Pro-democracy candidates across Hong Kong stormed to victory in Sunday’s district council elections as politics here continues to be turned on its head. For the first time since the territory’s handover from British colonial rule in 1997, the pro-Beijing forces lost control. The pro-democracy camp has taken at least three-quarters of the 452 contested seats and won more than 55 percent of the votes; the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the main pro-Beijing party, has been reduced from 119 seats to fewer than two dozen.
The result has shattered the government’s claim that a “silent majority” backs its crackdown on the protest movement that has raged for six months. It has demonstrated that the intense street fighting, disruption and direct actions of the radicalising students and working class youth, far from scaring the horses as some observers believed, galvanised a huge section of the population. The electoral mobilisation was unprecedented: the turnout was a record 71 percent – 24 percentage points higher than in 2015. No-one can now credibly question the democratic legitimacy of the rebellion.
A week ago, the city was engulfed by protests and huge confrontations between masked demonstrators and riot police. In recent days, however, calm descended. Front line activists stopped lobbing Molotovs and went to ground as the population prepared to cast their ballots. District council elections are the only properly democratic polls in the city and were widely viewed as a referendum on the government and the pro-democracy movement. The movement could not have hoped for a more decisive vindication.
It is significant that the DAB, which has had a majority lock on the district councils for 20 years and is known for its financing and mobilising operations – and for its bribery – was overwhelmed by the surge in young voters turning out. However, despite the drubbing, there is scant evidence that the DAB machine faltered or that its support fractured. While losing 100 seats, the Alliance increased its vote from just over 300,000 in the last council elections to almost 500,000 this year, indicating that far from all momentum being with the pro-democracy movement, there is a polarisation. And it received the single largest share of the votes of any party or alliance – 17 percent. In total, the pro-Beijing camp received 41 percent of the vote, which is pretty much in line with the 2016 legislative council election. (In the LegCo, as it’s referred to, only half of the seats are allocated by popular vote, which has allowed the pro-Beijing bloc to maintain a majority.)
Nevertheless, this is a symbolic and moral victory for the democratic forces. Chief executive Carrie Lam, to wide public ridicule, today said that the outcome was a vote to “restore order”. But the DAB has announced an internal review. With a dozen of its heavyweights having lost their seats, it will have to regroup and restructure. And the mainland press reportedly has been muted in its response, with the Communist Party hoping for the situation now to settle after weeks of major disruptions and confrontations. Reuters reports that Beijing opened a previously used crisis centre across the border in Shenzhen several months ago, and has become increasingly dissatisfied with its Hong Kong Liaison Office’s inability to deal with the situation: “The office has come in for criticism in Hong Kong and China for misjudging the situation in the city. ‘The Liaison Office has been mingling with the rich people and mainland elites in the city and isolated itself from the people’, a Chinese official said. ‘This needs to be changed.’”
With the pro-Beijing camp in disarray, it seems a perfect time for the opposition to go on the offensive and call mass mobilisations in support of the five demands, one of which is universal suffrage for all government positions. While the protest movement is continuing, with small actions being held today, according to Au Loong Yu, the liberals who were central to the mass mobilisations of the last six months have been spooked by the ferocity of the student rebellion and may now be reticent to mobilise, fearing that they cannot control events. And despite the widespread euphoria, among some there is a sense of foreboding. “Still we feel not safe”, a local trade unionist said on Monday. “I’m not sure what the government response will be to the election. This is a little victory. But people have made so many sacrifices. People have been killed. So many arrested. We have paid a lot for this. We have to push the government. That’s why we want a strike. We need to show the government we are not backing down. And we need to shut down the city so that the students don’t have to fight like this and risk their lives.”
In August, airline workers, transport workers, engineers, construction workers and more joined what has been described as Hong Kong’s biggest strike in 50 years. But since then, workers have joined demonstrations only as individuals, rather than an organised bloc; there is little yet to indicate that labour unions will mobilise for strike action. And the main union federation, the Federation of Trade Unions, is pro-Beijing. It holds mobilisations in support of the government, although they reportedly are small, attracting a couple of thousand at most with union officials overrepresented.
The desultory situation in the labour movement has not been lost on some of the radicals in the student movement. The day before the poll, outside the mammoth Tin Yiu estate in Tin Shui Wai near the Chinese border, “John” – an activist from the Education University – related some of the current debates. “We still believe that we must shut the city down. People are talking about the labour unions. Front line protesters are upset. [They are saying about the last two weeks of intense clashes:] ‘We all took a risk, why didn’t you support us by going on strike’.” John is part of the non-voting camp, although he acknowledges that his is a minority position. “I don’t believe in these elections”, he said. “First reason is I don’t trust the government. Second reason is the problem is coming from the system – the whole political system is not fair. If we vote, we endorse this system.”
There will be some constitutional ramifications from the democrats sweeping the districts – they will slightly shift the balance in the electoral college and nominations committees for the LegCo and the office of the chief executive, for example. But despite the moral victory for the movement and the egg on the face of Carrie Lam, the results are not a blow against the real structures of power in Hong Kong, which increasingly are rooted in Beijing. And the elections cannot resolve the contradiction between the people’s desperation for democracy and the Chinese Communist Party’s resolve to incorporate the city into its totalitarian regime. This is the heart of every political dispute in Hong Kong. While there is unity around the five demands, how exactly to win them, and whether they are even winnable, is a source of great confusion.
The radicals are aware that they cannot sustain the massive confrontations with the police without enduring significant casualties and mass arrests for very little gain. If they were joined in their militant actions by tens of thousands of other citizens, they would provoke a crisis of immense proportions, dramatically shifting the political terrain in the city. Yet while they have generated much sympathy, there have been few signs of their direct actions drawing in significant layers of others except as supporters. Many were waiting for the election results before deciding on a new course of action, but there is no consensus on what to do in the face of the increasingly violent police force – although many are arguing for smaller actions that allow them to “be like water” and disperse quickly when police arrive.
Another suggestion is for a united opposition political bloc, based on the five demands of the movement, with the same discipline as the pro-Beijing forces. But a united opposition focussed on the elections doesn’t seem realistic either. While the district elections were a success, district councillors wield no budgetary or legislative power. The LegCo and the chief executive are the key institutions, but not only are they not elected by universal suffrage, when oppositionists do make it in, they can be disqualified, as half a dozen legislative councillors were in recent years for being at odds with the “one country, two systems” doctrine enshrined in the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s de facto constitution). Nowhere does the phrase “you can’t change the system from within the system” seem truer than with the governing structures of Hong Kong.
Furthermore, the pro-democracy forces sit on two axes ranging from naïve constitutionalists to militant direct actionists and from far right xenophobic “localists” to far left anti-discrimination activists. Given the balance of forces and the apolitical nature of the student rebellion, it is not at all clear that a cohesive opposition – if it were even possible – would be anything other than a vehicle for bourgeois nationalists to hegemonise the movement while using a few activists as their radical face.
Time will tell how the situation develops. Some things at least are certain. The electoral victory has highlighted the depth and breadth of the pro-democracy movement and has underlined its moral authority in the city. The pro-Beijing camp has been rocked and the government thoroughly embarrassed. But the fundamental issues remain. The Chinese foreign minister yesterday said of the election results: “It is clear that no matter what happens, Hong Kong is a part of China ... Any attempt to mess up Hong Kong, or even damage its prosperity and stability, will not succeed.” If the resolve of the movement has been tested and found unwavering, so too has the attitude of Beijing. This is not going to be settled any time soon.