Fighting For Votes Everywhere

Hong Kong Election Diary–Part 2
On the Ground With Long Hair’s Troops in Tai Po

My baptism by fire as a foot soldier in the battle for the hearts and votes of the people of New Territories East begins in the bowels of the Tai Po train station. It’s hot, it’s sweaty, the station is under renovation, with dark green barricades blocking the passageways. The air reeks of exhaust fumes from idling busses–like most Hong Kong suburban railway stations, Tai Po (大埔), the site of a Chinese pearl-fishing village and market that dates back to the 10th Century, is now one of the New Territories busiest transport nodes, where commuters change from the express trains to the mini-busses (siu ba) and private shuttle busses that whisk them up into their apartment complexes tucked into the surrounding hills.

It takes me fifteen minutes to find Po Ying in the labyrinth of tunnels, but then I hear the recorded voice of Long Hair playing through a loudspeaker on an MP3 loop, and spot her standing by a row of banners. She is handing out red and white flyers to the commuters streaming by, while shouting instructions into her cell phone.

“Great!” she shouts at me above the din, and without further formalities, presses a stack of flyers into my hand. “Take these. Go over there where people are waiting for the minibus to the middle class housing estates. Lots of them can speak English.”

I look down at the flyer, and recognize my own writing, transformed by the grassroots graphics of Long Hair’s designer. It looks terrific.

I find a good spot facing the stream of rush hour commuting pedestrians, and start to work. Unsure what to say in the situation, I try, “M’goi, Cheung Mo!” and “M’goi, tau yat piu”. Literally, “Please, (for) Long Hair.” and “Please, throw one vote!”. I haven’t been a political ground soldier for at least 20 years, but I do remember that the best way to get people to accept your leaflet is to make eye contact with them, so I do. I also bow slightly and smile a lot.

The results amaze me. In only a few minutes, my folders are gone and I have to go back to Po Ying to get restocked. “Hey, give me some of the Chinese language folders, too,” I tell her.

The crowds stream by, faster and thicker after the trains arrive from Kowloon, then thinning out in-between arrivals. The train that stops here at Tai Po is part of a line that stretches from Kowloon to the China border crossing into Shenzhen. Everybody and anybody rides this train. I slide flyers into the hands of old grannies dragging baskets filled with empty plastic bottles, of businessmen with expensive watches dressed in beautifully cut suits. The exhaustion of the workday spreads over their faces, and I hesitate to disturb them.  But I also seem to be making a lot of folks chuckle–the sight of a Westerner speaking Cantonese and handing out flyers for Long Hair is probably about as entertaining as the Mexican Mariachi bands the ply the New York subways. I take that energy, and try to work it. “Tau yat piu!”

Po Ying seems glad I’ve signed on to help out tonight. Heading into the stretch, Leung Kwok Hung’s campaign for re-election is struggling. Long Hair’s hardcore group of volunteers is dedicated but shorthanded. (Long Hair’s loaned some of his best workers to help fellow LSD candidates in other districts.). It is also low on cash. The buzz I hear is that the LSD’s chairman, former radio host Wong Yuk Man, was stingy when distributing the party war chest (and that he took the lion’s share for his own LEGCO race in Kowloon West district.) Besides the 6 person team I’m working with today, there’s only one other Long Hair leaflet-handing team working this sprawling district of 1.6 million people that’s about the size of Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, the media hasn’t been paying as much attention to Long Hair’s campaign as they did in 2004, when he won his first LEGCO term. It could be, fair enough, that the media don’t find his re-election bid as interesting a news story as his first campaign was. But there are other factors influencing the media coverage, and to understand them you have to first understand a bit about the political mahjong that is a Hong Kong LEGCO election.

I’ve mentioned before that the election system in Hong Kong is a modified “first past the post” system. The actual rules of the game are more complex. In New Territories East, for instance, thirty candidates on ten slates are contesting 7 available seats. But the larger parties have padded their slates with extra people who have zero chance of winning–younger party members who are on the list for “seasoning”. When you extract these ringers from the list, and take out the no-chance-in-hell independent candidates, the number of real, serious contenders comes to 9–six incumbents, and three newcomers.

Although Hong Kong’s four different election polls are not especially reliable, (last election, Long Hair polled about 5% of the vote, but won with around 9%) it’s almost certain the pro-Beijing DAB will win one, possibly two seats. Liberal Party chairman James Tien is pretty sure to win another. Which means that the rest of the seats in this district (4 or 5) are being fought over by the six pan-Democrat candidates.

