As readers will be well aware, Hong Kong over the last six months has been the scene of often violent confrontation between the region’s government and protesters opposed to increased control by the mainland Chinese government.
I haven’t written anything on the subject before now; partly because the situation has been constantly evolving, but also because it seemed so depressing. While the resistance offered by the pro-democracy protesters was inspiring, it was always hard to see how it could lead to anything good.
Today, however, there is better news for once. In local elections held yesterday, the pro-Beijing establishment suffered a landslide defeat. All 18 district councils went into the election with a pro-Beijing majority: in a stunning turnaround, the opposition has won control of 17 of them.*
The immediate practical impact of this is not large. District councils have very few powers; they do some local service delivery and provide advice to the regional government. But unlike the regional government, they are directly elected by all Hong Kong citizens, so they provide a clear and unmistakable test of public opinion.
They also have an indirect impact as one of the components of the electoral college that chooses the region’s chief executive – not enough on its own to prevent the election of a pro-Beijing candidate, but enough to ensure the democrats a noticeably increased say.
Hong Kong’s regional parliament, the Legislative Council, was last elected in 2016. On that occasion, pro-democracy forces won 55.0% of the vote; pro-Beijing groups won 40.2% and others 4.8%. That gave the opposition a 22-18 lead in the directly elected seats. But there are another 30 seats drawn from “functional constituencies”, which are gerrymandered in the government’s favor: its supporters won 22 of them, for a comfortable majority.
In the previous year’s local elections, on the other hand, pro-Beijing candidates actually had a majority of the vote, 54.6% to 40.2% (due at least in part to a low turnout). And while the district councils have no functional constituencies to complicate things, they also have a different electoral system. The Legislative Council is proportional representation, but the district councils, in the time-honored British fashion, use first-past-the-post in single-member constituencies.
So in 2015, with a substantial but not huge majority of the vote, the pro-Beijing forces cleaned up in terms of seats, winning every council and 298 seats in total, against 126 for the opposition and seven non-aligned.
This time, the boot was very much on the other foot. On a greatly increased turnout – above 70% – pro-democracy candidates have won 57.0% of the vote and an aggregate 387 seats, against 42.1% and just 63 seats for the establishment. In a clear sign of polarisation, non-aligned candidates managed only 0.8% and two seats.
As a concession to rural interests, 27 chairs of rural committees also have ex officio seats on district councils, and the eight of them in Islands district will be enough for the pro-Beijing members to retain a majority there (although the democrats won the elected positions seven to three). But everywhere else the opposition will have control, mostly by large margins.
In Wong Tai Sin district, a working-class area of urban Kowloon, the democrats won 25-nil. In Central & Western district, at the heart of Hong Kong island, it was 14-1.
Protests and demonstrations are not always representative. Sometimes a noisy minority can convince observers that its support is much larger than it really is. Until now, the Hong Kong government and its supporters could tell themselves that their opponents, while able to put impressive numbers onto the streets, were not truly representative of the region’s population.
Not any more. There is no longer any room for doubt that the government, and its ultimate masters in Beijing, do not hold the confidence of those that they govern.
They may conclude from that that their current strategy is not working, and that it’s time to present a more conciliatory front and offer some concessions to the opposition. Equally, they may conclude that they have nothing to hope for from increased democracy, so it’s necessary to tighten control all the more strongly. Nor is there any reason to think Beijing will automatically go the same way as the Hong Kong authorities.
As for the opposition, it has had a huge morale boost, but of itself that does not put it any closer to achieving its strategic aims. It too needs to think about compromise: the protesters cannot defy Beijing indefinitely. At some point they need to be willing to declare victory and go home.
Quite apart from the result, the fact that the elections were held peacefully and conducted fairly is a hopeful sign. The possibility is there of a settlement that would save face for both sides. But so – still – is the possibility for things to go very badly wrong.