The 2019 district council election in Hong Kong gave a landslide victory to the pro-democracy camp and is widely interpreted as an unofficial referendum on the Chinese Communist Party’s interference in the governance of the former British colony.
A record-breaking 71% of voters cast their ballots in the election. Of the 452 contested seats, pro-democratic candidates won 385, collecting more than 85% of the votes.
In the previously Beijing-friendly district of Wan Chai, the pro-government share dropped from 84% in 2015 to only 30% in 2019. Candidates who support the protesters, now in their sixth month of activism, won 17 out of 18 districts. The people of Hong Kong could hardly send a more explicit message to the government.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam expressed that she “respected the results” and conceded that “quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society.” She promised that the government would “humbly and seriously reflect” on the election result.
No Democracy – Yet
Despite the landslide victory, the election will not directly impact the selection of the government. Even with the infusion of district council members who can vote on the selection of Hong Kong’s chief executive, the pro-democracy camp likely does not hold a majority, although it is close. If some of the business representatives who align with Beijing for strategic reasons should choose to defect, the next leader of Hong Kong could represent the people.
That is unlikely, but the election has not been for naught. The protesters now officially know that most people in Hong Kong are on their side, which lends them credence in the international community. Consequently, Western countries are more likely to voice official support to the protesters as a legitimate movement backed democratically by the people.
Although the road to independence may be long and arduous for Hong Kong, this election has enormously boosted morale and confidence in the pro-democracy movement.
China Doesn’t Bark
Sometimes the most significant part of an event is what doesn’t happen. During the six months of turbulence in Hong Kong, Beijing has stayed out officially and left the task of cleaning up to Lam and her administration. For China, this is unusually restrained. The mainland government rarely hesitates to use extreme force against open opposition. This self-imposed restraint in Hong Kong is a sign of weakness, vulnerability, and deep structural problems. It reflects China’s fundamental dependence on access to the global market, especially the West. Many parties who want to do business with China strongly prefer to go through Hong Kong, which has a long tradition of the rule of law, orderly conduct, civility, and good business practices.
Hong Kong can survive well without China, but the converse is not true. Beijing’s rule is built on a house of cards, and the Chinese government avoids shaking the box lest the unstable construction should fall. While that may not secure freedom for Hong Kong, it could buy residents more bargaining chips in the struggle for autonomy.
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