The big story of the 2008 LEGCO election is the subtle, sometimes vicious, in-fighting amongst the Democratic opposition. In New Territories East, there are two Democrats who’ve polled pretty solidly throughout–the Civic Party’s Ronny Tong Ka-Wah, and the Democratic Party’s Andrew Cheng Ka-Foo. Both will probably take a seat. Now we’re down to two or three available seats, and three pan-Democratic candidates.

Best case scenario: the remaining NT East democrats, Wong Sing Chi, Emily Lau, and Long Hair all win. But for that to happen, the DAB would have to poll low, and take only one seat. I don’t think that’s going to happen, which means that one of these three pan-Democratic candidates is going to end up holding the short straw.

Who will that be? When I learned to play mahjong last
summer, one of the concepts that it took me a while to understand was
this: In mahjong you aren’t just playing to win. You are playing to win
by making other people lose. In the mahjong politics of Hong Kong, what Long Hair has to do to stay alive and win is this: he needs to kick the DAB, in hopes that he can draw their votes down, keep them from winning that second seat, and maybe collect some extra votes from anti-DAB voters in the process. He also needs to make sure he out-polls Wong Sing Chi and Emily Lau.

In the twisted logic of Hong Kong’s mahjong politics, Long Hair’s got to fight for votes against candidates who are his political cohorts. If he’s going to win, one of them will probably have to lose. To his credit, he won’t go after them.

From the other side, though, it’s another story. Although the pan-Democrats agreed before the election not to attack each other, both Wong and Lau have subtly been jockeying for position in the three-way struggle. The other day, Emily Lau announced a “go gap“–an urgent notice to her supporters that she was in danger of losing. Her announcement got big play in Apple Daily, which also published an “analysis” of the latest polls that suggested Long Hair’s popularity was responsible for Lau’s decline. The result? In today’s poll, Emily Lau’s number are up, and Long Hair’s are down.

The daggers are flying in the messy House of Pan-Democracy. Now for the down and dirty: a little bird told me that Apple Daily is pushing Emily Lau’s campaign as blowback, because Apple Daily’s owner, Jimmy Lai, is feuding with LSD chairman Wong Yuk-man. (Lai, in this scenario, is maneuvering to shaft LSD member Long Hair in his re-election race.) Another bird told me that the money for all the big, fancy taxicab ads and huge billboards for Civic Party candidates like Ronny Tong came from the deep pockets of tycoon Richard Li, maverick son of gazillionaire Li Ka Shing. (This rings true–a few months ago the Civic Party had to shutter its newspaper for lack of funds. The party, so they said, was nearly broke. I wondered how they could suddenly afford such a splashy campaign).

Democracy is messy. I’ve just come back from watching the raucous, rancorous Democratic Presidential primary play out in the U.S. The fallout from the angry battle between the supporters of Hillary and Obama is still settling, and it may lose the party an election that was theirs to win.

Will Hong Kong’s Democrats end up slashing each other to a loss? Can Long Hair’s ragged, understaffed and under-funded campaign make it across the victory line this year? Stay tuned–election day is only two days away.

“I don’t believe the polls”, says Po Ying, as we fold up the Long Hair banners, turn off the loudhailer, and carry all our un-distributed leaflets back to the Tai Po office. “We just have to fight for votes, in Tai Po, in Shatin, in Tseun Kwan O. Every day, everywhere.”

Addendum #1
In case you are new to HK politics, and are wondering why it is important that the pan-Democrats hold onto a block of seats in the legislature, the answer is this. Hong Kong’s legislature can’t propose legislation. The only power it has is as an opposition: it can veto government budgets. If the democrats don’t hold on to at least 23 seats, Hong Kong’s LEGCO instantly turns into a rubber stamp legislature.

Addendum #2-Banned in the Mainland
While I figured it had to happen sooner or later, I was hoping to slip through the cracks. No luck, in this Olympic year of crackdowns. A few weeks ago, Learning Cantonese hit the Great Firewall of China. This blog is now Banned in Beijing. You HK readers will have no problems though–the Hong Kong Government doesn’t do that sort of thing. Yet. Another good reason to tau yat piu for a pan-Democratic candidate this Sunday!

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