When 38-year-old Vincent Cheng Wing-shun won the Kowloon West seat last month in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council by-election, the pro-establishment camp rejoiced.
It was the first time since the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997 that they had swept a geographical constituency seat in a by-election, and not least in an area known to be a pro-democracy stronghold.
With Cheng’s win, 13 of the 42 pro-establishment lawmakers in the 68-strong legislature are relatively youthful and below the age of 45. It has cast a spotlight on how the Beijing-friendly group will renew its ranks, given that the camp’s political opponents have a pipeline of youthful and enthusiastic faces.
At just 21, Demosisto’s Agnes Chow Ting would have been the youngest lawmaker if elected, but she, along with 24-year-old localist Ventus Lau Wing-hong, was banned by electoral officials.
Only Au Nok-hin, 30, an unaffiliated legislator but supported by Demosisto, made it to Legco.
With the ban imposed on Chow suggesting the government could bar similar candidates from running in elections in the future, there is no doubt that Occupy activists, and young Hongkongers seeking a legitimate space in the political landscape, face a rocky path ahead.
But it will not necessarily be a smooth road for younger, pro-establishment politicians either, political analysts said.
Their career prospects still depend on their senior party veterans’ personal plans, and views on whether their successors are “ready”, said City University political scientist Dr Cheung Chor-yung.
While Cheng’s political allies, Bill Tang Ka-piu and the New People’s Party’s Judy Chan Ka-pui, both 38, lost to their pan-democratic rivals in New Territories East and Hong Kong Island, respectively, pro-Beijing party leaders lauded the district councillor for their efforts.
They hinted that younger members like them would be given a chance to contest the Legco general election in 2020 if they continued to do well at the district level over the next two years.
But Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that hinged on the plans of veteran legislators Ann Chiang Lai-wan and the New People’s Party’s Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee.
Cheng would likely seek re-election as both political camps were trying to field younger, more professional candidates, he said.
But would Chiang – who holds a seat in the six-seat Kowloon West constituency and has been a lawmaker since 2012 – give way to a new face in the 2020 general election?
If she did, then the Beijing-friendly camp’s 37-year-old Chris Ip Ngo-tung, now the Yau Tsim Mong district council chairman, would have a chance to run.
However, Cheung asked if the younger generation of politicians were ready for the job.
“[The veterans’ retirement] depends on the second-tier members’ political capability … Cheng needs to achieve something if he wants to be re-elected two years later,” he said.
While the pro-establishment camp occupies almost 300 seats, or about two-thirds of the seats in 18 district councils around the city, they lack “political stars” who can shine during Legco debates.
“The opposition camp has been attracting more people with political talent,” he said. “This is because pro-establishment parties are too disciplined, and members cannot sharpen their political skills when they often have to toe the party line.”
Hong Kong’s pan-democrats might find their missing by-election voters among indifferent young people
Commentators have long been divided on whether it is easier for candidates who are known for their political positions or those who have pounded the ground doing district-level work to win a Legco election.
Cheung’s view was that pro-democracy activists found it easier to win public fame and thus, the pro-establishment camp would need to train more candidates who appeal to both the lower-income class and the middle class.
However, Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, disagreed, saying the party had been doing well in training and succession planning, and it was “likely that there will be DAB veterans stepping down” ahead of the 2020 general election. Nine of the 13 younger pro-establishment politicians are from the DAB.
She said Cheng’s recent defeat of pan-democrat academic Edward Yiu Chung-yim was a good example of how district councillors could be more appealing than activists.
Lee said that if the DAB needed to improve on political training, it would be for members who were interested in joining the government.
Presently, four of them are serving as political appointees in Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s cabinet, including Lau Kong-wah, the secretary for home affairs.
Choy said it was not only the local camp who was interested in political succession.
“After the recent by-election, the camp’s morale has been very good,” Choy said. “Beijing would also like to see more young, professional and well-educated pro-establishment politicians in Legco.”