By Kumar David –
Sunday 4 September was the first Legco (Legislative Council) election in Hong Kong after the 2014 student protests (Occupy Central–Occupy Mong Kok, or Umbrella Movement) which dragged on for two months. Although there was support and sympathy for the youthful idealists and their demands at the beginning, public irritation and finally anger erupted as the cities two arterial roads were blockaded week upon week. Traffic had to be diverted, workers inconvenienced and the police had to patiently bear the brunt of repeated insults and provocations. The government, obviously in agreement with Beijing decided not to use force however long it took – the lesson of Tiananmen Square had been well learnt. Afterwards, during the last twelve months, the pan-democrats (anti-establishment and anti-Beijing) adopted filibustering techniques in Legco reminiscent of the ‘wreck everything’ stance of the US Congress hell bent on sabotaging anything that Obama proposed. The result was that even bills that would benefit the public were blocked and public anger mounted again.
Hence there was much curiosity what the polls would show. Would the basic issues riling the Hong Kong populace against Beijing’s heavy handedness prevail in voters’ minds or were they cheesed off with the new breed of radicals and soundly thrash them at the polls? The election result was rather a surprise for everybody but before venturing there let me recapitulate the grievances Hong Kongers bear against the Central Government. It’s all political. As for economics Hong Kong has benefited hugely by reunification, partaking in China’s dynamism, prospering as a logistical export-import hub of the world’s second largest economy, bringing in cheap food and goods and retailing merchandise to a flood of wealthy Mainland tourists.
The political issues are pretty explicit. Hong Kong people do not want interference, or if you like they want less involvement of China in their affairs; they want universal suffrage to elect their Legislative Council and Chief Executive; they abhor the Central Government harassing local critics of the Beijing regime. I have lived in HK for 15 years when it was a British Colony and after that for 16 more after reunification including regular visits after my retirement. Both periods are about equal so I should be able to make comparative statements. Yes I should, but as a foreigner I do not have the same yearning for self-determination that a local person feels. If you put this factor to one side, then in truth I have not experienced much difference; but then I am not involved in local politics, except an intellectual interest in the concerns voiced in the first part of this paragraph.
Instead of a Governor sent by Whitehall, HK has a Chief Executive appointed by Beijing through a convoluted electoral-college process; the British sense of fair play has given way to a degree of nationalism if you have a lousy head of institution to work under. But by gad, the public service and universities are a damn sight better run than corresponding institutions in Lanka! A Commission of Inquiry in HK is free to submit its independent report but in Lanka pressure from political or commercial lobbies is ubiquitous.
Ok, in summary the gist of what I am saying is that HK people have every right to demand less control by Beijing, and to ask for universal suffrage and the right to determine their internal affairs (that is excluding foreign policy and defence) but in other ways, things are not as bad as elsewhere.
The surprise results
I noted at the beginning that there were expectations that the young (Occupy) radicals who had never stood for election previously would be trounced or that the pro-establishment, pro-Beijing DAB (Democratic Action for Betterment of HK) would suffer a setback. Surprisingly, neither happened – the DAB did lose one seat, declining from 13 to 12 in the Geographic Constituencies. Other pro-government candidates won four seats making a total of 16. ‘Localists’ and radicals performed unexpectedly well, together securing six seats, and what is more significant is that including losing candidates they secured 28% of the votes cast. The DAB cum pro-establishment side secured 40%; see pie chart. Six out of 30 elected Geographic Constituency seats is like 42 in a parliament of 210.
The big losers were the pan-democrats, the liberal mahataya and nona parties evocative of the Ceylon National Congress of yore. Up to 2016 the pan-democrats dominated the anti-Beijing space but this time they were cut down as too moderate and too docile. Not counting the six localists and radicals the pan-democrats secured only 13 seats, a loss of five. Several big names were eliminated. Not only in Europe and the US is capitalist liberal democracy being smothered – vide the European new right, Corbyn in UK and the new left in Spain and Greece, and that ogre Trump. Beware Ranil and Sirisena, the Ides of March have come to stay!
What this implies, if it is not a flash in the pan but a harbinger, is that there has been a changing of the guard on the democrat (anti-Beijing) side. Since you may hear these names in future here are the new localists: Nathan Law (51k) is a 2014 ‘Occupy’ student leader; S.K. Lau (38k) a Polytechnic University lecturer; Sextus Leung (30k), W.C. Yau (21k) and C.H. Yau are self-determination advocates. Leung and W.C. Yau belong to Youngspiration. The sixth localist is C.T. Cheng (54k). The k-figures in parenthesis are the number of votes they polled in thousands – quite impressive.
The name ‘localist’ is now standard HK usage. No one is allowed to declare a platform of independence from China for fear of being debarred from elections. (Remember JR’s 6-th Amendment? I think he expelled Amirthalingam from parliament or had him thrown in the cooler). Hence those who demand more power for HK (non-secessionist self-determination) call themselves localists. Six radicals were debarred by the authorities during the nomination stage since their non-secessionist patriotism was questioned by the government and Beijing.
How does the electoral system work?
Legco is like parliament in that it enacts laws and passes the budget, but of its 70 members only 35 are directly elected from multi-member constituencies (Geographic Constituencies) by 3.8 million voters of whom 55% voted this time, the highest ever. There are five constituencies returning seven members each. This multi-member system is fairer than Lanka’s silly proportional system or the FPTP Westminster model. Another 5 persons are directly elected by the whole territory (like a national list by election) but the candidates must be sitting District Council members (like our PC members).
That accounts for 40; so what about the other 30? This is an unfairness HK locals fret about (the well to do and the educated do not). There are 30 Functional Constituencies reserved for various interest groups; mainly money bags, such as the financial sector, trade and business chambers, bankers and accountants. The system throws in a sop to neutralise intellectuals by granting seats to doctors, engineers and lawyers. Hence 6% of the population elects 30 Functional Constituency members to Legco while the other 94% elects 35+5 members. It’s a scam and in the past Beijing and the HK government manoeuvred to secure a sufficient number of Functional Constituency seats (mainly the money bags) to supplement the pro-establishment DAB’s geographical seats and ensure an overall majority – at least 36. Nobody is too sure how it will work out this time.
What may change and what will not change
One crucial matter that will not change is the election of the Chief Executive. The CE is elected by a ‘college’ whose membership is heavily influenced by Beijing. Candidates have to be vetted by a sub-committee of the National People’s Convention before they are allowed to stand. De facto, Beijing has, and will continue to ‘appoint’ the CE just as the British did the Governor. However localists and the pan-democrats have retained at least one-third (24) Lego votes (13 pan-democrats, 6 localists/radicals and a few Functionals). That is to say the grouping has the ability to veto constitutional changes. The impact of radical voices in the Legco with six young people who support self-determination (not independence) for Hong Kong remains to be seen. What is most important is that they act in a mature fashion and shun empty-vessels-make-the-loudest-sound filibustering and posturing. This is an opportunity for these young people to grow in stature into future political leaders; they must not squander the opportunity.
China has always resolutely opposed independence and the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office of the State Council reiterated this after the elections. There is no point in radicals courting time in prison, particularly because the vast majority of people want to run their own affairs but not independence from China which in any case would be disastrous for HK’s economy. HK’s Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Raymond Tam conceded that it would be best to bring the radicals into a working relationship. That would need give and take on both sides. Most important however is for Beijing to overcome its paranoia that more freedom for Hong Kong will entail political instability in the Mainland.