In the election for Chief Executive of Hong Kong that was held in March, incumbent candidate Mr. Donald Tsang “blogged” for the first time on his campaign website.1 If you missed Mr. Tsang’s posts, more than 50 in number, on his feelings about the election and romance with his wife: sorry, you cannot read them now. Mr. Tsang closed his website as soon as he won the March 25 election in a landslide over challenger Alan Leong. Despite his online efforts and his official victory in the Election Committee—Hong Kong’s citizens can not vote for their Chief Executive—the Beijing-endorsed candidate lost to the democrat Alan Leong in Hong Kong’s still-immature political blogosphere. Leong’s election blog,2 which was launched much earlier than Tsang’s and is still online, attracted over 800,000 hits and at one time topped the Yahoo! popular blog chart.
To be sure, Mr. Tsang would have won in the “election” whether he had blogged or not. Leong’s campaign was groundbreaking but may be viewed as another step in Hong Kong’s Sisyphus-style democracy movement, which has developed since the 1980s. But Mr. Tsang might not have blogged had Leong not entered the race to create some “competition” in terms of winning over the hearts and minds of ordinary Hong Kong citizens. However, given the political system and political realities, Leong’s blog, no matter how popular it was, made no difference in the outcome of the Chief Executive election.
So, is the idea of digital democracy relevant to the Hong Kong politics at all? Hong Kong people are technologically sophisticated, with very high penetration rates in household broadband Internet access (66.6 percent, the world’s number ninth) and mobile phones (123.5 percent). Hong Kong also boasts a high level of education and a vibrant civil society. But to what extent can the civil society use new media and digital technologies (such as the Internet and mobile phones) to boost the democracy movement or to change political outcomes?
Let’s look at the questions from a comparative perspective. As compared to the United States, the use of new media in Hong Kong politics, and in elections in particular, still has a long way to go in terms of strategy and impact on political (and electoral) outcomes. The potential, however, is clear and proven. The new media did play an important role in boosting grassroots participation and mobilization of the Hong Kong democracy and social movements, especially after 2003. This was often achieved in a spontaneous manner by ordinary citizens and without strong leadership from pro-democracy politicians, in contrast with the more deliberate and strategic use of the Internet in U.S. elections.
In America, online electioneering is already a must for all candidates. Time Magazine’s selection of “You” as Person of the Year in 2006 was inspired partly by he new media as a new political force in the mid-term elections last year-as illustrated by the exposure of and reactions to George Allen’s missteps and the Foley scandal; online fundraising; and “gotcha” negative campaign videos on Youtube, to name only a few. As a vehicle for appealing to and expressing nation-wide discontent over the Iraq War, Internet-facilitated people-based political campaigning (often referred to as “the netroots movement,” as opposed to the traditional grassroots) contributed significantly to the Democratic victories in both chambers of the Congress, including surprise wins such as those by Jim Webb and Jon Tester in the Senate.
Internet-based electioneering in America was born in the 1990s and took more than a decade to mature; despite much talk and public attention, rarely did the online campaigns deliver electoral victories until 2006. In the new millennium, online campaigning has become routine in American elections after relatively successful high-profile experiments, such as Republican John McCain’s online fundraising in 2000 and Howard Dean’s full-scale new media campaign in 2004 that were milestones in Internet electioneering.
While online campaigning is yet to decisively influence a presidential election, by 2006 the liberal netroots had put in place a fairly comprehensive campaign network, the result of years of collective trial and error by various candidates. The netroots’ infrastructure contains all the key elements required for a nation-wide campaign, from online fundraising and interactive blogs to the ability to mobilize volunteers, organize events, publicize campaign messages, shape opinions, conduct negative campaigning, trail and track opponents’ mistakes, and perform get-out-the-vote operations.
Many of these elements of online electioneering in the U.S. are absent in Hong Kong. In recent elections (whether for the Legislative Council, District Councils, or Election Committee), most candidates did not even have a website. For those who did (usually from geographical constituencies or direct elections), the websites were mostly e-brochures offering little interactivity to voters. Online fundraising is practically nonexistent, and election blogs are rare. Tsang’s and Leong’s blogs this year were a small breakthrough indeed.
There are many reasons for the slow start of online electioneering in Hong Kong. At the top of the list is the political system that discourages participation and party development. In particular, the functional constituencies (important participants in Hong Kong’s system of “indirect elections”) are designed to institutionalize vested interests and reduce competition. It makes little sense for candidates from those functional constituencies, comprising no more than a few hundred corporate voters, to spend resources on new media when they either run unopposed or may meet their voters on golf courses or at yacht clubs. Only in those few constituencies composed of individual professionals—such as the Education or Information Technology functional constituencies—would the use of emails, SMS, or websites be meaningful.
