(This is Part-1 of a two part Report)
Landslide victory for Hong Kong pro-democracy parties in de facto protest referendum : This ( it was CNN’s) is the tone and tenor of headlines in mainstream media.There is nothing new in this kind of reportage for Indians fed on inobjectivity and hyperboles. This notion however needs to be objectively analysed, more so in the wake of the turmoil there.That will help a better understanding of the implications of this election.
What was held on November 24 Sunday was the Sixth-term District Council Ordinary Election of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), and counting was completed as of noon on Monday.
Hong Kong, once a British colony, is part of China since 1997, and its special status (“One Country, Two Systems”) is set to expire in 2047, as per an agreement between UK and China . The current protests started in May- June against a planned law which would have cleared the way for criminal suspects to be extradited to the mainland. The bill was withdrawn in September, but protest demonstrations continued. The election was held in spite of such a turmoil.
Hong Kongers have described legal, social, political and cultural differences – and the fact Hong Kong was a separate colony for 150 years – as reasons for why they don’t identify with their compatriots in mainland China.
The election was held just a four days after the well-timed passage on November 19-20, unanimously and bipartisanly, by both the Senate and House of Representatives of USA, of the so-called Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act 2019. The US is a bully brazenly and solidly for gross interference in China’s internal affairs.
aljazeera.com reported : For the past few weeks, doubts loomed over whether the elections would even take place. Several candidates on both sides were attacked and multiple pro-democracy candidates were arrested… Patrick Nip, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, said the violence “reduced the chance of holding the elections”. Hong Kong’s Electoral Affairs Commission had called on the public to “stop all threats and violence to support the holding of elections in a peaceful and orderly manner”.
For her part, ruling chief, Lam, when asked whether elections would be postponed, said the government “hopes that the elections can continue as planned”. Some pro-establishment voters, too, hoped to use their vote as a call to restore order.
Neither Mainland China nor its supporters in Hong Kong made any efforts to prevent the elections despite all the turmoil.
With a record turnout rate of 71.2 percent, a total of about 2.94 million registered voters cast their ballots in the election, for 452 seats, contested by mainly two coalitions, the outgoing being the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB). Polling for the election started at 7:30 am and concluded at 10:30 pm.
Some 2.94 million people voted in the election, compared with 1.4 million in 2015: A last- minute surge in registrations added nearly 400,000 voters to the electoral rolls – most of them young – and a wave of novice pro-democracy candidates meant that for the first time in Hong Kong’s history every seat was hotly contested.
About one-tenth of the city’s 4.1 million voters are newly registered since 2015. Of the total registered voters, about half of them are in the 18-35 age group. A veteran Hong Kong-based news editor told China Daily that besides political affinity, perhaps age affinity also played a role in this year’s election, as young voters are more likely to vote for young candidates who hold similar views to them: the election result showed that a large number of successful candidates are in the 18-40 age group. The outgoing coalition acknowledged they could not connect with this segment of the voters.
According to the HKSAR Electoral Affairs Commission, 452 seats in 18 electoral districts have all been decided. All except one district were won by parties that were in Opposition before the election.
Pro-democracy ( a sort of coalition) candidates won close to 60% of the total vote, but achieved a landslide in terms of seats – 347 of the 452 (76 % seats) – because of the first-past-the-post system. Pro-Beijing candidates won 60 seats (13 % seats with 40 percent vote); while independents got 45, according to the South China Morning Post.
In the last election four years ago, pro-Beijing councillors won 298 seats, but the distribution of these seats meant they then took control of all 18 district councils. Now they lost all but one, the Islands District Council in this election.
Held Despite And Amidst Violent Protests
Given the background of the violent turmoil, DAB alliance (which won only 21 seats, and lost 160 seats) chairman, Lo Wai-kwok, said, the ruling coalition was at the receiving end of violence : “Black terror” and threats spread and imposed by radicals during the months-long social unrest is one of reasons that the party had a worrying situation in the election, Lo said, referring to the violence and vandalism meted out by mostly black-clad anti-government protesters.
