Political Parties, Elite-Mass Gap and Political Instability in Hong Kong

By Hing, Lo Shiu | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Political Parties, Elite-Mass Gap and Political Instability in Hong Kong


Hing, Lo Shiu, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Introduction

Political parties constitute either an "intermediary institution" between the government and ordinary citizens, or a link in the "elite-mass gap".(1) By aggregating and representing the interests of citizens, political parties not only narrow any communication gap between the elites and the masses but also play a crucial function of stabilizing a regime. As Alan Ball puts it succinctly:

One of the most important functions of political parties is that of uniting, simplifying and stabilizing the political process. Political parties tend to provide the highest common denominator ... Parties bring together sectional interests, overcome geographical distances, and provide coherence to sometimes divisive government structures ... This bridging function of political parties is an important factor in political stability.(2)

Other political analysts point to the intermediary role of political parties, which constitute a link between the state and civil society.(3)

Political parties are a relatively new phenomenon in Hong Kong, which changed from a colony of Britain to a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on 1 July 1997. The parties have emerged and mushroomed since the Tiananmen incident of June 1989.(4) Although there are numerous political parties in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), some of them are dependent on the PRC for political influence upon the HKSAR Government, where a multiparty system without any dominant party exists.(5) The HKSAR has a multiparty system because a number of small political parties, which aim at capturing political power, persist and compete among themselves. However, the HKSAR's multiparty system is weak. None of the popularly supported parties can form a government because of the partially directly-elected Legislative Council (LegCo), and the determination of both the PRC and the HKSAR Government to maintain an executive-dominant polity. Together with the senior bureaucrats, the HKSAR's Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, and his top policy-making body, the Executive Council (ExCo), constitute the executive branch, which is politically dominant over any political party.

This article will also contend that political parties in the HKSAR are increasingly divided into two types: popularly supported parties which are politically powerless, and patron-client type of parties which are backed by the PRC and the HKSAR Government to share some political power.(6) While the popularly-supported political parties are increasingly marginalized in the HKSAR's executive-dominant polity, the masses regard the clientelist parties as unpopular and unrepresentative of public opinion. The inability of political parties to function as an intermediary between the ruling elites and the masses contributes to a widening elite-mass gap, precipitating a crisis of political turbulence in the HKSAR in the years to come.

Political Parties in the HKSAR: Ideological Spectrum, Origins and Constraints

The ideological spectrum of political parties in the HKSAR is relatively narrow (see Table 1). Most political parties are situated between the liberal and conservative spectrum, with the exception of a political group named April the Fifth Action Group (AFAG), which vows to change the PRC's polity from authoritarianism to democratic socialism and which often has confrontations with the police on the streets.(7) It is rumoured that the AFAG has been blacklisted by the Hong Kong police force, and that its activists are under the surveillance of the Security Branch.(8) Strictly speaking, the AFAG is a pressure group rather than a political party, for it aims at using street protests to oppose government policies instead of supporting candidates to participate in local elections.

TABLE 1

The Political Spectrum of Parties in the HKSAR

Radical    Liberal    Moderate    Conservative    Reactionary

AFAG       DP         ADPL        LP                   -
           Frontier   DAB         HKPA
           CP

Note: This political spectrum is derived from Leon P. 

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