by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Demosistō
QUESTIONS OF activists entering electoral politics are back on the table in Hong Kong with the formation of the Demosistō political party from Umbrella Movement student leaders such as Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow. The formation of Demosistō occurs after the dissolution of the Scholarism, the student group which played a key role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. The reason given for the dissolution was that the structure of Scholarism as a student group but not a political party had become limiting. It is stated that a new student group will be formed in six months time, to be headed by Scholarism spokesperson Prince Wong Ji-yuet.
New Power Party logo (left) and Demosistō logo (right). Photo credit: New Power Party and Demosistō
In the meantime, however, the Demosistō party has positioned itself as a “movement-based party” which seeks a referendum for Hong Kong independence and determining a future “Charter of Hong Kong”, as well as the development of online tools for mass participation in politics. Notably, this highly recalls the New Power Party in Taiwan, which was formed after the Sunflower Movement and comprised key Sunflower Movement leaders, its own campaigning for a referendum on Taiwanese independence, and its experiments in using the Internet to provide for new forms of democratic participation in the Internet age.
Wong had previously cited the success of the New Power Party as a political party which arose from the Sunflower Movement and entered the Taiwanese legislature despite being a recently formed party as inspirational. Wong was in fact present in Taiwan during 2016 elections as an observer. Indeed, Demosistō’s founding charter contains language similar to that used in Taiwan, with reference to a “birdcage” politics, much as the legal restrictions on public referendum in Taiwan are sometimes discussed as the “Birdcage Referendum Act.” The highly aestheticized graphic design of Demosistō also recalls the aesthetics of the New Power Party. This certainly would not be the first time political groups in Hong Kong have taken inspiration from Taiwan, as well as vice-versa.
Demosistō members (top) and New Power Party candidates (bottom). Both groups would seem to share similar iconography. Photo credit: Demosistō and New Power Party
Indeed, we might also note that the formation of Demosistō has provoked similar responses in Hong Kong to those which followed the entrance of the New Power Party and other third parties into politics in Taiwan. Some have questioned whether Demosistō or other new political formations would lead to fragmentation of the pan-Democratic camp, allowing for pro-Beijing to step in. Much the same boogieman was raised in Taiwan during 2016, with warnings that the New Power Party and other third parties would weaken the DPP, allowing for the victory of the KMT.
While a simplification, if the central divide of Taiwanese politics is framed as the dividing between the pan-Green camp and the pan-Blue camp along the issue of “independence” in some debated form versus unification, the central dividing line of Hong Kong politics is similar. With the divide between the pan-Democratic camp and the pro-Beijing camp, the pan-Democratic camp is more pro-Hong Kong, whereas the pro-Beijing camp is in favor of China.
What differs between Demosistō and the New Power Party, however, would be that the New Power Party does not originate from a preexisting group, such as Scholarism, and does not appear to be primarily constituted of students in the manner Demosistō was. The New Power Party fielded older candidates who were established members of society. None of the student leaders of the Sunflower Movement ran, though many were members of the party. Key figures of Demosistō such as Joshua Wong or Agnes Chow are not actually old enough to run, although Wong began a campaign to lower the age to run for political office, though Demosistō likely will also field some older candidates. The New Power Party also originated in a project to form a third party which was an alternative to both DPP and KMT, which actually predated the Sunflower Movement, while it seems unlikely that Scholarism members had any notion of fielding a political party until recently.
Joshua Wong in February 2016. Photo credit: WikiCommons
It is to be seen as to how Demosistō positions itself relative to other political actors in Hong Kong. The past year has seen the rise of localism, as seizing international attention during the Mong Kok riots in February of this year. While it is contested as to its exact meaning, localism demands greater autonomy for Hong Kong in a more radical manner than the pan-Democrats. The influx of Chinese immigration and Chinese tourists has provoked strong feelings against in many cases, with overcrowding or public incidents caused by Chinese, which also sometimes sees expression in localism.
