OPINION-The Birth of Bauhinia Party in Hong Kong: Significance and Implications

The recent announcement of the formation of the Bauhinia Party in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has important political significance and implications for the political development of the city.

It was reported in Hong Kong that the Bauhinia Party had been established in March and registered as a company in May 2020 by three mainland-born Hong Kong people, namely Li Shan, Wong Chau-chi, and Chen Jianwen. 

Li was born in Sichuan and later educated and worked in the US. He graduated from Tsinghua University for his bachelor’s degree in management information system, then acquired his master’s degree in economics at the University of California, Davis, and finally obtained his PhD in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Li worked in Goldman Sachs in New York, Hong Kong and London. He also worked in Beijing’s China Development Bank and Lehman Brothers Asia, Hong Kong. From 2015 to the present, Li is the Chief Executive Officer of the Silk Road Finance Corporation Limited in Hong Kong. He has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Credit Suisse Group since 2019.

Wong Chau-chi was also born in the mainland and later graduated from Pomona College with his bachelor’s degree in economics and international relations. He pursued his Master studies in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and studied political history at the St. Anthony’s College at Oxford University. According to website sources, he worked as a business leader for derivatives and securities departments of Goldman Sachs, Citibank and BNP Paribas as well as the management departments of the General Electric and McKinsey. 

Chen Jianwen is a director of Haifu International Finance Holding Group. He is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a vice-chairman of the Chinese Academy of Governance (Hong Kong) Industrial and Commercial Professional Alumni Association.

According to the platform of this new Bauhinia Party, it seeks to promote a “democratic” political system suitable for Hong Kong on the basis of the rule of law and civil liberties “with the realization of universal suffrage as guaranteed by the Basic Law.” The party seeks to have another 50 years of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong after 2047, including the realization of the principles of “loving China and Hon Kong,” protecting the rule of law, and promoting a bicameral system in which the lower house would be composed of directly elected members and an upper house comprising members appointed by the Chief Executive. The party also supports public-public partnership in financing the Lantau Tomorrow Vision, while aiming at recruiting as many as 250,000 members in the society of Hong Kong. As a political party, it will naturally nominate and support candidates for the Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections in the future.

The immediate reactions from the political circles in Hong Kong to the sudden birth of the Bauhinia Party ranged from lukewarm to negative. Some existing pro-government parties and elites have emphasized that while these new political leaders were previously political unknowns, it remains to be seen how their party will perform in the HKSAR’s political system. A few observers who are negative have argued that, because of the imposition of the national security law, the rise of the Bauhinia Party and its platform of advocating 50 years unchanged after 2047 appear to be “unattractive” to many Hong Kong people, who have been “frightened” after the securitization of the HKSAR on June 30, 2020. Some have contended that the Bauhinia Party appears to be too close with the central authorities in the mainland, thereby making its emergence look like another phase of the “one country, two systems” in the HKSAR, where the cultivation of “new Hong Kong people” is looming. By “new Hong Kong people,” some observers have referred to the rise of the mainland-born Hong Kong elites, who are increasingly economically and politically influential, and who are perhaps far more politically “correct” and “loyal” than many local-born Hong Kong people.

From an objective perspective, the formation of the Bauhinia Party in the HKSAR is politically significant and arguably positive.

First and foremost, even though some observers have labelled the leaders of the new Bauhinia Party as the emergence of “new Hong Kong people,” the party can fill in the existing gap of all the pro-establishment parties and pro-Beijing elites. The crux of the problem of the HKSAR in recent years has been the static development of the pro-establishment parties, ranging from the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) to the pro-business Liberal Party. The DAB has remained relatively weak in the direct elections of the Legislative Council (LegCo), just grasping at most 40 to 45 percent of the votes and failing to challenge the democratic front that has remained comparatively strong with almost 50 to 55 percent of the popular votes. 

The DAB has in fact become consistently so weak that other pro-Beijing political groups had to emerge and assist them electorally as a broad united front, including the New People’s Party and the Federation of Trade Unions. It remains to be seen whether the Bauhinia Party will become another “auxiliary” group assisting the DAB as a united front machinery in electoral participation. However, one thing is clear: both parties have very different class background. The DAB tends to be a united front machinery composed of middle-class and lower-class citizens, while the Bauhinia Party appears to focus on the business elites at this moment. 

