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A Victory for Democracy in Hong Kong

Pro-democratic winning candidates gather outside the campus of the Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, China, November 25, 2019. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
Pro-democracy forces’ stunning dominance of yesterday’s District Council elections could further weaken Chinese president Xi Jinping’s shaky grip on power.

The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement achieved a stunning victory in Sunday’s district-council elections. With turnout exceeding 70 percent, close to 90 percent of the seats went to pro-democracy candidates, who took 17 of the 18 district councils. As the first electoral barometer of public sentiment since protests began in June, the results are a turning point in the conflict that has wracked Hong Kong for the last six months.

Though the district councils’ authority is mostly local, they appoint 117 of the 1,200 members of Hong Kong’s Election Committee. Coupled with the roughly 400 opposition members already sitting on the election committee, the additional seats will give the pro-democracy camp much greater sway when the next chief executive of Hong Kong is selected in 2022. The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, has denounced this year’s protests and remained staunchly on the side of Beijing.

“The result is astonishing. It is a clear sign that a public majority supports the democratic movement and the anti-extradition protests,” says Eric Lai, the vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, a group that has played a key role in organizing the protests. One of the group’s leaders, Jimmy Sham — who has twice been brutally beaten during the demonstrations — won the Lek Yuen constituency, unseating a pro-Beijing incumbent.

With a clear public majority calling for reforms, Lam will face increased pressure to accede to protesters’ demands. “If Carrie Lam does not reform in accordance with this referendum, but continues to escalate tensions by limiting freedoms in Hong Kong, people will be outraged and will escalate protests, and radical protesters will see that they are needed to continue the momentum,” Lai says.

For her part, Lam took a vaguely conciliatory tone in a statement released Monday, saying that the government “will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect.” But many opposition politicians are skeptical. “I don’t think the result will put pressure on the government, as it hasn’t been listening to the people,” pro-democracy candidate Jordan Pang Ka-Ho said before the elections.

One step toward reconciliation would be retracting the categorization of protesters as “rioters” — one of the key demands of the protests — as well as granting amnesty for demonstrators who have been arrested. Charges of rioting carry a maximum sentence of ten years in prison, and the opposition has argued that they are being levied against peaceful protesters. The 50 demonstrators who have been barricaded inside of Hong Kong Polytechnic University for nine days have listed the issue among their central grievances, but until now, the government has remained intransigent. On Sunday, demonstrators marched to the university in solidarity with those holed up inside. “We have shown the police force that university campuses are not to be trampled upon,” said newly elected district councilor Owan Li.

Even if Lam makes such concessions, it may take more-significant reforms for protesters to retreat. Following the withdrawal of the extradition treaty that initially sparked the demonstrations, the pro-democracy camp has shifted its focus to broader issues of police brutality and the expansion of suffrage. Many will see the election results as a mandate to continue protesting until universal suffrage is granted to the people of Hong Kong.

In the lead-up to the election, Beijing argued that the protests were alienating Hong Kong residents and disturbing the peace. Those charges rang hollow on Sunday as protesters chose not to take to the streets in order to ensure orderly elections, and the violence that had continually escalated in previous weeks abated. The elections were carried out peacefully with few irregularities, in a show of the strength of democratic institutions in Hong Kong. Indeed, despite China’s best efforts to interfere in the election, voters were not intimidated.

Back on the mainland, Chinese president Xi Jinping, whose reign has been characterized by a strong line toward Hong Kong, will need to recalibrate his strategy: Any move to expand democracy in Hong Kong will weaken the hand of the Chinese Communist Party in the region, but the status quo is no longer tenable. Xi’s intransigence in recent months has added fuel to the protesters’ fire and threatened his grip on the party. Last month, the Hudson Institute’s William Schneider told National Review that opposition to Xi’s strategy has increased within the Chinese Politburo. In addition to the political crisis in Hong Kong, members of the party leadership have questioned the prudence of Xi’s intransigence on trade with the U.S., as well as his efforts at territorial expansion through the Belt and Road Initiative and his provocative military maneuvers in the South China Sea.

If Xi fails to address the concerns of Hong Kong protesters, such existing discord within the party could increase, and he could find himself on even shakier ground. After all, the strategic importance of Hong Kong to Beijing has always been political first and foremost: If the Chinese state can’t show the strength to get its way in Hong Kong, dissidents on the mainland might be emboldened. And emboldened mainland dissidents would be an existential threat not just to Xi’s leadership but to the party itself.

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