Hong Kong's Political Mosh Pit

Given a system rigged to ensure that pro-government members are always in the majority, it is perhaps no surprise that political parties in Hong Kong have become as much an expression of individual egos as of policies or ideologies.

Splits and new creations are leaving the field even wider open to the one party with Communist-level discipline, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) which is in all but name the local substitute for the Communist Party of China whose membership in the territory remains a secret.

The latest creation, unveiled on January 16 is the New People's Party, headed by Regina Ip Suk-yee, a 60-year-old former civil servant whose failed attempt as Secretary for Security to ram through an oppressive anti-subversion law in 2003 led to her being ousted in an attempt to mollify public opinion. She since claims to have learned the merits of liberty and democracy but many still suspect her of being a Beijing mole whose new party is in effect a united front operation designed to take middle class votes away from the main pro-democracy parties, the Democratic Party and Civic Party.

Ip has as her deputy in the new party Michael Tien Puk-sun, a typical member of the inherited elite. Tien recently quit the pro-business and generally unpopular Liberal Party formally headed by his brother James Tien Bei-chun. The latter failed dismally to win a directly elected legislative seat in 2008. The brothers are the heirs to a textile fortune made by their Shanghainese father and converted into Hong Kong property, the easiest way of making money in the world for the past fifty years.

Their business acumen is unproven but they are accustomed to getting jobs courtesy of the government. Michael distinguished himself as non-executive chairman of the government owned Kowloon-Canton Railway by inciting a revolt by the professional management. He should have been fired but thanks to Tien's inside influence it was the managing director who got the bullet. Another win for Hong Kong's little elite.

How either Ip or Tien can represent themselves as “new people” is anyone's guess. But what is clear is that this is a party without either policy or platform -- just two self-important individuals trying to get attention by presenting themselves as independent.

But they can certainly take advantage of the splits within the other parties other than the DAB. The Democratic Party has not formally divided but remains split between those who supported or opposed its eventual support for some minor progress towards direct election now to happen in 2012. A group of youthful radicals has formed a party within the party, a move which may not matter much but does the party's image no good. Nor will the Democratic Party be helped by the death of Szeto Wah who for decades had carried the democratic banner fearlessly. Compared with him and former party head Martin Lee, the current Democratic Party leadership is lackluster.

Meanwhile the Civic Party seems incapable of escaping from the small-circle attitudes of the barristers who are its only legislators and who run it like a private club. The lawyer gang headed by outgoing party head Audrey Eu Yuet-mee and her successor Alan Leong Ka-kit recently railroaded the election of a new party chairman, a little known but furiously ambitious academic Kenneth Chan Ka-lok . He is seen as the barristers' proxy and the insider process upset many rank and file party members who are not rich lawyers and had assumed that longtime party stalwart and well known political commentator Joseph Cheng Yu-Shek would get the position.

Even the small but radical League of Social Democrats has been having problems, not only of personality clashes between its publicity-conscious legislators but with one of its prominent members now facing sexual harassment allegations.

All this suggests that while Hong Kong's citizens want more democracy, want more effective challenges to government failures to act in the public interest rather than supported vested interests. But the political parties have been making a poor job of addressing real livelihood issues by sinking personal interests and forming their own united front to combat the Beijing proxies who may not be popular but have insider influence, money and discipline.