18th February, 2015
HKU Quits HKFS: Lessons for Pan-Dems
By Lee Yee
If Umbrella Revolution signifies a turning point in Hong Kong’s democratic struggle, the referendum organised by University of Hong Kong (HKU)’s Students’ Union in which students voted to leave Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) signifies an opportunity for pro-democracy political organisations. On the surface, a referendum organised by the students’ union of a university does not carry much weight, but after some thought I believe we might have neglected the importance of this referendum.
HKFS draws a lot of attention after winning the “halo” of leading the Umbrella Revolution. Its fame surpasses that of any political parties, but soon after the crack down on the Umbrella Revolution HKU’s referendum on leaving HKFS began. Many ordinary citizens, political parties and the media were overwhelmed by this referendum, and did not understand its background and meaning. Their first response was to worry other universities would follow suit and cause a domino effect (concern groups were formed in a few other universities soon after the HKU referendum, campaigning to leave HKFS) weakening the bargaining power of the largest pro-democracy “enemy” China’s Communist Party (CCP) “fear”. Some said that the referendum shows that student organisations are disunited, and is a backward step during this most critical moment in Hong Kong’s democratic progress. Some said that this is a “self-destructive” move on the part of the whole democratic movement in Hong Kong, and CCP will be pleased to see it, concluding that those behind the referendum were part of a conspiracy cooked up by CY Leung and other CCP minions. Some also said that HKFS have done much in numerous pro-democracy protests, and that Hongkongers should be grateful to them.
Many have limited knowledge of students’ organisations, and the above views (almost all are presented by pro-democracy veterans) have influenced the public opinions of HKU’s referendum. I would like, however, to share a different perspective.
First and foremost, we must abandon the philosophy that “if one does XYZ, CCP would be pleased” for which we must not respond or take action according to whether or not such response or action would please CCP. Besides, the key of any pro-democracy movement is about fighting for democracy not “upsetting CCP”. Of course, we would like to see China respecting Hongkongers’ political rights, but what we want more is that China should understand that having democracy in Hong Kong brings the benefits of faithfully implementing the Basic Law as “Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong” will benefit both Hong Kong and China – a win-win situation.
Secondly, any conspiracy theory about who is driving this referendum should not be used without evidence as a guiding principle.
Third, the that someone who contributed to one thing should forever enjoy the gratitude of others will hinder our ability to progress. Winston Churchill wore the WWII hero “halo”, but lost in the election after the war. In response to his defeat in the 1945 general election, he quoted the Roman author Plutarch: ingratitude towards great men is the mark of a strong people. In fact, ingratitude towards political parties that gained major achievements, is the market of a strong democratic society. The political figures and organisations that stress their past achievements, are destined to have no future.
Once we remove the above philosophical fallacies from the equation, we can then focus the discussion in a factual and rational manner based on the things HKU’s referendum was about.
HKFS’ guiding principles include “build a democratic China”. HKFS is absent from all local political movements and protests, including anti-high speed railway protests (high profile protests in which some non-high-profile students led various monements that were then deemed extreme, including surrounding LegCo). Although it claims to be a students’ organisation focusing on liaising with various students’ organisations, HKFS is closely connected with pan-democrats who are anti the ‘localism’ movement. This is why many students who support localism resent HKFS because of the ideologies they uphold. It is true that HKFS co-led the Umbrella Revolution and promoted “self-determination”, which is a major step forward compared to the HKFS in the past decades. However, with more attention drawn to HKFS, their ideologies raise more questions. Compared to this progress their mistakes during the Umbrella Revolution were insignificant.
In terms of its system, the power structure of HKFS is completely undemocratic. According to HKFS’ charter, the highest committee is the Secretariat, and the highest individual is the Chief Secretary – an equivalent to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. The Chief Secretary is not only the person who executes decisions, but also the decision maker. Every university student in Hong Kong automatically becomes a member of HKFS and pays membership fee, but the Chief Secretary and Deputy Secretary are never directly elected by the student body. Those who are given the right to vote are the representatives from each university. For example, HKU’s representatives at HKFS are the Chairman of the Students’ Union, and four HKU representatives who are not elected by the HKU students but nominated by the representative council – which means they do not have any representative legitimacy. Assistant Editor in Chief of Undergrad (the official journal published by HKU’s Students’ Union) Chan Ya-ming said that, “if HKFS claims that its Chief Secretary and other positions have an electoral base, it is no difference from saying that Hong Kong Chief Executive has an electoral base, which is the direct opposite to the democracy Hongkongers are fighting for.” Public affairs commentator Martin Oei’s article also said that since he was the Chairman of Students’ Union in Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in 1999, “pan-dem veterans” have been interfering with HKFS’ operations and decision-making. As HKFS’ role in society became a centre of attention, its ordinary members (university students) started to find that HKFS does not represent them.
When HKU started to campaign to leave HKFS, Alex Chow, Chief Secretary of HKFS, immediately claimed that HKFS will reform its system. However, no reform proposal was presented during its committee meetings. This shows that HKFS did not take HKU’s then-proposed referendum seriously. Perhaps reforms in this world are all the same: without urgency and sufficient pressure, no one in power would voluntarily propose reform and would prefer the status quo.
HKU’s referendum confirms its departure from HKFS offers some important lessons to the pan-dems in Hong Kong.
- Localism is a natural trend in the democratic progression in Hong Kong. Although political parties and organisations that have contributed to the democratic progression in Hong Kong or China have won historical “political halos” and resources, they have to review their directions or they will be left behind in this unstoppable wave of localism.
- A democratic movement is not a goal to be imposed upon society as a whole, but something that needs to be created within one’s organisations. Only with a well-established democratic system, can an organisation have the legitimacy and power to continue playing a role in the society-wide democratic struggle. Otherwise, their “halos” are only good for display and self-indulgence in past “victories”.
Although HKU has left HKFS, if HKFS reforms its system thoroughly it is possible that HKU will rejoin HKFS. Therefore, if Umbrella Revolution signifies a turning point in Hong Kong’s democratic struggle, HKU Students’ Union leaving HKFS as a result of a referendum signals the time when pro-democracy political organisations need to undergo fundamental transformation. All political organisations which claim to support democracy in Hong Kong should think hard on this. Fundamental transformation is going to be difficult, and may slow down the process of uniting all powers that support democracy. However, any progress comes at a price. Political organisations have to pay their price for progress, so does every person who supports democracy. HKU students have led this trend, demonstrating their courage to shoulder the accusations the public have directed at them.