Second, under electoral regulations, all contents of the candidates’ websites, emails, and supporters’ websites are subject to declaration, filing and expense caps, thereby creating administrative burdens and disincentives for candidates to initiate online electioneering to complement their conventional campaigns. Third, development of political blogs faces a cultural challenge: most Hong Kong people prefer verbal or visual communications to text. A typical newspaper page contains 30-50 percent graphics, or more. The Hong Kong blogosphere is full of photos but lacks in words. Promotion of online political debates and blogs, however, require articulation of ideas and arguments in words.
Last but not least, there is simply slow recognition and little imagination by most Hong Kong politicians, including those from the pro-democracy camp.
In the realm of digital democracy, ordinary citizens are ahead of their leaders. Digital communications have been used spontaneously and successfully in people-based mobilization of democracy movements, in particular in mass protests and get-out-the-vote efforts for democrat candidates. Ordinary people use websites, emails, and mobile text messaging to mobilize their families and friends to join mass protests. The first remarkable example of this phenomenon was the July 1st rally in 2003, in which a half-million people marched in opposition to a proposed national security law to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The mobilization was mainly spontaneous and heavily reliant on the Internet for communication; it took place at the time of the SARS outbreak, when the city almost stood still behind surgical masks. Many were inspired to join the protests after watching an online music video sentimentally highlighting Hong Kong’s post-1997 predicament on Rebuildhk.com, an effort by an ordinary website designer. Rebuildhk.com was later closed after sabotage by unknown opponents to the democrats.
Subsequent to the 2003 rally, spontaneous digital mobilization was found in all the mass democracy rallies, including the December 2005 protest against the government’s constitutional package. In particular, mobile text messaging, which is much less used in American politics, became important in political mobilization in Hong Kong.
Despite the differences in how new media are used in politics—the American way of being strategic and the more spontaneous Hong Kong experience—there are common themes. The important theoretical roles of the new media in democratic participation, regardless of the political system, are proven in five ways.
Internet radio is another new medium that is important in democratic participation in Hong Kong; it is less prominent in the U.S. In response to growing self-censorship in the mainstream media, Internet radio operations (such as Radio45, Hi-radio, Radio 71, People’s Radio HK) and activist journalism (such as inmedia.hk) emerged to allow an alternative public voice.
Despite the differences in how new media are used in politics-the American way of being strategic and the more spontaneous Hong Kong experience-there are common themes. The important theoretical roles of the new media in democratic participation, regardless of the political system, are proven in five ways.
- First, new media reduce frictions in political mobilization, particularly in fundraising, voting, and protests; especially when general discontent among the ordinary people and desire for change is strong.
- Second, people-based media reduce political apathy by reviving a sense of empowerment among ordinary citizens. This creates a positive cycle when successful mobilization in mass protests or voting energize civic spirit and encourage people to participate a little bit more at the next critical moment.
- Third, the user-autonomous new media serve as alternatives to the (often biased) oligopoly of traditional media.
- Fourth, the new media enable civil society to rapidly form effective operational networks and alliances in the absence of formal organization.
- Finally, the use of new media reduces biases in an uneven political playing field by facilitating political insurgents, who are disadvantaged in resources and access to the main media, to compete more effectively.
This last characteristic was evident in Alan Leong’s entry into the Chief Executive election. Leong declared to run with an aim of introducing some level of competition and forcing the incumbent to face the public in the election. But he faced an uphill battle in even getting his name on the ballot. In order to become an official candidate, Leong was required to obtain 100 nominations from among the 795 members of the Election Committee, the body which votes to elect the Chief Executive. In the Election Committee sub-sector elections held last December, digital communication via email and SMS were used effectively to get out the vote for pro-Leong candidates in those constituencies composed of teachers, professors, social workers, IT professionals (the main constituencies that cannot be fully controlled by Beijing) so that Leong could secure nominations from over 100 Committee members.
Meanwhile, whether in America or Hong Kong, the more competitive the election, the higher incentive the candidates have to explore the digital media. That was why Leong launched a slightly more interactive campaign website than Tsang.
There is a lot more that Leong could have done on the Internet and through wireless media. It is true that the Hong Kong civil society faces special challenges in adopting the new media into politics, including: a political system unfavorable to democratic participation and party development; poor financial resources; the small absolute size of Internet audiences; petty sabotage from opponents; and influences from across the border. Despite these challenges, pro-democracy politicians will need to be bolder and more innovative to catch up with the use of new media, which is an inevitable and irreversible trend in modern politics. As Alan Leong helped prove, this trend may help semi-autonomous Hong Kong wrest some control over its own political future from an authoritarian sovereign.
This web editorial is based on a CNAPS working paper by the same author, titled “Digital Democracy: How the American and Hong Kong Civil Societies Use New Media to Change Politics,” to be published this summer by Brookings.