President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy
Though the 18 District Councils in Hong Kong represent the lowest layer of the democratic process in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and wield little power, the elections to the 452 District Council seats on November 24 were important and viewed as virtually a popular referendum on Beijing’s credibility and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The results demonstrated that despite the lapse of nearly 22 years after Hong Kong ‘reverted’ to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), neither the central authorities in Beijing nor the CCP in Hong Kong have gained the trust of the majority of Hong Kong residents.
The results were unequivocal: 396 out of 452 seats, or 90%, were won by anti-government candidates, signalling that people do not trust Beijing to genuinely implement the ‘One country, Two Systems’ policy — designed by Beijing and the UK — for governance. Opinion polls conducted earlier by the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that over 50% of people distrust the police and the government. Pro-government forces won just 58 seats, a collapse from 300. The results reflected that dissatisfaction is deep, with wide support for the demonstrators, though the pro-Beijing media had been projecting that the protests had lost support of those whose work and livelihoods had been affected.
The reaction from Beijing was prompt. Hu Xijin, editor of the official Global Times, in a tweet on November 24 attributed the defeat to ‘interference by the West’, pointing to media reports alleging defection of a Chinese spy to Australia and torture by Chinese authorities of a Hong Kong man who worked for the British consulate, as examples. He was countered by others raising issues such as China’s kidnapping of two booksellers of Hong Kong. Two Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspapers claimed the results were not representative and accused ‘pro-democratic forces’ of threatening the use of violence to intimidate voters.
Official reaction from Beijing was slower, but endorsed Hu Xijin’s tweet. The party’s People’s Daily reported the conclusion of the elections, but not the results! A commentary in China’s official news agency Xinhua said, ‘During the past more than five months, rioters conspired with foreign forces and escalated violent acts, which resulted in political antagonism, social splits, and setbacks in the economy.’ China Daily observed, ‘The result of Sunday’s District Council election marks a setback for Hong Kong’s democratic development, as the results were skewed by the illegal activities of the opposition camp to the benefit of their candidates.’ It elaborated that ‘members of the opposition camp, particularly their young agitators, engaged in an all-out campaign to sabotage the campaign activities of pro-establishment candidates and intimidate their supporters from going to the ballot box.’
The protests, which continued for six months and saw hundreds of thousands of protesters coming out on the streets to exhibit support, appear to have galvanised the people. The lowest turnout was of about 3 lakh people with the highest touching well over a million. Government propaganda that the escalation in violence was undermining popular support for the protesters was belied by the voter turnout and results. Over 2.94 million of 4.31 million voters, or almost 71 per cent, voted.
Undoubtedly pro-Beijing organisations such as the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions and China’s offices in Hong Kong tried to defuse the situation and muster support in favour of ending the protests. They were possibly responsible for registering many of the 3.9 lakh first-time voters, but the majority of them seem to have voted in favour of the protesters.
On November 28, US President Trump signed into law a Bill passed by the US Congress, requiring the State Department to certify each year that China was upholding human rights. China summoned the US ambassador in Beijing and warned that it would take ‘firm counter-measures’ if the US acted on the law. The Bill has been welcomed by pro-democrats in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong protests attracted considerable international attention, with students staging marches in sympathy in the US, the UK, Australia and Argentina, but the people of Taiwan felt directly impacted. They followed developments closely and Taiwan’s pro-independence DPP-led government assured that persons coming from Hong Kong would find sanctuary, if sought. Funds for the protesters were collected in rallies. Popular support for Taiwan‘s President Tsai Ing-wen, which had dropped, causing the DPP concern, has risen appreciably since the protests.
There were months of delay before Beijing moved to quell the protests, suggesting possible differences within the politburo. Reports claimed President Xi Jinping wanted to prevent a Tiananmen-type event and did not want to spill Chinese blood. The Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of Hong Kong affairs, Han Zheng, also did not appear to be active, travelling to Shenzhen for talks with HKSAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam only in August.
Beijing was seen to get active only after the Beidaihe meeting in August, where the ‘elders’ dubbed the protests a ‘colour revolution’. Despite having nurtured a number of pro-Beijing outfits in Hong Kong for decades, none seemed to have provided adequate information about the protests. Beijing will certainly punish the cadres deemed responsible. Beijing can also be expected to tighten its grip and gradually restrict the scope for political activity in HKSAR.
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