Political parties and pressure groups are perceived as an important component in a democratic society for the reason that they both transmit demands and interests of people to government. Due to the institutional constraints, the performance and power of political parties in Hong Kong is seriously affected. The success of pressure groups in achieving their goals varies from one group to another. For those minority groups with fewer members, their success rate is relatively lower and their demands or ideas are sometimes being ignored or overlooked. In this regard, these kinds of pressure groups may choose to demonstrate on street so as to attain their goals. The effects of demonstration are considerably negative to the government.
This essay mainly comprised of three parts. Firstly, I will give a brief definition to pressure groups and political parties. Secondly, I will illustrate how different the pressure groups and political parties are in expressing public opinions to the administration in Hong Kong. Thirdly, I will evaluate the consequences of the demonstrations in Hong Kong (in the post 1997 era) as well as the negative impacts they have brought to the political system. Generally, there are two main arguments put forwarded in this paper. Despite of the weaknesses of political parties, pressure groups are not necessarily a better agent in channeling public demands and grievances; meanwhile, large scale demonstrations adversely affect the Hong Kong’s political system.
Pressure groups exist primarily for exerting political influence as a means of affecting government policies or legislation. Wyn (1995, p. 9) suggests, “a pressure group is an organization and its functions are to influence the formulation and implementation of public policy.” Occasionally, they engage in some form of lobbying or other political activities with respect to issues that touch on the common interests. According to Miners (1998, p. 185), pressure groups defined as any groups which attempt to influence government decisions without themselves seeking to exercise the formal powers of government”. Also, it refers to a group of people who share common goals, beliefs or objectives that have formed a formal organization to serve specific common interests of the membership.
Most of the pressure groups would first try to convince the administration or government officials so as to accept their opinions or adopt their proposals. If the pressure groups failed to do that, they may change their target from government towards the public, hoping that public pressure would change the mind-set of decision makers so as to amend the policies with regard to public demands.
As pressure groups are differ from one another in term of their objectives and characteristics, they can be classified into several types, namely, “business groups, professional groups, trade unions, sporting and recreational groups, civic groups and cause groups” (Miners, 1998, p. 186). If they can join together in opposing a particular policy, it will definitely be a very strong force in altering government decisions.
In general, the existence of pressure groups can facilitate political communication between government and general citizens. Pressure groups usually unite people together and promote their common interest. As such, government can have a better understanding of the desires of the public through the channeling of information and ideas from groups to government. These kinds of activities are known as interest aggregation and interest articulation.
Political parties can be regarded as one form of pressure group and they are aiming to form a government or part of a government through their winning seats in elections. In the western countries, political parties primarily function as agencies for recruiting suitable candidates to run for elective office and for organizing and conducting election campaigns. Miners (1998, p. 197) suggests, “political parties are normally defined as groups which seek to acquire power through the capture of political office by winning an election”. It is important for the party’s leaders to be empowered to appoint new officials from the cabinet to other top policy-making positions in government after winning the election.
Generally speaking, there are two main functions carried out by political parties. First, they take up the monitoring role of government performance. In Hong Kong, for instance, the representatives from different political parties in the Legislative Council (LegCo) give comments and opinions on both public policy plans and budget. Secondly, political parties served as intermediate agencies between the government and public. It is critical important for political parties to perform their bridging function in channeling public concerns to government. As such, government then recognizes the demands of society and becomes more responsive to the citizens in making public policies.
In short, the objective of political parties in seeking government office highlighted is the major difference between political party and pressure group. Political parties normally pursue their influences to government by putting forward members or candidates for public office through elections. Unlike political parties, pressure groups are primarily interested in influencing whatever government officials actually happen to be in office rather than in attaining office for its own members. In the following, I will mention the weaknesses of political parties as well as the limitations of pressure groups.
Pressure groups versus Political Parties
Due to the political reality and institutional constraints, Hong Kong’s political parties are completely different from the western ones. The political parties in Hong Kong can only participate in elections and give position in Legislative Council but without gaining political office or power. In accordance with the doctrine of ‘separation of power’, they are only responsible for giving advice, criticizing, or occasionally blocking the bills put forwarded by the administration. Apart from the function of ‘checking’, political parties in the LegCo can neither formulate nor implement public policies.
