Hong Kong Says No to Beijing

Hong Kong has delivered its own version of populist politics, sending to the Legislative Council six young advocates of autonomy, if not downright independence. In the process voters rejected several established politicians from both the pro-democracy and pro-government camps.

The result cannot have improved the humor of President Xi Jinping, then presiding over the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. The result was a direct rejection of Beijing’s warnings to Hong Kong not to flirt with separatist talk. The state media may have been able to black out all references to the Hong Kong vote, but the heads of state assembled as Xi’s guests were well aware that Xi’s political edifice is not as all-powerful as he would like to believe.

Hong Kong has been added to Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet as another of China’s peripheral territories that either value existing autonomy or see it. Thus all of the extended territories that China claims as its own want nothing to do with China. That ought to be a lesson.

The election result still leaves pro-government forces in the majority in the Council thanks to holding a majority of the so-called Functional Constituency seats, which comprise half the total and mostly are held by business and professional groups with narrow franchises. But even among those, some pro-government candidates were unexpectedly defeated.

Indeed if the pro-democracy groups had been less fragmented they would have won more seats in the direct elections. The better-disciplined pro-government parties, notably the Democratic Alliance (DAB) secured more seats than their 40 percent share of the popular vote would otherwise have given them. Overall however, the pro-democracy forces have enough seats to thwart any attempts by the government to change election and other rules – which require a two thirds majority.

Higher voter turnout was clearly one reason for the young radicals’ success, as younger voters appear more engaged than in the past. This also accounted for the decline in the vote for older pro-democracy figures. The most prominent of the older generation of radicals, Leung Kwok-hing, best known as “Long Hair” on account of his appearance, was only returned by a very narrow margin. Four years ago he had won easily.

Although the Democratic and Civic parties, the mainstream pro-democracy ones, kept their overall level of seats, veteran pro-labor activists Lee Cheuk-yan and Fung Kin-kee were defeated by young radicals as were some older pro-government names. With veteran pro-democracy leaders Emily Lau of the Democratic Party and Alan Leong of the Civic Party retiring, the council was anyway set for significant face changes.

The young radicals’ success undoubtedly owed much to heavy-handed and tone-deaf reactions to legitimate concerns on the part of Hong Kong’s citizens. Several would-be candidates were refused registration by officials on the grounds they were advocates of independence and thus at odds with the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

That aroused a wave of sympathy votes for the radicals who were allowed to run. They were seen to poll especially strongly in middle-class areas – the pro-government candidates did best in the richest and poorest districts.

Another notable feature of the election was a stunning victory in the Northwest New Territories for a local grass-roots leader opposing the hold on the area by the land-owning mafia known as the Heung Yee Kuk. Although lacking party backing, he won more votes than any candidate. The Kuk is a feudal organization whose leaders have long got away with illegal and corrupt activities on a massive scale thanks to government connivance. The Kuk is the most egregious example of the insider deals and oligopolies which dominate so much of the domestic economy at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Whether the new Legislative Council is any more successful than the previous one in spurring the change that Hong Kong desperately needs remains open to doubt. Quite likely the new radicals will prove even more intransigent than the old ones, engaging in filibusters and other disruptive tactics. Pro-government forces may indeed use the radical “threat” to entrench their own interests.

Beijing’s attitude remains to be tested. Will it, as on the mainland, seek to crush dissent if necessary by accusing radicals of “treason?” Will it use their statements to seek to disbar them from the Council? Or will it keep a low profile for the time being and come up with a candidate to succeed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying who is more popular and could be persuaded to address at least some of the grievances shown up by the votes?

Those are both practical issues to do with housing, welfare etc. and the perception that government has been responsible for the erosion of local autonomy by doing what it is told by Beijing rather than what it is considered best for Hong Kong. The reaction against “mainlandisation” is palpable and will not go away, least of all in the face of threats. Hong Kong’s sense of identity has grown in response to official efforts at integration.

Leung still aspires for a second term but his unpopularity, including among many establishment forces such as the major property developers, makes him a liability for Beijing. The widely known slogan ABC – Anyone But CY – is testimony to his standing. Yet Beijing is loyal to those loyal to its commands – and Leung has been obedience personified.

That is a liability locally, but on present form of suppressing dissent on the mainland, Xi may want to stick with this man. Some hints that he favors Financial Secretary John Tsang have come out of Beijing. But that may simply be because Beijing needs at least two semi-credible candidates to give an illusion of choice while the ultimate decision will be in Beijing’s hand through direction to the loyalists who dominate the selection committee.