While the Liberal Party claims to represent the interests of the business sector, it has failed to participate in the direct elections of both LegCo and District Councils. Another business group, namely the Business and Professionals Alliance (BPA), remains influential in LegCo’s functional constituencies but not in direct elections. Both the Liberal Party and the BPA have their severe electoral limitations.

As such, the emergence of the Bauhinia Party is potentially significant. If it can really expand its membership to embrace more local-born Hong Kong people soon, and if it will participate actively in direct elections of LegCo and District Councils in the medium and long term, then the rise of the Bauhinia Party can perhaps be a force not only to be reckoned with, but also filling in the crucial gaps of the existing pro-Beijing groups.

Second, it can be argued that the existing pro-establishment and pro-Beijing forces have remained so weak electorally and politically that they could not act as an effective intermediary between the HKSAR and the central authorities in Beijing. Critically speaking, an overwhelming majority of the existing pro-Beijing elites have appeared to fail to articulate the interests and voice the views of many ordinary Hong Kong people to the central government. As such, if the Bauhinia Party can speak out for the interests and concerns of more Hong Kong people, it can and will become a new pro-Beijing and pro-establishment force narrowing the gap between some Hongkongers and the central authorities. 

Third, in terms of the electoral platform, the Bauhinia Party appears to be bolder than conventional wisdom assumes. The fact that it talks about a bicameral legislature, with a lower house totally directly elected and an upper house composed of appointees, points to a progressive step forward. None of the existing pro-establishment groups has mentioned the need for political reform in the HKSAR after the disruptive 2019 protests. Although the Bauhinia Party’s advocacy of having the upper house composed of appointees made by the Chief Executive can perhaps be improved and democratized further, the idea of having a lower house composed of fully directly elected members is a bold platform unrivalled by any other existing pro-establishment forces. Having a fully directly elected lower house can and will solve the long-standing problem of the incessant disputes between the democrats and the HKSAR authorities. Nevertheless, the challenge for the Bauhinia Party is to ponder how to make the upper house’s selection methods perhaps more democratic and to bridge the relationships between the appointed upper house and the wholly directly elected lower house. For instance, the political influence of the upper house may be restricted by having the power to veto a certain number or type of bills passed by the lower house every year. Or a committee between the two houses may be set up to hammer out solutions to disputed bills. In other words, the institutional design of the relationships between the upper house and the lower house can and must be refined further.

Fourth, unlike the existing pro-business parties and groups that cling to the economic and political status quo, the Bauhinia Party has talked about the need to restrict the influence of the land developers in the HKSAR. It is unclear whether this issue will be refined further, but the HKSAR’s societal contradictions since 1997 have been worsened by the widening income gap between the rich and the poor. Many members of the lower and working classes put the blame on the powerful landed elites, but the HKSAR government has done little to address the issue. Although rent control is studied by a newly formed committee, many poor people still pay for high rents in units with poor hygiene and conditions. While mainland China is attaching importance to the prevention of monopolies, the HKSAR’s land development remains to be dominated by the powerful landed class. The fact that the Bauhinia Party points to the powerful role of landed class is perhaps a sharp and bold observation unrivalled by the existing pro-business groups, which have avoided discussions of the root of the societal contradictions and public discontent in the HKSAR.

Fifth, it is perhaps the ripe time that, after 23 years of the handover, more mainland-born Hong Kong people should be encouraged to participate in the politics of the HKSAR. If the “new Hong Kong people” can be united with the local-born Hongkongers, the past phenomenon of witnessing a minority of localists discriminating against the mainland visitors in public will hopefully fade away. After all, many local-born Hong Kong people have their parents born in the mainland and migrated to Hong Kong. If the leaders and members of the Bauhinia Party are identifying themselves as the people of Hong Kong, it does not matter whether they are born in the mainland or not. Rather, the active socio-political participation of the mainland-born Hong Kong people should be embraced to realize the idea of “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong.”

In short, the rise of the new Bauhinia Party has been adding an element of excitement to the dried political landscape of the HKSAR, especially after the enactment of the national security law in late June 2020. It has a huge potential of filling in the existing gaps in the disappointing performance of the existing pro-Beijing and pro-establishment parties, becoming a far more effective middleman who can bridge the communication and expectation gaps between many Hongkongers and the central authorities, considering the issue of political reform in a far more imaginative and bolder way than the existing pro-government groups, toying with the idea of dealing with the serious gap between the powerful rich people and the powerless ordinary people, and acting as a symbol of reuniting the mainland-born and local-born Hong Kong people. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the Bauhinia Party will be able to achieve a socio-political breakthrough in the coming years.