiers presently and the question which would face the Third Force in the event of electoral victory.