Localism was previously a marginal position before the Umbrella Movement, but particularly in response to incidents of brutal police violence used to suppress the movement, localism is on the rise. The “end goal” of localist groups varies, though agreeing in the call for some form of greater autonomy for Hong Kong from China, but since the end of the Umbrella Movement, we have also seen the transformation of the previously unheard of position of Hong Kong independence to one with its fair share of supporters.
Concerning questions of “ethno-nationalism”, it would also be that because Taiwanese independence has has had its advocates in Taiwan for decades, there has already been much meditation on questions of identity relative to China than in Hong Kong. Such meditations upon identity may be more recent in Hong Kong, as a result of the handover of political control of Hong Kong from British to Chinese hands only occurring in 1997.
The Sunflower Movement was indicative of a shift towards an open, inclusive sense of civic identity, but Taiwan has had time to reflect on questions of identity for much longer, and itself went through a period in which ethno-nationalism was strongly advanced, particularly under the Chen Shui-Bian administration. Post-Sunflower groups such as Le Flanc Radical have advanced the continued need for ethno-nationalism in Taiwan, however, this has been controversial and seen some criticism from other elements of activist civil society. We largely see similar debates at present in Hong Kong, which is what Demosistō will need to position itself relative to in coming months. On the other hand, in Taiwan, this was largely not an issue the New Power Party had to position itself relative to during its entrance into electoral politics.
If Demosistō has emphasized the need to address economic inequalities in Hong Kong and the need for progressive politics in their founding manifesto, it seems that Demosistō will probably orient towards a center-left political stance. In regards to the question of ethno-nationalism, Demosistō members have positioned themselves as advocating localism, but in their charter stressed the need for “embracing multiplicity”, and that “difference in ethnicity does not come into conflict with our conception of local protection and resistance”. This must involve avoiding the “emotionally-appealing trap of populism that divides among ‘us’ and ‘them’ based on nationality.”
Such a stance on the part of Demosistō will likely draw fire from localist groups that do employ the rhetoric of ethnic difference between Chinese and Hong Kongers and leverage upon that as a call to action. Scholarism and Joshua Wong in particular have been criticized in the past for how they handle issues of Hong Kong identity, Wong having stated controversially in the past that he still views himself as Chinese. Criticism of Demosistō will likely also continue criticism from localists dating back to the Umbrella Movement, who saw Wong and Scholarism’s actions as too mild and conciliatory in nature. Certainly, Demosistō has already seen much online mockery.
This was partly a product of Scholarism having aligned with Occupy Central with Peace and Love during the movement, when before the Umbrella Movement broke out it was Scholarism which was widely viewed as the more radical force versus Occupy Central with Peace and Love’s moderatism. But this more broadly stems from the fact that Scholarism sought to keep the Umbrella Movement to be a “clean” political movement, which led to tensions with more radical elements of the movement, such as localist groups based out of Mong Kok. There will no doubt be some blowback against Demosistō for its emphasis on a civic, rather than ethnic, orientation for politics.
Beyond this, it remains a further question as to the realistic chances of Demosistō to win seats in Hong Kong legislature. Past elections in Hong Kong saw the election of several “Umbrella Soldier” candidates who came out of the Umbrella Movement, despite political amateurs who had never before run for office, and were primarily young people. It may be that the decision to form Demosistō in the present was influenced by the success of Umbrella Soldier candidates. But although the founding members of Demosistō are more famous than Umbrella Soldier candidates, as key figures of the Umbrella Movement, it remains a question as to their electability. The challenge faced by Demosistō is now to build a party infrastructure, seeing as while it has gotten much media attention, it only has about thirty members at present.
And still beyond that is the ultimate question of whether Demosistō, even if able to enter political office, would be able to affect Hong Kong’s negotiation with China. Certainly, a key difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong would be Taiwan’s de facto independence, where Hong Kong is very directly bound to China in a way that would be hard to escape. Even then, the referendum strategy adopted by Demosistō, which comes out of campaigning for a referendum by Scholarism and Occupy Central, has yet to be successful in Taiwan and some questions its realism, even if this is widely advocated. In that way, we will see as to future developments in Hong Kong.