Opinion – Electoral Tsunami in Hong Kong

The shocking result of the Hong Kong democrats in grasping 385 of the 452 directly elected seats in 18 District Councils, together with an unprecedented voter turnout of 71.2 percent, demonstrated the anger of many Hong Kong people over the performance of the Hong Kong government, ranging from the introduction of a deeply unpopular extradition bill to the Legislative Council (LegCo) in June 2019 to the handling of both peaceful and violent protests by the police from July to November. 

The pan-democrats capture a majority of the seats of 17 of the 18 District Councils – a completely astounding result. The pro-Beijing political party, Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), suffered a devastating defeat. In the 2015 District Council elections, it gained 117 seats.

In November 2019, the DAB only captures 21 seats out of its 181 nominated candidates. The huge defeat of the DAB reportedly sent shock waves to the top leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) who handle Hong Kong matters.

This electoral victory of the democrats and the electoral debacle of pro-Beijing and pro-government forces have significant implications for Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong, the Hong Kong government, and the political development of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

First and foremost, due to the fact that the democrats will likely be able to grasp the 117 seats in the Election Committee that will select the Chief Executive, and to nominate their like-minded candidates to run for the six Legislative Council (LegCo) seats reserved for the District Councils, Beijing will likely be even more cautious and conservative in any electoral reform in Hong Kong. 

In particular, if US President Donald Trump is going to sign the US democracy and human rights act on Hong Kong, the national security psyche of PRC officials would likely be provoked further, indirectly or directly leading to a tightening grip over Hong Kong’s electoral reforms at both the Chief Executive and LegCo levels later.

The triumph of the democrats at the local district level is undoubtedly challenging the national security concerns of PRC officials responsible for Hong Kong matters. Given the recent decisions of the Fourth Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Hong Kong, including a decision of improving the mechanism of national security in the HKSAR, the democratic victory in local elections cannot alter the hard-line and conservative policy of Beijing toward Hong Kong. 

The convener of pro-democracy organisation Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit (C), canvasses for votes during the District Council Ordinary Election in Shatin, Hong Kong, China, 24 November 2019. In October 2019 Sham was smashed in the head with hammers and spanners by at least four assailants who then flee in a car. On 24 November 4.13 million registered electors will cast their votes for the 2019 District Council Ordinary Election. EPA/JEROME FAVRE

In other words, it is wishful thinking to believe that the pan-democratic victory is going to loosen Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong’s democratization.

Second, we can anticipate Beijing may consider changing the personnel dealing with HKSAR matters.

Zhang Xiaoming, the director of the Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office, has been dealing with Hong Kong matters in an explicitly hard-line manner; nevertheless, from an electoral perspective, his policy has backfired.

It remains to be seen how Han Zheng, the head of the CCP Central Coordination Committee on Hong Kong and Macau, will tackle the electoral failure of pro-Beijing forces in the HKSAR. Electorally speaking, China’s united front work in Hong Kong has failed due to its narrow focus on the local pro-Beijing forces without reaching out to the middle and pro-democracy sectors.

If the hard-line approach to dealing with Hong Kong is maintained, there would very likely be continuous political struggles, bickering and even police-protestors confrontations in the territory. A change in personnel would help defuse the Hong Kong crisis, but some PRC officials would lose “face.”

Another related personnel issue is the future of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

It was reported that, after the massive protests against the extradition bill in early June, she offered to resign, but the resignation attempt was rejected by Beijing. Now, with the poor electoral results of pro-Beijing forces, Beijing may have little choice but to reconsider how long Carrie Lam would remain in the office of Chief Executive.

Yet, it is not easy for any other pro-Beijing politician to take up Lam’s position. The position of the HKSAR Chief Executive is difficult; he or she is like a political sandwich between Beijing and the people of Hong Kong.

Personnel changes would be possible if Beijing is eager to rescue the pro-Beijing forces in the upcoming September 2020 LegCo elections.

If the democrats capture a majority of the 70 seats in the LegCo, the PRC’s national security psyche would likely be seriously challenged. Perhaps fortunately, 35 of the 70 seats in the legislature are composed of functional constituencies in which pro-Beijing and pro-government business and professional groups remain quite strong in checking and balancing the democratic forces.

While District Councils are of advisory nature, the real locus of power lies with the LegCo and the policy-making Executive Council (ExCo).

Third, if the central government in Beijing has already emphasized the need to “terminate violence” in Hong Kong, it is up to the local government of Hong Kong to implement this policy directive. 

The crux of the problem is that Carrie Lam’s leadership has remained hard-line without listening to public opinions. She abolished the Central Policy Unit after becoming the Chief Executive, depriving the government of the necessary public opinion surveys to understand public sentiment toward government policies.

The entire leadership has failed to deal with the crisis situation effectively. Lam’s refusal to set up an independent committee of inquiry into the police handling of the protests, including the problematic police handling of the suspected triads in Yuen Long on July 21, when some triads went out to attack and injure citizens in the Mass Transit Railway station.

Carrie Lam insisted that complaints against the police should be tackled by the Independent Police Complaints Council, which however is perceived by many citizens as too pro-police and lacking neutrality.

As long as Lam and her advisers fail to adopt a bold approach to addressing public complaints against the police, like considering an amnesty to not only protestors but also police, and setting up an independent commission that would recommend such amnesty to the Chief Executive, the current political impasse in Hong Kong is destined to persist.

Fourth, it remains to be seen whether some democrats, after elected as District Council members, would become politically arrogant, internally divisive, and struggle for power among themselves.

After the democratic victory in the 2016 LegCo elections, young legislators-elect Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung dealt with their oath-taking ceremony provocatively, angering Beijing and leading to the interpretation of the Basic Law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

In the event that some democrats become politically arrogant, their internal fighting would perhaps bring about different results in the September LegCo elections in 2020. Objectively speaking, the pro-Beijing forces have witnessed a significant increase in the number of votes on November 24, meaning that they would be able to mobilize all these new iron votes in the 2020 LegCo elections.

On the contrary, many voters supportive of the pan-democrats are usually lacking discipline; they voted in district elections but may not vote again in legislative elections. As such, although the pro-Beijing forces faced a bridge too far in the November 2019 District Council elections, the pan-democrats would have to remind themselves humbly of the need to avoid a battle of Waterloo in the September 2020 legislative elections.

In conclusion, the outcome of the November 24 District Council elections has questioned Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong. Beijing’s top leaders have not been able to understand the aspirations of many Hong Kong people. Their policy directives remain hard-line. On the implementation side, the Hong Kong leaders have been adopting a hard-line approach without any soft-line measures.

As a result, many voters had no choice but to express their anger over the Hong Kong government. If Beijing and the Hong Kong leaders remain adamant in their hard-line approach, the Hong Kong crisis will likely persist with violent confrontations between protestors and police.

If Beijing adjusts its policy toward Hong Kong, a calmer atmosphere would be conducive to Beijing’s relations with many Hong Kong people. On the other hand, the pan-democrats have to guard themselves against political arrogance, internal strife and unnecessary rivalry. If not, the pan-democratic victory in the November 2019 District Council elections would never be easily repeated in the history of the HKSAR.