On the Meaning of Hong Kong’s Recent Election

The results of Hong Kong’s district council elections have added a new twist to the city’s ongoing saga, as pro-democracy forces square off against the Beijing-backed authorities. Just days after the apocalyptic violence at the CUHK and PolyU campuses, we watched citizens guzzling Dom Pérignon as they joyfully celebrated the democratic parties’ landslide victory. Considering my previously grim predictions for Hong Kong,  it is worth asking if these results change anything? Probably not.

Hong Kong’s district councils (DC) are not important decision-making bodies. As the South China Morning Post puts it, they “serve as a line of communication between citizens and the government, handling community-level affairs such as transport and public facilities across the city’s 18 districts”. Based on my observations during the seven years I lived in Hong Kong, calls for increased frequency of bus services are the Fifty-Four Forty or Fight of most DC candidates.

Yet Sunday’s elections were momentous, serving as a “de facto protest referendum”. Pro-Beijing forces were hopeful they would continue to hold all 18 councils, confirming their claims that a “silent majority” opposed the protests and want Hong Kong to make its peace with China’s designs. In fact, they were confident such a result would be delivered and at many Mainland papers, “copy was filed to editors the night before the Nov. 24 elections assuming a strong victory for the establishment”.

The pro-Beijing establishment was ready to equate a victory with a call from the “silent majority” to stop the protests. It then follows that the pro-democracy camp’s victory signals the opposite: an endorsement of the protesters’ actions and objectives. These election results essentially disprove claims that the Hong Kong police’s repression of those calling for democratic reforms is being done at the behest of the general public: The protesters and their supporters are the general public.

The council election victory should be celebrated by pro-democracy forces, not least because it confirms their most important claim: Given a choice, Hongkongers would run their city differently than how it’s being run by the current, undemocratic administration.

After a particularly grueling week, it would be understandable if the protesters decided to look at the election results as a kind of inflection point, from whence their efforts take a different, more institutional route—a truce of sorts. It is true that district councils are hardly powerbrokers in Hong Kong, but still there is much that could be done at that level. If nothing else, newly minted councilors could endeavor to ensure that their tenures are characterized by transparency and responsiveness, in contrast to the modus operandi of Hong Kong and national cadres. They will also offer living proof that, across the city, Hongkongers want democracy—and that “silent” support of the authorities is a myth.

No doubt many would welcome such a lull, and the election results may restore some of the hope that a way forward can be found within the limitations of the current system. At the same time, the victory will reenergize others, who will point out that, fundamentally, nothing has changed. This could well be the point at which the reed mat is cut. My bet on the outcome of such a schism would be a reduction, but not an end to unrest; simmering tension with occasional flareups. Muted enough that the Hong Kong police (and their cohorts in the disciplined services) can handle it, but nowhere near the point where Hong Kong’s future turns bright.

There is of course another factor to consider: Beijing’s reaction. No sooner than the results were announced and the Chinese government responded by “emphasizing that the city will always be ruled from Beijing, and warning against further protest violence”. In keeping with the cliched “kill a chicken to scare monkeys” logic, the CCP may decide now is the time to send a message to the insubordinates in Hong Kong—not to mention anyone on the Mainland side of the border who may be getting ideas.

Back in 2007, having recently moved to Hong Kong, I got caught up in the feverish campaigning of a Legislative Council by-election. At first, I did not understand what the hullaballoo was about: only one seat was at stake. However, as was the case in this most election, the race was also an informal referendum on Hong Kong’s future, pitting two local heavyweights, each representing a starkly different view of the city’s future. While leading the Security Bureau, Regina Ip had been Hong Kong’s government’s main advocate for pushing through “national security” legislation Beijing desired. Her opponent was Anson Chan, the “Old Lady of Democracy”, who was the second-in-command to both the last British governor and the first chief executive under Chinese rule.

Chan’s victory boosted the spirits of Hong Kong’s democrats, giving them hope that, maybe, just maybe, there was room within the Basic Law framework to bring about the change they wanted. Yet the next year Chan chose not to stand for reelection, and in came Regina Ip, whose name now regularly comes up during conversations about who might lead Hong Kong in the future. Far from starting an inexorable march towards universal suffrage, Chan’s election set up Hongkongers for disappointment, as Beijing tried to silence their calls for more representative government, first through bureaucratic obfuscation and then increasing intromission in the city’s affairs. Twelve years later, that optimistic Hong Kong that elected Anson Chan seems like a place that never existed. I hope I’m off, but it feels a lot like 2007.

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