Has Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Movement Crested?

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has lost another seat that they easily won in the 2016 election, in the territory’s Legislative Council, triggered by the movement’s own divisions as well as the weight of money thrown around by government-aligned politicians.

The then-victor Lau Siu-lai (above) was subsequently ejected on the grounds that she did not take her oath of office in the correct and appropriate manner. She then attempted to run again in the by-election but her candidacy was deemed inadmissible by a government official on grounds that she supported Hong Kong independence – though that could not be tested in the courts, so the government was able to suppress dissent by administrative means.

The main pro-democracy groups then chose as their candidate a union leader and former Legislative Council member, Lee Cheuk-yan. However, this upset another aging democratic former Council member, Frederick Fung Kin-kee, who decided to run too, even though he had no chance of winning – he got just 5 percent of the vote compared with Lee’s 42 percent, which not only split the pro-democracy vote but gave a sorry impression of the motivations of some traditional political figures. In the event neither of these attracted the votes of a disenchanted youth with its localist focus who had massively backed Lau in 2016.

The democrats as a group have found themselves unable to please the radical youth without alarming their middle-class supporters. At the same time their focus on what were regarded as ideological, legal and theoretical issues rather than showing themselves concerned with grass roots and livelihood issues has cost them votes in low-income areas.

Although the government’s record on helping lower income groups is appalling, and it remains more than ever in the pocket of the local oligopolies, pro-Beijing parties are far better organized and financed. This is particularly so in low public income housing estates where the democratic concerns with freedoms count for little compared with the goodies doled out (other than at election time) by pro-government candidates. They also tend to have a high proportion of immigrants from the mainland who have no attachment to Hong Kong identity as a political issue.

The pro-democracy have now lost two of the seats they won in 2016 in by-elections following the ouster of four of those elected in 2016. The use of a judicial system under the gun of interpretation from the National Peoples Congress, and administrative measures such as that against Law Siu-lai mean that the government has the power to set the agenda in the Legco. If this trend continues, the pro-government forces, which dominate the small franchise “functional constituencies which comprise half the legislature, could find itself with a two-thirds majority of all seats in 2020 and able to set whatever rules they like.

Hong Kong’s Legco will thus have achieved Beijing’s ambition of integrating with the mainland where the legislature is no more than a rubber stamp for the executive.