THE QUESTION NOW is, how will Beijing react?
The landslide victory of the pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong’s district elections on Sunday and the high turnout that accompanied it has removed any lingering doubts of how widespread is the support for the protests that have been underway in the city for more than three months.
Pro-democracy councillors won a majority of 452 seats up for election taking nearly 60% of the vote. They will now control 17 of the 18 district councils. Pro-Beijing councillors controlled the lot before. Turnout was a record 71%, against 45% in 2015, with just shy of 3 million Hongkongers voting, twice as many as in the previous district elections.
It seems that the pro-Beijing camp massively underestimated the popular support for the protests and believed, erroneously as it turned out, that the election results would underline that, allowing authorities to portray the results as a rejection of violence and to crack down further on the hardest-line protestors. Had they had a more accurate grip on the public mood, the elections might have been cancelled coming as they did at the end of the most violent fortnight of protests to date.
The councils have little authority beyond advising on litter collection and similar hyperlocal matters, but the vote was always going to be a referendum on Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s handling of the protests. In a post-election statement, she said:
The HKSAR Government respects the election results. There are various analyses and interpretations in the community in relation to the results, and quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society. The HKSAR Government will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect.
While state media’s reporting of the results has been muted, to say the least, the stridently nationalist Party-controlled Global Times took a less conciliatory view in an editorial:
Hong Kong radical forces and Western supporters behind them wanted to stage a political demonstration during the voting. They tried to deny the urgency of ending chaos in Hong Kong. But we want to say that the pro-democracy camp winning more seats doesn’t mean Hong Kong voters support violent demonstrations.
All forces in Hong Kong, including the opposition, must compete for influence in the establishment. No one should follow the devious path of street politics.
The most significant aspect of the district council elections lies in the nomination powers the pro-democracy protestors will now acquire. The winner of the district council elections can nominate six people to the Legislative Council and 117 to the 1,200-member election committee that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive. Pro-Beijing loyalists’ domination of this committee will not disappear, but the opposition will be able to provide more than a little nuisance value to a process that Beijing has previously portrayed as an exercise in choice, albeit a carefully managed one.
Hong Kong’s problems are political and thus will eventually require a political solution. The election results offer Beijing an opportunity to make at least a gesture in the direction of political reform, as it did during the Umbrella protests in 2014 when it proposed to Hongkongers that they elect a leader directly from a list of candidates it had pre-approved. This, however, was rejected by the leaders of the Umbrella protests.
This time around, pro-democracy leaders may feel emboldened by the election results again not to need to make compromises on their five demands, which include universal suffrage. The later is unacceptable to the Party leadership, whose distrust of autonomy and distaste for the uncertainty of elections will now match its lack of confidence in Lam, although it has no credible alternative to her at present.
Lam says she will listen humbly to the Hong Kong public, but there is not much to hear that she has not already heard. In such unpromising conditions, Beijing may well feel it has no choice but to react with action not words, and crack down even harder than before.