The Fight for Democracy in Hong Kong

Tensions escalate in Hong Kong as the pro-democracy camp wins a sweeping election victory.

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The protests in Hong Kong began as a movement to block a controversial extradition bill put forward by the Chinese government. But this movement has since transformed into a sustained call for greater democratic rights in Hong Kong and a pushback against the growing influence of China. The political unrest in Hong Kong has become an issue of increasing international attention, drawing eyes and ears from all around the world. And the people of Hong Kong have now sent a clear message: they want democracy and self-governance and they want China to stay out of their affairs.

The pro-democracy movement won a stunning victory in local elections on Sunday, as a record number of citizens, over 70% of eligible voters, came out to the polls. The government in Beijing had been hoping the election would bring a show of support from the so-called “silent majority”, but that did not materialise. Instead some significant pro-Beijing candidates lost council seats. With three million voters casting ballots, pro-democracy candidates captured 389 of 452 elected seats, up from only 124 and far more than they have ever won. The government’s allies held just 58 seats, a remarkable collapse from 300.

This election was seen as a test of support for the government after months of unrest, protests and clashes.  It was a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong, and the turnout suggested that the public continues to back the democracy movement, especially as government response to the protests has become increasingly harsh.

Young Hong Kongers, a major force behind the demonstrations of the past six months, played a leading role in the voting surge. And this makes sense, as young people have seen first hand what lengths the Chinese government will go to to retain control. Last week the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University saw a standoff between authorities and protesters that turned into one of the fiercest, most violent conflicts in the nearly six months of protests. 

Riot police rushed the campus, effectively trapping hundreds of demonstrators inside. Authorities cornered the activists and delivered an ultimatum, calling on them to surrender or face a barrage of tear gas. Police said those who didn’t surrender would face arrest and potential charges of rioting, which means individuals could face up to 10 years in prison. And it’s also been reported that over the past few weeks, several pro-democracy lawmakers have been arrested or have received notice of pending arrest from the government.

The lack of international support has been quite disappointing to say the least, especially from the U.S. which is seen by much of the world, including many fighting in Hong Kong, as a beacon of democracy. But many public figures and corporations have been rather hesitant to say or do anything that might jeopardize relations with China.

The U.S. government has been largely silent on the entire situation until last Wednesday when the U.S. House of Representatives nearly unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Although the bill has yet to go before U.S. President Donald Trump for consideration. And Trump has so far appeared reticent to challenge China on the issue of Hong Kong, promising Chinese President Xi Jinping in October that the U.S. would remain silent on the city’s ongoing pro-democracy protests while trade talks continued.

But hopefully the landslide victory for the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong will turn the tide. Hong Kong’s district councillors have little political power and mainly deal with local issues such as bus routes and trash collection, so the district elections don’t normally generate such interest.

But these polls were the first time people could express at the ballot box their opinion on embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s handling of the entire crisis, and they have resoundingly expressed their dissatisfaction.

Amidst the landslide election victory, last weekend was also the first in months without any clashes or violence between protesters and police. It’s hopeful that the people of Hong Kong will be able to let their voices be heard through self-governance without facing more violent conflict or pushback from law enforcement. But we’ll have to wait and see what ultimately comes of these election results, because there is still a long way to go in the fight for democracy in Hong Kong. This was a huge victory, but not in itself enough to flip the whole system of governance.

The district councils are the most democratic bodies in Hong Kong, with nearly all the seats being directly elected, unlike the legislature, where just over half are. And the territory’s chief executive is also not chosen directly by voters, but is instead selected by a committee stacked in favor of Beijing. The election results will give democracy forces considerably more influence on that committee, which is scheduled to choose a new chief executive in 2022. However, the district councils only select about a tenth of the group’s 1,200 members. Due to the election results, these seats will flip from pro-Beijing to pro-democracy seats. But will that be enough to flip the system in favor of democracy and self-governance?

Democracy advocates already control about a quarter of the seats, and other previously pro-Beijing sectors of the committee are now starting to lean toward democracy. As the democracy movement continues to gain momentum, it seems like it wouldn’t be out of the question to see a pro-democracy candidate chosen as chief executive in 2022. We’ll continue to follow the situation as it unfolds.

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