(Xinhua/Wang Shen)

OPINION – The 2021 Legislative Council Elections in Hong Kong: Mobilization, Divided Society and Implications for Taiwan

The Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, which were held on 19 December 2021 after the imposition of the national security law in late June 2020, showed not only a top-down political mobilization by the pro-establishment united front, but also a deeply divided political society with legacies for Taiwan’s political development beyond the Hong Kong Chief Executive election in March 2022.

Only one non-establishment candidate, Tik Chi-yuen of the Third Side, was elected to the LegCo through the social welfare functional constituency. All other non-establishment candidates were soundly defeated in direct elections, functional constituencies and the sector returned from the 1,500-member Election Committee. The mass media used the term 89 to 1 to refer to the political predicament of the non-establishment camp, illustrating the overwhelming victory of the pro-establishment camp.

The top-down mobilization from pro-government united front forces was prominent in the entire elections, ranging from the nomination of candidates, the encouragement of non-establishment elites to run for direct elections, and the mobilization of pro-government supporters to vote for like-minded candidates. All the pro-establishment united front organizations appeared in various campaigning stations, where volunteers and workers took the attendance of their helpers regularly, distributed leaflets diligently, and mobilized their friends and networks to vote on the election day. Not surprisingly, the pro-establishment camp could mobilize some 1.2 million supporters to vote for their candidates in direct elections. 

Among the 20 directly elected seats, the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) grasped 10 seats (Starry Lee, Holden Chow, Ben Chan, Stanley Li, Edward Lau, Vincent Cheng, Frankie Ngan, Gary Chan, Edward Leung and Chan Hok-fung); the New People’s Party two seats (Regina Ip and Dominic Lee), the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) three seats (Stanley Ng, Bill Tang and Joephy Chan; the Roundtable one seat (Michael Tien); and other pro-establishment elites 4 seats (Gary Zhang of the New Prospect for Hong Kong; Yang Wing-kit, Connie Lam of the Professional Power, and Scott Leung of the Kowloon West Dynamic).

The most surprising result came from functional constituencies elections in which Liberal Party (LP) candidate Felix Chung and Business and Professional Alliance (BPA) candidate Christopher Cheung were defeated. In the textile and garment sector, Chung as the LP leader got only 82 votes while his competitor Sunny Tan of the Federation of Industries acquired 172 votes. In the financial services sector, Cheung obtained only 169 votes whereas his rival Robert Lee of the Hong Kong Securities Association garnered 314 votes. Some pro-government voters might see Chung as “unsupportive” of the government during the 2019 extradition bill controversy. On the other hand, Cheung might anger some pro-government supporters as he in June 2019 had revealed Alice Mak’s closed-door criticism of Chief Executive Carrie Lam over the government’s handling of the extradition bill (The Standard, June 19, 2019). Regardless of the reasons for their surprising defeat, the element of uncertainties in functional constituency elections persisted in the 2021 LegCo elections.

Another interesting result could be seen in the Election Committee sector that returned 40 of the 51 candidates to the LegCo. Just a week before the election day, it was reported in the local media that the Chinese authorities did not have a recommended list for the 1,500-member Election Committee to elect the legislators. 

If this report was accurate, the election result might show some elements of truth. Non-Chinese candidates, Alan Zeman and Mike Rowse, were defeated with 955 and 454 votes respectively. The former was almost elected compared with the elected candidate Nelson Lam who got 970, the least number of votes among the elected 40 candidates. Younger candidates like Gary Chan and former democrat Fung Wai-kwong were defeated. Among the defeated candidates, there were one DAB candidate Chan Hoi-wing, one FYU candidate Tsai Wing-keung, and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) To Hoi-ming. To was one of the two CPPCC members defeated in the 2021 LegCo elections (another was Christopher Cheung in the financial services functional constituency). In the Election Committee sector, the central authorities did not appear to issue any recommended list as reported by the media. As such, three pro-government candidates from the DAB, FTU and CPPCC were not elected.

Although the top-down nature of nominations, coordination and mobilization illustrated the success of the Chinese-style democracy, as a White Paper on Hong Kong’s democracy that was issued immediately one day after the election on December 20 asserted, objectively speaking there were some contradictions in the entire election.

(211219) — HONG KONG, Dec. 19, 2021 (Xinhua) — Chief Executive of China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Carrie Lam casts vote in Hong Kong, Dec. 19, 2021. (Xinhua/Lui Siu Wai)

First, the Hong Kong society remained deeply divided and its political wounds cannot be healed easily. A huge number of voters from the middle or politically moderate sector did not go to the polls, not to mention the core supporters of the traditional democrats. If united front was an objective of the LegCo elections, it succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the die-hard supporters of the establishment camp. Conversely, a disunited front persists in Hong Kong where many eligible voters remained politically silent and are unhappy with the obvious tendency of political mainlandization of the city. The 30 percent voter turnout appears to be satisfactory from the pro-establishment’s mobilization perspective, but the silent majority who did not vote revealed that mainland authorities may have to work harder to win the hearts and minds of many moderates in Hong Kong.

Second, an irony in the election was that while several non-establishment candidates found it hard to gain sufficient nominations to enter the direct election race, they did call for an amnesty of those democrats who were imprisoned. Indeed, a full amnesty of the “law-breakers” would likely be very difficult unless the power elite and the central authorities really consider this likelihood to win the hearts and minds of more Hong Kong moderates. 

