Opinion | Don’t let Hong Kong’s political apathy become a ticking time bomb


The findings of a survey by the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at Chinese University on public interest in politics are both expected and disturbing. About 60 per cent – a 7.3 percentage point increase from last year – of Hongkongers said they were not interested in politics. In the past year, more than four-fifths have rarely or had never expressed a political opinion on social media, up 17.1 percentage points.

These numbers suggest apathy is part of the new political reality. I don’t think many of us are surprised by that. There’s very little to be gained in expressing political opinions on social media, not since the deep fissures left by the 2019 anti-government unrest, which not only split communities, but severed lifelong friendships and tore families apart.

Hong Kong may have “ walked out of a political quagmire”, as Zheng Yanxiong, director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, said in June, but the trauma to our collective psych will take much longer to recover from.
In “fixing” the city’s politics, Beijing and the city’s leaders had focused mainly on purging. The improved political systems and reformed electoral arrangements took years to implement. The last piece of the puzzle, the formation and election of district councils, will be in place with the December 10 elections, and so many safeguards have been infused that there is little chance of a repeat of 2019.
Securing nominations for any election has been made so tough that only a few outside the pro-establishment camp made it into the last Legislative Council election.
Against this backdrop, the Democratic Party has announced plans to field eight candidates in the district council elections. That is curious, given that the party fielded no one for the Legco election. Securing nominations for the revamped and powerless district council seats is no easier than for entering Legco.
Aspiring candidates must gain at least nine nominations from members of three municipal-level committees packed with pro-establishment figures, and clear national security checks. For a party that has trouble even finding a venue for a fundraising dinner, this will be a colossal task.

I wish them the best of luck and commend their courage to return to the political scene, despite the drastic changes. Professor Lau Siu-kai, a consultant with the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official Beijing think tank, sees it as a positive sign too. But he didn’t mince his words when it comes to what Beijing is looking for.

“From Beijing’s point of view, it would be best if the Democratic Party was willing to transition into a patriotic group, but it won’t matter if no one from the party gets through the gate in the end,” he said. “After all, it won’t make a difference to the big picture.”

Still, it is important that those with the power to nominate consider letting the Democratic Party take part, if they really have Hong Kong’s future at heart. The political interest survey has revealed disturbing findings. Political apathy is not something to aspire to, and it doesn’t make governance any less challenging.


Hong Kong Civic Party disbands after championing opposition causes for 17 years

Hong Kong Civic Party disbands after championing opposition causes for 17 years

Crucially, the survey found that 83.8 per cent of Hongkongers had never shared their views with district councillors or legislators in the past year. Political apathy is more than just being disinterested. There are trust issues that need to be seriously addressed. Almost half of respondents didn’t believe political parties in the city could effectively monitor the government.

About 55 per cent said they believed government officials did not care much about what they thought. Close to 52 per cent said they did not have “any say” on government policies.

With this is mind, it should be remembered that political powerlessness gave rise to the fatalism that fuelled the 2019 social unrest.


Hong Kong marks first authorised protest rally in 3 years under strict police rules

Hong Kong marks first authorised protest rally in 3 years under strict police rules

With nothing to gain or lose, people may not be “in your face” now, but with negative sentiment, especially in the absence of open communication with district councillors or legislators, lighting the fuse is easy.

Gauging public opinion will become difficult. And if what Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs Alice Mak Mei-kuen says is true – that Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Xia Baolong stressed the use of district councils to gauge public opinion – then barring the “opposition” from running would only further alienate the electorate. As much as Mak has dismissed voter turnout as an indicator of a successful election, it is vital to engage voters and not leave them disappointed.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA

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