Hong Kong election shows a city divided and uneasy

Hong Kong election shows a city divided and uneasy

Hong Kong voters send a strong message to Beijing by electing pro-democracy candidates

The elections for the Hong Kong Legislative Council, the Special Administrative Region’s parliament, held over the first weekend of September, confirm some trends that had already been noted, and pose some sharp questions for the city government, but, most importantly, for Beijing.

First of all the details. Turnout was the highest ever in these kind of elections, coming in just short of 60 per cent. So much for the myth of the apolitical Hong Kongese. More people went to the trouble of voting as a proportion of the population than in the last American election, any election for the European parliament, and a large number of British ones. Democracy in Hong Kong therefore is something local people are interested in, and willing to participate in.

Secondly, the fact that six of the 30 seats up for grabs by public choice (40 of the remaining 70 seats are chosen by smaller interest groups or direct appointment) went to candidates who have taken up strongly pro-democracy stances is hugely significant. The city has been painted as a place of moderation and pragmatism. And yet, people who overtly stated their opposition to the settlement Beijing has sponsored over the last two years of highly managed local democracy for the position of chief executive have reaped rewards, not punishment, at the ballot box. This group even includes people who have voiced support for complete independence for the city, something regarded as anathema before the events of the 2014 `umbrella revolution’.

One of them, Nathan Law, is a mere 23 years old. In some senses, he is Beijing’s worst nightmare. A political activist who cut his teeth in the Occupy Central protests two years ago, he has shown how a path can be created from oppositional protest movement to participatory, organised political participation.

Protest politics

Hong Kong’s 2016 elections show, however, a city which is divided, and uneasy. The growth of protest politics over the last few years is a result of failed policies and strategies by the local government and the leadership in Beijing. It shows the real costs carried by their heavy-handed approach to constitutional reform since 2013. The very fact that there were so many successful pro-democracy candidates is the most powerful indictment of the current Chief Executive CY Leung. Their achievement is even more striking when one considers the kinds of obstruction and vocal denunciations they faced during the campaign.

If democracy is the winner in Hong Kong, however, like so many democratic outcomes at the moment, from the Brexit vote in the UK to the fractious campaign currently being conducted for the presidency in the US, clear futures and some kind of certainty about where the centre ground of public opinion is have proved as elusive to find in the city as elsewhere. The government will have to face a landscape where those who are pro-Beijing, and those who are against it have never been further apart. It is hard to know how they can easily appease both sides, nor how they can create some kind of consensus for everyone to work within.

One immediate area to reflect on now the votes are in is about CY Leung’s future. The Chief Executive’s position was not one people were voting on this time. But they were delivering a verdict indirectly on CY Leung and his record since appointment in 2012. In most other systems, the unexpected strength of support for opposition parties would be taken as marking a real failure on his part.

Beijing needs to see these results as a direct response to its hardline attitude over the last few years to any notion of electoral reform in the city

The powers of the legislative council, of course, are limited. But the fact that over one-third of the legislators are broadly oppositional ones means they can at least veto any new legislation, even if they can’t initiate things easily. This marks a result for Leung that is most definitely not in his interests, nor one he wanted. The life of the government he leads was hard before these results. It has just become very much harder. Can he therefore really continue and stand for re-election next year? Should be not now take responsibility for what has happened and start to outline a future where he will not be one of the candidates when his term comes to an end next year?

The signs so far are that this is unlikely. Leung seems to wish to stay on. In many ways this means one of the easiest ways of ameliorating the situation—a new leadership, and then a new start for the government, trying to forge a fresh relationship with legislators—has been disbarred. If Leung does wish to continue, then he will need to either brace himself for more years of fractious, confrontational politics, typified by his refusal this time to engage greatly with the more extreme in the pro-democracy camp, or to radically change his leadership style, something he has shown no real willingness to do till beforehand.

Beijing’s choice

But it is not all the responsibility of the government and Chief Executive. Beijing also needs to see these results as a direct response to its hardline attitude over the last few years to any notion of electoral reform in the city. It faces a similar choice to Leung. Either it does not compromise, and simply ignores the evidence given about public opinion in the city furnished by these results, or it rethinks some of its positions.

For Beijing, Hong Kong still matters hugely as a finance and services centre. Creating an atmosphere of conflict and uncertainty in the city long term therefore is not something it particularly wants to see. Nor does it benefit from having what is in effect a very visible, very embarrassing advert of the failure of its hardline approach which others from the US to Australia and countries in the region can point to as hard evidence of what its true nature is like underneath the rhetoric of its soft diplomacy.

Finally, while they may be the victors today, the oppositional legislators will also need to think hard about what they now do with their influence. Demonstrating, opposing and attacking are all good when you are protesting from the outside. But within the council, they will need to craft an alternative, pragmatic narrative which can run against the current mainstream one. This narrative will get nowhere if it asserts outright independence for the city—either in Beijing, or, for that matter, in the rest of the world.

These elections therefore offer lessons for everyone. The question is who will learn those lessons the most quickly and effectively. Whoever does, they will end up the real long-term winners from these truly momentous and historic events in Hong Kong.

Featured image
Ongoing protests like this one in 2012 against the administration of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung have been reflected in the results of the city’s latest Legislative Council elections. Photo: Voice of America

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Kerry Brown is Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Politics at King’s College, London.

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