If the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” is used to appeal to Taiwan for reunification, it can be argued that a partial amnesty of some democrats would perhaps be a good idea for the new government of Hong Kong and the central authorities after July 1, 2022, especially before the January 2024 presidential election in Taiwan where the pro-reunification Kuomintang (KMT) would politically and indirectly gain more local popularity from a much softer mainland policy toward Hong Kong. So long as the center’s policy toward Hong Kong remains hardline, the Democratic Progressive Party and its supporters would likely remain politically the most powerful and dominant force in Taiwan’s political landscape – a reality that could be seen in the failure of KMT Han Guo-yu in his downfall from the Kaohsiung mayor by a recall vote in June 2020.

Third, although the central authorities appeared to coordinate successfully among the candidates in direct elections to ensure that each geographical constituency had more than two candidates competing among themselves, the utter defeat of all the non-establishment candidates and the absence of any candidate from the Democratic Party, which had instituted a complex internal mechanism for its members to seek nominations to run for the legislative elections, failed to make the elections “glittering” with different political colors. The participative colors in the 2021 legislative elections remained monolithic and this phenomenon will have to be significantly improved in the future.

Fourth, due to the relatively low level of mass participation in the 2021 LegCo elections, the White Paper’s assertion in its conclusion that Hong Kong’s democratic future remains “bright” will depend on several factors: (1) whether the next LegCo elections will witness a higher level of mass participation and, most importantly, the active participation of moderate democrats, (2) whether the new LegCo can and will effectively tackle the urgent livelihood issues such as housing for the poor and the needy, (3) whether the central authorities will slightly soften the mainlandization of Hong Kong, and (4) whether the “one country, two systems” will remain a slogan used by the political center to appeal to Taiwan for reunification. 

Arguably, if the model of “one country, two systems” continues to be used by the center to appeal to Taiwan for reunification, Hong Kong’s democratic prospects will hinge on whether the central authorities will reintroduce the discussion of allowing Hong Kong people to select their Chief Executive by universal suffrage. The White Paper on Hong Kong’s democracy published on December 20 does not repudiate the center’s decision on August 31, 2014, when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress laid down the parameters of the Chief Executive elections for Hong Kong: namely 2 to 3 candidates screened out by an Election Committee would compete for the people’s votes through universal suffrage. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s democratic camp in 2014 and 2015 were hijacked by the radicals who refused to accept this politically generous model offered by the central authorities. Perhaps it is time for the moderate democrats to engage in a critical self-reflection, to heal their political wounds in the coming years, to re-mobilize their supporters to participate in the next LegCo elections, and to demand for a return to the “831 model” of political reform that was floated in 2014 but was unfortunately rejected by some radical, irrational and emotional democrats in 2015. 

Objectively speaking, the central government in Beijing, as the December 2021 White Paper pointed out, was and is sincere in promoting Hong Kong’s democratic reform. The crux of the problem was that some Hong Kong democrats were politically stubborn, disruptive and failed to grasp the golden opportunity of democratization as offered by the political center from August 2014 to the summer of 2015. The political turbulence and violence in 2019 led to the imposition of the national security law in June 2020, making many democrats now deeply frustrated, but arguably they should heal their own wounds quickly to push for Hong Kong’s gradual democratization in the coming years.

Given that the pro-establishment camp can grasp 89 of the 90 seats in LegCo, the implication is that, if direct election of the Chief Executive through universal suffrage would take place in Hong Kong one day, there would be a politically strong Chief Executive and a cooperative LegCo. Most importantly, the candidates running for the Chief Executive will have to be screened by the Election Committee so that any political “troublemakers” will have to be excluded in the first place – an ingredient of “democratic centralism” will be a reality in Hong Kong under China’s sovereignty and national security interest.

Finally, given that the 2021 LegCo elections were relatively monolithic in its participative candidates and electoral outcomes, the March 2022 Chief Executive election would likely witness a more competitive one with perhaps a few candidates struggling for the votes from the 1,500-member Election Committee. Rumors are rife that Chief Executive Carrie Lam may be serving her last term of office, albeit the central authorities have highly praised her work and performance.

In conclusion, the December 2021 LegCo elections in Hong Kong are politically significant in several aspects: (1) the tremendous efforts at coordinating candidates and mobilizing united front and pro-establishment groups and voters; (2) the relatively monolithic electoral result in which only one non-establishment candidate was elected to LegCo through the functional constituency; (3) the relatively less exciting atmosphere in the Election Committee sector; (4) the lingering and profound political wounds that remain to be healed in the society of Hong Kong; and (5) the open possibility of democratic reform toward the direction of selecting the Chief Executive directly through universal suffrage in the long run. Yet, it remains to be seen how the central authorities and the ruling elites in Hong Kong will really reach out to the politically moderate sector to heal the wounds of the society, because some Hong Kong people are still politically disillusioned, apathetic, alienated or frightened.

If united front work is the objective of the central authorities and the power elites in Hong Kong, they must do more to win the hearts and minds of all the Hong Kong people. Until the time that such political wounds can be healed, any call and push for the direct election of the Chief Executive through universal suffrage must be regarded as politically “immature” and “inappropriate.” Yet, ironically, the delay in introducing the direct election of the Chief Executive through universal suffrage would very likely not only hurt the KMT in Taiwan politically, but also give ammunition to some Taiwan people who continue to oppose the usage of any model of “one country, two systems” to deal with Taiwan’s political future.