Some DAB candidates, volunteers and supporters were threatened; some councilors’ offices were vandalized before the election, with some having been torched with gasoline bombs, Lo said.
The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, FTU, a member of the coalition, which held 30 seats in the District Council before the election, won only five seats.
Nearly 30 of the FTU’s training centers, medical clinics and councilors’ offices were vandalized. Many candidates’ posters were torn down and destroyed.
FTU president Stanley Ng Chau-pei said that the election was held in an “extremely unfair and disorderly environment”, which saw repeated violent attacks against FTU candidates.
For those familiar with the opposition’s vandalism, with scores of visuals in the western media too, during the last few months, it is easy to understand that.
The results showed that candidates’ records of long service at community levels counted little in the election, FTU president Stanley Ng Chau-pei said. Despite the FTU’s solid foundation in serving the community at the grassroots level, we still have failed to turn the tide,” Ng told a news briefing after the election. “We will reflect deeply on our failure and improve our work in future.” He added that political demands had overridden livelihood issues.
The Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong — another major party of the pro-establishment camp —won only three of the 452 seats during this election.
How to read, and not to read the election
Admittedly, it is defacto, it is not de jure, technically, or formally, though there is something noteworthy in it.
It was not a referendum, strictly speaking, because no such question was posed as such.Given that the poll took place in the wake of mass protests going on for the last five months, it was projected as if it was a referendum.
It was not exactly a landslide, though we in India are given to such phrases like a wave, sweeping the polls, tsunami even though such a thing did not happen. For instance in India, from 1952 till now, no party ever got 50 percent plus of the polled vote.( Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 vote, aided by Indira’s murder, was the only one nearest that.). Still we always had Tsunamis of reportage.
To put it in perspective, the losing coalition polled around 40 percent of polled vote, that is a little higher than the vote ( 37. 36 % vote, but 303 seats for BJP and 353, 65% seats, for NDA) polled by Modi-led BJP in the latest Loksabha poll, which is often colorfully painted as a massive mandate. During NDA-1, they got less than 32 % vote. Even that was described as a Tsunami.
This was not a setback to China or CPC, strictly speaking.
Nor is it a victory for democracy: For instance, nobody in Hong Kong is legally allowed to be a member of CPC even now, let alone contesting as a communist. How can any one call it is a democratic election in the real sense, when communist are banished in a country that is headed by communists? No one can call China or CPC as authoritarian, more so in this sense.
It was not a victory of pro-democracy parties in the sense that the defeated coalition is NOT, and not led by, a communist party; it is also a party of liberal politics, and it had won the same election last time (2015) in a similar way. Basically, they are like two parties in US or UK.
In fact, the Head of the defeated party, which had polled 40 percent vote, was more dignified, more humble, and more democratic than any party in India (see photo below).
Members of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong take a deep bow at a news conference on Monday by way of expressing their gratitude and offering apologies to supporters a day after their massive setback in the District Council Election. [PHOTO / CHINA DAILY]
Chief executive says SAR will listen to voters, but violence also needs to end : This is the caption of a candid report in China Daily of PRC soon after the results were out:
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor of the ruling party voiced her hope on Monday that the people of Hong Kong will continue to express their views in a peaceful manner. The district poll was conducted in very difficult circumstances due to incidents that have taken place over the past few months, Lam said. She thanked the voters for their participation, through which, she said, they hoped to express their views.
BBC reported :
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has said the government will “seriously reflect” after local elections saw massive gains by pro-democracy candidates. In a statement released online on Monday, Ms Lam said the government respected the results. She said many felt the results reflected “people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society”. The government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect”, she said. (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-50541627)
China Daily’s report was candid :
“Various analyses said the result reflected people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society.
“Hong Kong’s pro-establishment camp pledged to continue serving the community and to proactively improve people’s livelihoods after suffering a massive setback in local elections. The promise follows the opposition camp’s victory in grabbing majority control of district-level affairs in the city’s District Council elections on Sunday.”
Limited Significance Of The Election
This was an election where Hong Kong level politics, or its ties with mainland, were NOT under the scrutiny of the voters, with no manifestos thrown in. The elected body has no powers to take any political or policy decisions; only civic issues come under its purview. They are more like Municipal Corporation elections in Mumbai, much smaller in scale : Greater Mumbai’s population is over 20 million, the city itself being 13 million; they are somewhat like local body election in Kashmir, with little political import; they are not even comparable to Union Territory Delhi’s elections to choose between BJP-Congress-AAP. But imperialists have bigger stakes there.
Trump claimed his election had an adversary role of Russia. Comparatively, this election had a more brazen,undisputed, declared role and funding of the West, particularly USA, backing the Opposition.
BBC said : The territory’s district councillors have little political power and mainly deal with local issues such as bus routes and rubbish collection, so the district elections do not normally generate such interest.
Political commentator Paul Yeung told China Daily the results showed that political disputes, usually occurring in elections of high-level authorities, such as the government and legislature, are affecting more ordinary elections. He stressed that according to the Basic Law, the city’s district councils are not an organ of political power. Yet this year’s election seems to have become a kind of “referendum” aiming to decide Hong Kong’s future, which is not the purpose of its original set-up.
However, the councillors also get to choose 117 of their number to sit on the 1,200-member committee that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is then formally appointed by the Chinese government. The landslide results mean all of those 117 seats are now likely to go to pro-democracy candidates, so they will have a greater influence over that decision, which is set to be made in 2022.
Jonathan Head, BBC News, Hong Kong wrote :
So what now? Will the protests resume? It seems almost certain they will, unless the government starts responding to protesters’ demands.
But there are challenges too for the opposition, (now elected). The new intake of young councillors will have to take on the responsibility of addressing local concerns, like public transport and other amenities, rather than the grander ideals of democracy.
They will need to work together more effectively than they have in the past, and work out how the demands and tactics of more radical protesters can most effectively be channelled to get concessions from a Chinese central government unnerved by yet another show of defiance in Hong Kong.
Voters were lost in political passions forgetting it was basically an election on civic issues:
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, said most voters, affected by the protracted social unrest, were driven by the political turmoil and failed to discharge their duties to bring benefits to the community. The election results showed that many voters made the choice based only on the candidates’ political backgrounds instead of their ability to serve the community, Lau said. This time, many pro-establishment candidates, despite their rich experience of participatory community work, were defeated by some political greenhorns in the opposition camp who were parachuted into the races.
In Lau’s opinion, some voters might not wholeheartedly support those opposition candidates, but they just wanted to vent their anger with the SAR government at the expense of pro-establishment politicians.
He cautioned that such “protest vote” tactics may hurt the voters themselves, as some winning candidates, with little expertise and experience in serving the community, may fail to identify and serve their respective neighborhoods’ needs. More importantly, they may prioritize political issues after assuming office, which may bring no good to livelihood improvement and fuel the ongoing unrest, he added.
The district council historically deals with local livelihood issues, such as traffic and hygiene. But the protests have dramatically elevated their significance, at least symbolically.
CNN reported about the content of the election:
District councils are elected on four-year terms, and largely handle local affairs. They lack much in terms of real power, serving mainly to advise the government on issues affecting their neighborhoods and the allocation of funds for local projects.
While some candidates ran on fairly standard local council issues — “eliminate illegal parking,” “build an animal friendly community,” “strengthen environmental conservation” — a substantial minority, around 13%, included the key protest phrase “five demands, not one less” in their election material :
Those five demands are: withdraw the extradition bill that kicked off the entire crisis (since achieved); launch an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality; retract any categorization of a protest on June 12 as a “riot”; amnesty for arrested protesters; and introducing universal suffrage for how the Chief Executive and Legislative Council are elected. (https://edition.cnn.com/2019/11/24/asia/hong-kong-district-council-elections-intl/index.html)
The class divide could be seen : In the working-class neighbourhood of Yau Ma Tei, a regular scene of clashes between police and demonstrators, no one waiting in line wore black, surgical masks or chanted slogans – all hallmarks of the pro-democracy protest movement. (www.aljazeera.com)
China’s Approach And Stakes
This was not as if authoritative China was adamantly trashing the election. It has viewed the polls rationally, and soberly, as the following extract, quoted at some length, shows:
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular news conference that halting destruction and chaos is still the city’s top priority. “The most pressing task in Hong Kong is to stop violence and restore order,” he said.
The spokesman reaffirmed that the Chinese government is determined to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests, implement the “one country, two systems” policy, and oppose any foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking on Monday,in Japan, reiterated 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,” he said. (China Daily – Xinhua)
“Hk District Council Election Result Needs Rational Analysis”
This editorial, with the above heading, of China’s leading Daily, Global Times (published on 2019/11/25) sums up China’s stance. Unlike the Establishment in India, China did not seek to pick holes, despite the results that are not palatable to it.
It said that the “elections were held in a largely safe and orderly environment.” A few radical opposition figures, it said, attempted to disrupt the proceedings to make it difficult for pro-establishment candidates and their supporters, but it did not have much impact. People had worried that unrest sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill could force the cancellation of elections, but that didn’t happen.
Matter of factly, it said :
“Hong Kong district council is different from the legislative council. As a publicly elected institution of 18 districts of Hong Kong, the district council’s function is to serve the community, express public’s appeal regarding livelihood, such as transportation, environment, and living conditions. This year’s district council elections were full of political slogans because of the extradition bill controversy. But regardless, neither side has much room to politicize the district council elections.
”The unrest sparked by anti-extradition bill is still ongoing, which is conducive for pro-democracy camps to mobilize support in a short span of time. …Election result showed that there is still emotion within Hong Kong society, affecting rational thinking over the key issue of how the city should walk out of its current predicament. ”
It exposed Western meddling :
“It must be pointed out that the West has been helping HK opposition in district council elections in the past week. Australian media suddenly broke a story of a Chinese spy infiltrating HK defecting to Australia (The man is a convicted fraudster). A former employee at British Consulate General in HK detained 3 months ago on the mainland for soliciting prostitutes told BBC last week he was tortured during detention. They are intended to influence public opinion on Hong Kong. US lawmakers hastily passed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, also targeting district council elections.
“Hong Kong radical forces and Western supporters behind them wanted to stage a political demonstration during the voting. They tried to deny the urgency of ending chaos in Hong Kong. But we want to say that the pro-democracy camp winning more seats doesn’t mean Hong Kong voters support violent demonstrations. Majority of Hongkongers are tired of violence and are yearning for order to be restored.
“It is conceivable and impossible that majority of Hongkongers would encourage violence, support political confrontation against the mainland, and back the city to become a bridgehead for US political forces to pressure China. This is because it will severely undermine the interests of Hongkongers and push the city into an environment of uncertainties. It is crucial to rationally interpret the result of Hong Kong’s district council elections, lest mobs should be emboldened by misreading them.”
It put things in perspective :
“Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland follow different political systems. Expressing views by constitutional provisions such as votes should be encouraged in Hong Kong. The district council elections have had their impact but such influence has its limits. Both sides should be respected by all. All forces in Hong Kong, including the opposition, must compete for influence in the establishment. No one should follow the devious path of street politics.
”It is hoped that the pro-establishment groups in Hong Kong will not be discouraged, and Hongkongers who love the country and the city will not be disheartened after the district council elections. As long as elections are held, there will be swings. What’s more, in such an unfavorable situation, the pro-establishment camp still received about 40 percent of the votes.
“China’s development and progress are unstoppable. Hong Kong’s politics will certainly be increasingly linked to China’s development and progress. This is the major historical trend. The country will never abandon Hong Kong, and will never ignore the people and forces who love the motherland and the city. Hong Kong’s problems need objective analysis and practical solutions. The country will always provide guarantees for Hong Kong.
Its main thrust is :
”It is believed that whatever the ups and downs in Hong Kong polls, all elections in the city are held within the aegis of the special administrative region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China, and they can’t impact the basic framework of “one country, two systems.” (The extract is from an editorial of the Global Times. email@example.com)
(Part- 2 will be a Review on “one country, two systems” : Chinese socialism Vs Hong Kong’s capitalism)
Ramakrishnan, Political Observer, who contributed to Countercurrents.org.