Hong Kong voters back protests

Pro-democracy activists won a sweeping victory in the the Hong Kong District Council on 24 December. Colin Sparks explains the political significance of the victory.

Election poster Hong Kong
Photo: Colin Sparks

Democratic candidates won a massive victory in the District Council elections on 24 December. Openly pro-democracy candidates won 347 out of 452 seats contested, and independents sympathetic to their aims gained another 45. The Pro-Beijing parties managed a total of 60 seats. Pro-democracy representatives now have a majority in 17 of the 18 District Councils in Hong Kong, and they are only a minority in the last one since eight of the councillors are appointed because they are heads of local rural villages. The result is widely seen, both by democrats and pro-Beijingers, as a referendum on six months of street protests. Pro-government politicians called on the ‘silent majority’ to make their views known, and they have: they support the five demands and the protestors who have fought so hard to win them.

The long list of newly elected, and very often youthful, pro-democracy candidates is matched by a list of defeated pro-government leaders.  Junius Ho, one of the most prominent supporters of the mainland government, was among them. Ho has had a difficult couple of months.  In October, his alma mater, Anglia Ruskin University, decided to strip him of the Honorary Doctor of Laws degree they awarded him in 2011.  Then, in early November, he was attacked in the street and stabbed by a man who claimed to be a supporter.  Now he has been decisively beaten for a seat on a District Council of which was previously the chair.  The one result that darkened the mood somewhat was that veteran socialist ‘Long Hair’ Leung narrowly failed by 343 votes to defeat the leader of the pro-Beijing DAB party, Starry Lee.

The major consequence of the election is political. The District Councils wield very little real power, although of they are responsible for things like rubbish collection that are important for people’s daily lives. The fact that there has been such a sweeping change in their composition, from overwhelmingly pro-Beijing to overwhelmingly pro-democracy, means that it is impossible to dismiss the protestors as a small and isolated minority. There is no doubt that every voter who backed a democratic candidate knew exactly what they were doing: the central, indeed the only, issue in the campaign has been the struggle for democracy.

There are some other, longer term, consequences of the results. One of the quirks of Hong Kong’s heavily gerrymandered election system is that the District Councillors get to elect five members of the Legislative Council (LegCo) and 117 of the members of the Election Committee which nominates candidates for the Chief Executive post. Both of these groups are now likely to be strongly pro-democrat, but the constitution is so rigged that, while they will strengthen the opposition, they will still not be able to change the way Hong Kong is run. The fact that the vast majority of councils are now run by pro-democrats also means they will be in a position to bargain harder with the local government over the issues for which they are responsible. The previous, pro-government, councils went along with controversial decisions, such as development plans designed to benefit landowners without protest. The new councils are likely to fight much harder for the interests of their electors when government decisions have negative effects on localities.

The response of Chief Executive Carrie Lam to what is, on every count, a crushing defeat for her policies has been to make vague promises to `seriously reflect’ on the meaning of the elections but to refuse concessions on any of the movement’s demands.  She continues to emphasise that some voters were expressing their ‘dissatisfaction against violence’ while neglecting to note that, on her logic, 59 % of electors must have been expressing satisfaction with violent protests.  Beijing, for its part, has repeated its condemnation of the movement and emphasized that the results would have no effect on government policy.  As the same time, they have tried to prevent news of the results spreading on the mainland.  The main official news agency, and public voice of the central leadership, Xinhua, reported: ‘According to the announcement by the Electoral Affairs Commission, all 452 district councillors have been elected.’  It failed to mention what the results were and went on to denounce ‘violent rioters’ and ‘foreign forces’ at some length.

Behind the censorship and bravado, however, both Beijing and the Hong Kong government will need to think again. They have decisively lost the battle for public opinion. The citizens of Hong Kong have shown that they are prepared to fight and endure difficulties in the fight for democracy. The condemnation of demonstrations as ‘riots’ and denunciations of violence have failed to isolate the militants. The real difficulties for work and leisure caused by the street protests, and the economic damage to an economy heavily dependent on tourism arising from the mainland demonization of the movement, have both failed to shift public opinion.  The future of Carrie Lam and her administration will be up for review again now, and there could soon be some minor concessions, perhaps in the form of a public enquiry into the violence.

Beyond its overall impact, the election once again demonstrated the resilience of the movement.  Without formal leadership and with very limited resources, it was possible to mobilize nearly two million people to vote for democratic candidates. After an online discussion the militants agreed that election day would be entirely peaceful, and people were urged not to wear black clothing or face masks. There was no trouble at all on the day, despite rumours that pro-government thugs would attack polling stations to provoke the cancellation of an election certain to result in the defeat of their political friends. Every polling station saw crowds of young people in colourful clothes urging the long lines of voters to support democratic candidates.

Election advice poster
Poster: ‘Get up early! Make sure you take your HK ID card! Don’t wear black gear or a mask. Check your ballot paper is accurate. When you have marked your choice, make sure the ink is dry. Smudges mean a spoiled ballot.’

The much better funded pro-Beijing camp has been accused of its usual vote-rigging tricks. In previous elections it has been claimed that they use their resources to reward loyal voters and trick elderly residents into supporting their candidates.  Such allegations have also been made at this election.  In at least one case, it is alleged that returning office staff counted ballots cast for a pro-Beijing candidate that were clearly invalid, leading to his narrow victory. One of the consequences of the turn-around is that the official funds received by councillors, which have been a substantial income stream pro-Beijing parties, will dry up. The cash-strapped democratic parties will now have these resources to build their own organization.

The overall judgement on this election must be that it was a resounding endorsement of the struggles of the last six months and a milestone in the development of the movement.  We should not, however, allow our celebration of those realities to blind us to some problems that were also revealed by the voting patterns. The first is that the democrats’ victory was due to a rise in the turn out, rather than a massive swing in public opinion. The democrats’ overwhelming success in terms of seats is largely an artefact of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system.  The democrats’ vote rose from a 54.8 % share in the 2016 LegCo election to 55 % in this election, and this is consistent with the long-term trend for them to win 55-60 % overall.

In previous district level elections, the democrats’ vote has often been much lower. This time around, the democrats were able to mobilize their voters, particularly younger voters.  This is undoubtedly because many people previously perceived the vote as relatively insignificant, but in the heightened atmosphere of the current period people have seized upon it as a golden opportunity to have their say. Rather than achieve a massive swing in voter allegiances, the democrats have managed to raise their support in these local elections to the same level as they normally achieve in LegCo elections.

The heightened political atmosphere also meant that more pro-Beijing voters turned out.  Some defeated pro-government candidates, like Junius Ho and Holden Chow, got more votes this time around, but their increase was swamped by the flood of new pro-democratic votes. Chow’s vote, for example, rose from 2,161 in 2015 to 3,619 on Sunday, but he still lost because the democratic candidate won 5,049 votes.   This means that despite the gains by the democrats, there is still a solid block of voters who stick by the pro-Beijing parties. Winning at least some of them over to the democratic camp remains a difficult but essential task.

The victory has given the movement new confidence in its collective power.  On Monday night, hundreds marched in support of the handful of militants still occupying Poly U and one of the first thing the newly elected councillors did was to try to negotiate an honourable end to the ten-day siege of the campus. It has not, however, resolved the fundamental problem of an intransigent government backed by an inflexible Beijing.

The newly confident movement needs to find other means though which it can express its mass character as it did so magnificently last Sunday. A start would be a ‘victory march’ next weekend, hailing the electoral triumph and calling for implementation of the five demands.  Election day showed that the movement is mature enough and politically sophisticated enough to agree on non-violent actions when they are the best way forward, and there is no reason why they could not do so for massive weekend march.  The police would find it very difficult to ban such a march, and if they did the ban would likely be ignored by hundreds of thousands of people. Indeed, a ban and aggressive policing would raise the chances of more street fighting. The masses spoke on Sunday, and they need more chances to make their views heard.

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