It is not too late for China to reflect and understand the sanctity of the electoral process. Hongkongers have through the ballot box brought the Goliath down, a revolution rewritten
In the last few months, protestors in Hong Kong have left no stone unturned to reach their voice to the Beijing-backed government headed by chief executive Carrie Lam. They have marched on the streets. They have wielded Molotov cocktails and bricks. They have sung “Glory to Hong Kong” with tears in their eyes. They have even fashioned “Lady Liberty” after America’s Statue of Liberty, albeit with Hong Kong characteristics—wearing a hat, gas mask and brandishing an umbrella. They have screamed “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”. They have accused the police of being “Black Police”. But the revolution has unfurled otherwise—through the power of the ballot.
Hong Kong went to polls for district council elections on the November 24. District Council elections take place once every four years, and have till date, never quite been important enough. The responsibilities cover rubbish collection, noise pollution, bus stop replacement, estate beautification and sundry. But this time around, the elections became a proxy referendum on Hong Kong by Hongkongers.
The pro-democrats in Hong Kong swept the stakes with a resounding electoral victory winning in 17 out of 18 districts with 391 seats, or 86.5% of the total of 452 seats. Of the 4.1 million registered voters, an estimated 3 million people came to vote, 71% of the electorate. Four years ago in 2015, the pro-democrats won 116 seats, or 47% of the seats compared to the pro-Beijingers who won 292 seats. Then, of the 3.1 million registered voters, an estimated 1.4 million voters came to vote, 47% of the electorate — half of this year’s count.
The polling day was the only lull in the last six months. The Beijing-backed Hong Kong government led by Lam and the average Hongkonger have been embroiled in a contentious battle for Hong Kong’s future, a future where Hongkongers want to have a say, as opposed to submitting to China’s diktat.
What sparked the Hongkongers ire was Lam’s politically-charged brainwave by way of an extradition bill, whereby Hongkongers could be sent to the mainland for trial. Hongkongers who take pride in the rule of law and independence of the judiciary were as puzzled, as furious. The fury got channeled into island-wide protests with some 2 million people taking to the streets, across society from civil servants to students to doctors to church groups to home-makers.
Instead, Lam (de-facto Beijing) chose to be politically deaf, viewing the development as nothing short of a chance to subdue a population that refused to be as obedient or loyal as the Confucian creed, almost as if this was an insult to the cause of both “Chineseness” and the Communist Party, CPC. That alas, was a wild miscalculation.
In East Asia, “saving face” is an important social norm and is considered nothing short of heroic. The opposite, “loss of face” is mea culpa. Lam persisted in “saving face” by refusing to withdraw the bill, hoping to drag the protestors to the negotiating table, but as she procrastinated, the situation became progressively ugly. The face-off between the Hong Kong police armed with a cache of tear gas, rubber pellets, water cannons and live ammunition versus the protestors armed with home-made Molotov cocktails, sticks and bricks began to take a violent turn.
In October, in a further show of strength Lam clamped down with an emergency ordinance, Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO) deployed to ban protestors from wearing masks. This show of strength came quite the opposite, showcasing instead, Lam’s lack of political acumen. Hong Kong’s court declared the anti-mask law unconstitutional. Students took to the streets.
Students, some younger than 18 holed up in two of the well-known Universities, Hong Kong Polytechnic (PolyU) and City University of Hong Kong (CUHK) challenging the ban. The stasis continued until the surprising lull that came by way of the district council elections. As Hong Kong went to polls, there was a last minute surge in voter registration with 400,000 voters registering for the first time.
Beijing read this development as positive. Beijing read the elections as a chance for the “silent majority” to vote. According to Beijing, the “silent majority” was tired out by the disruption of business, schools, daily life and would vote in favour of the pro-Beijing camp aka stability.
But stability is a feeble word to sway a people who demand universal suffrage. The electoral results attest that Hongkongers took the district council elections as a proxy referendum on the government that they felt, had no eyes or ears for its own people.
The pro-democrats won a majority garnering more than half of the popular vote (estimates vary as the candidates are hard to classify as pro-democrats or independents). Notable winners are Kevin Lam (who stood in for activist Joshua Wong who was debarred), Jimmy Sham (convener of the pro-democracy organisation Civil Human Rights Front) and Lester Shum (prominent during the 2014 Umbrella Movement).
Beijing’s gamble that the “silent majority” in Hong Kong was not in favour of the protests/protestors has been disapproved. As has been Beijing’s narrative that the protests have been lead by “black hands” (read America and the Western coalition). Beijing called the protestors rioters, terrorists and vandals. That too has been disapproved.
Why do the district council elections matter now? District Elections have long been a stepping stone to the election committee, the 1,200 member body that chooses the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. 117 seats are reserved for the district councilors on this body.
Many also read the electoral success as the writing on the wall for Hong Kong’s political future. There will be elections for the Legislative Council (LegCo, the Parliament) next year. The LegCo is stacked with both elected and non-elected members, the latter are the “functional constituencies” of business interests (agriculture, insurance, real estate, tourism) and pro-Beijingers. But these elections have opened a window for the pro-democrats.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law (mini-constitution) concedes that the aim is for Hong Kongers to employ universal suffrage to elect the chief executive, after nomination by a representative committee.
So far, Ms Lam has acknowledged the “public unhappiness”. Disturbingly, China’s state media has skirted the outcome of elections suggesting sabotage by anti-establishment forces with China Daily going as far as posting a picture on Twitter on the 25th of November suggesting that the protestors mislead the elderly to vote for the pro-democracy camp with the caption “That’s how the opposition tampers with a fair election”.
China, with no past historical or political experience has failed to comprehend the significance of the rule of law in the ruling of the High Court as well as the voice of millions of Hong Kongers out in the streets. Perhaps, it is not too late for China to reflect and understand the sanctity of the electoral process. Hongkongers have through the ballot box brought the Goliath down, a revolution rewritten.
The author is Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi