Hong Kong Election Diary, Part 1
When I get to the miniscule office in a grimy Tai Wai walk-up building that serves as the central node of the Campaign to Re-Elect Long Hair, the Man Himself, Leung Kwok Hung, is multi-tasking. He’s thanking–with many do jehs –a young supporter and his wife, who’ve shown up offering to help distribute leaflets on election day. Meanwhile, he’s thumbing through the pages of Ming Pao newspaper, and shaking his head.
Long Hair passes the newspaper over to me. On one page there’s a huge picture and article about Wong Sing Chi, the churchgoing pan-Democrat who has turned out to be one of Long Hair’s major opponents in the byzantine, convoluted 10-way race to fill 7 legislative seats in New Territories East district (more about that byzantine convolution of an election system in a later post). On the facing page, there’s an equally large, equally photo-filled article about the pro-Beijing DAB candidate in the district, Lau Kong Wah.
“What’s up with this?,” I ask Leung. “If they were profiling all the candidates, why didn’t they do a big feature on you?
Long Hair points to the upper left hand corner of the page, to an extremely small line of four characters that read: Syun geui gwong gou. Election Advertisement.
The articles are printed and laid out in exactly the same style as Ming Pao’s editorial copy. Unless you go over the page with a magnifier, you’re going to miss those four little characters and assume that the puff candidate profiles are news coverage.
Long Hair is used to getting screwed by the Hong Kong press–many HK media have an unspoken embargo on covering him, unless he’s getting hauled off by the cops–and he’s ready to shrug it off as just another one of these incidents. But I’m angry. This isn’t just lousy, unfair journalism–it’s probably illegal. I point out that during an election period, there are strict rules in place about campaign advertising. Surely campaign propaganda tricked up as editorial content falls under some regulation? Long Hair considers this, and then dials his lawyer to see about lodging a protest. (We’ll see what happens.)
Long Hair calls his lawyer
After four months immersion in America’s hyper, media-driven presidential circus, I was looking forward to the gentler, almost old-fashioned campaign intrigues of politics, Hong Kong style. I love the really old-school stuff of LEGCO elections–the toothsome candidates, dolled up like beauty queens in ribbon sashes, glad-handing outside MTR stations, and banners strung along the roadside with geeky photos of the candidates and corny slogans like “We Can Do Better” and “Vote for Hong Kong. Vote for Progress, Vote for Me”.
It’s all kabuki, of course–there’s no real representative democracy in Hong Kong, and half the seats in the legislature will be filled with members “elected” by small-circle vested interests. Maybe that is the reason why, at street level, the LEGCO elections and all their attendant hoopla give such a satisifying, almost nostalgic performance of democracy in action. During Hong Kong elections, television campaign ads are banned. Corruption, when it rears its head, is old school Chicago-style–the last election’s dirt was an unfortunate escapade between a pol and a prostitute in a Shenzhen hotel room. Hong Kong political trickery generally comes right out of the American 19th century party bosses’ playbook. The evil symbol of corrruption here is the notorious DAB faan hap (free lunch boxes doled out to the elderly ground troops of this pro-Beijing party as they are bussed, en masse to the polls).
Hong Kong’s #1 political tool
At least this is how politics has been going in Hong Kong since I first started to track it about 7 years ago.
But something different is going on this election cycle. I noticed it as soon as I got over my jet lag enough to start wandering around my neighborhood to look at the new campaign banners strung up along all the roadside fences. The candidates themselves were as geeky as ever, but the ones from the pro-Beijing DAB had been dressed by professional stylists, in coordinating pastel Lacoste shirts, and “posed” professionally in upbeat shots that scream “Media Consultant”!
Then, on my way up to Tai Wai on the MTR, I got stopped in my tracks by this. Was it a promo for a CD by a new Canto-pop star? An ad for the latest line by Giordano? Nope, it’s our good friend, that Long Hair bashing DAB “pretty” boy candidate, Gary Chan Hak-kan! (cue MP3 clip of screaming girl fans).
“Hong Kong elections are going the way of Taiwan and the U.S.,” grumbles Long Hair. “It’s starting to become about the image, not the message. The DAB has money for the consultants, for the PR. You know, people are telling me now that my flyers don’t have enough pictures, that I write too much.”
He shrugs resignedly, and goes back to his conversation with the eager flyer-distributing couple. Long Hair’s campaign coordinator, Mrs. Tong, grabs big handfuls of leaflets from one of the dozens of cardboard boxes crammed into this tiny office space, and stuffs them into bright red nylon backpacks labelled LSD, for Long Hair’s party, the League of Social Democrats. There’s no room to move in here, and even to get to the bathroom involves negotiating an obstacle course of bamboo poles topped with “flats”, or banners with photos of Long Hair. This political operation is strictly old-school. The daily drill is like this: Every morning and evening, volunteers man tables outside the major train stations in this sprawling district. Tai Wai, Shatin, Tai Po, Tseun Kwan O, Sheung Seui…
“Sheung Seui?” I wonder aloud to Chan Po Ying, one of Long Hair’s campaign majordomos. “Isn’t Sheung Seui a stronghold of the DAB?” Sheung Seui town is right next to the Chinese border, and it is filled with rural conservative voters and mainland immigrants. Why do Long Hair’s supporters bother to campaign in an area where they probably won’t get many votes? Wouldn’t it be a better use of limited resources to target areas of support first?
Po Ying–herself a recent candidate for district councillor–told me that the Long Hair campaign strategy is to go out every day, and “fight for votes everywhere.” And then she sets me straight about Sheung Seui.
“Yes, it’s true that the DAB controls there. But when you have a situation like that you also have people who feel resentful. They don’t like the ones who are grabbing all the advantage and all the power. So if they see you there, distributing leaflets, then they will feel a little stronger, feel like they are not alone. And when they are less afraid, then they may feel strong enough to vote for you”
The day before, she tells me, she was out giving away flyers in Sheung Seui, when three big goons from the DAB came up to her and started shouting at her. Then they came over and surrounded her.
“I wasn’t scared. I have experience in th
is. And, anyway, this is good for the campaign because when people see the DAB abusing a woman working for another candidate, it looks very, very bad.”
Po Ying has guts, and she stood her ground. As she’s telling me her unsettling story, I can’t help but flash back to another ugly political scene, this one in my own country: the Republican goons who smashed into and terrorized the election office in Miami in 2000, setting in motion the events that lead to the defeat of Al Gore, and the nightmare of George Bush’s presidency. Politics, for all the rhetoric and lofty ideals it’s draped in, is a dirty business, no matter what the language and culture.
But politics is also great human drama, and the narrative of the scrappy, poor David who upends the wealthy media-controlling Goliath is one of the best there is. Long Hair may have no money to fill his follower’s bellies with free rice boxes, but it’s not all about money. “I think people know when they’re being manipulated. I think that voters do respond to values, instead of image,” he tells me.
“Anyway,” he smirks playfully, “They can take the free lunch, and then vote for who they want.”
“Eat with the DAB, vote for the LSD.”