Hong Kong is a typical pluralistic society which the sources of power are unevenly distributed but mainly among different groups and parties. As such, consensus is difficult to be reached among political parties, as different parties have their own political ideologies towards different issues. In fact, political parties always try to fight for the interest of the voters in order to gain supports in elections. For example, the Chairman of Liberal Party, Mr. James Tian, resigned from the Executive Council few months ago to express the dissatisfaction of the party towards the national security legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Indeed, political parties play an unimportant role in the Basic Law that largely hindered their development. No matter how hard they try, unfortunately, both the Chief Executive and the central Beijing government do not really support the work and development of political parties in Hong Kong. In 1989, the activities held by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, for example, has roused the anger of the Chinese authorities who denounced the Alliance as a subversive organization and demanded that the Hong Kong government should ban it (Miners, 1998, p. 199).
As above, it showed that the major weaknesses of political parties in Hong Kong and these weaknesses badly affect their bridging function between government and citizens. Worse still, pressure groups have their own limitations too in channeling public demands and grievances to government.
Pressure groups are a valuable asset in maintaining a democratic society. The groups help to provide checks on the government to see if they are in balance with their ongoing activities, in this way they are able to oppose any activity that they find unsatisfactory, thus the rest of society can get involved and participate in any activity that they agree to of the groups.
Miners (1998, p. 191) argues, nevertheless, “pressure groups do not have equal access to government, and officials are highly selective in choosing the groups with which they are willing to hold consultations”. In the light of this, the main disadvantage of being a pressure group is that the group has far less or no access at all to government departments and consulted by the government to give their contributions and opinions. In Hong Kong, it is the fact that the administration favors the “richer business and employer groups who are largely represented on some advisory committees” (Miners, 1998, p. 191). Other groups, particularly those trade unions and grass-root organizations are somehow ignored in the political system.
Demonstrations Weaken the Political System in Hong Kong
Pressure groups can make use of various kinds of activities to influence government decisions in order to achieving their goals. These activities can either be peaceful or violent, legal or illegal. In tradition, opinions and ideas from the pressure groups are channeled through government consultations. It can be regarded as the most common and ideal method of articulating demands and shaping policy decisions. Also, pressure groups may try to persuade the legislators so as to lobby the decision makers. But it is relatively ineffective because of the diverse stances and opinions in every party.
If pressure groups failed to influence the government by the above-mentioned methods, demonstrations or strikes is an important weapon for arousing public attention and discussion through the mass media. Miners (1998, p. 190) stated, “Most demonstrations mainly aim to obtain press publicity for their cause…normally the organizers hope that their meeting will proceed in a peaceful and orderly manner so as to attract favorable media comment”. It is the fact that decision makers are more likely to listen to pressure groups if they have widespread public support, large scale demonstrations can indicate such support. As a consequence, demonstrations become a relatively more effective way in reflecting public grievances and demands. In some case, actions have been taken by government after a large scale demonstration.
On 1st July 2003, for example, there was the largest demonstration in Hong Kong since handover with estimated participation of up to 500,000 people from all sectors of society. The demonstration was joinly organized by various parties and pressure groups and the participants came from all walks of life including professionals, middle class, students, housewives and artists.
On the surface, the main purpose of this large-scale demonstration is to fight against the new national security legislation i.e. Article 23 of the Basic Law. People concerned that the new legislation could be used to suppress rights of freedom of expression and association as well as the legitimate activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media.
At the same time, participants were asking for a political restructuring with the change of existing economic structure. They spoke for their desire for a more effective and responsive government. During the demonstration, people wanted the ‘stepping down’ of Tung Chee-wah, meanwhile, both Anthony Leung and Regina Ip were the second-most-important target after Tung.
Consequently, the demonstration has exerted great influence toward the political system in Hong Kong. First, the Chief Executive announced on the 5th September 2003 that the Hong Kong government had decided to withdrawn the national security legislation from the consideration by the LegCo. Second, it has been claimed that the demonstration undermined the sovereignty of the SAR government in the sense that large percentage of the citizens do not satisfied with the results of first 5 years under Tung’s administration. Thirdly, Leung and Ip had resigned from their positions of the Financial Secretary and Secretary for Security on the 16th July 2003 respectively. Apart from the removal of legislation, the acceptance of their resignation by Tung has been regard as another concession in response to the massive demonstration.
To sum up, both political parties and pressure groups are two significant channels in Hong Kong’s political system. They are responsible for reflecting public demands and grievances to government. Unfortunately, the functions of political parties in Hong Kong is hindered institutionally by the system, while the pressure groups in Hong Kong do not have many formal ways in channeling public opinions. As a result, both of them cannot be fully perform their functions. Yet, there is no concrete evidence to prove that the channeling function of political parties has been replaced by the pressure groups. Last but not least, large scale demonstration brings undesirable effects to the political system, which is regarded as an effective way in shaping or altering government policy.