In the run-up to local elections in Hong Kong on Sunday, Beijing and its allies in the city were portraying the vote as a way to hear the voice of a silent majority after nearly six months of increasingly violent anti-government protests.
Now, that majority has spoken — and it has come out overwhelmingly against Beijing and its allies.
The city’s Beijing-backed establishment camp suffered a staggering defeat in elections for district councils as democracy advocates swept 87% of the seats, up from less than a third. Beijing and its supporters in Hong Kong, including the city’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, must now reckon with a resounding, very public display of support for the democracy camp and the protest movement.
“This election is not just about livelihood issues, but also a direct referendum regarding the justifiability of this regime,” Cary Lo, a newly elected district councilor supporting democracy, told reporters Monday. “It has indicated that Carrie Lam’s government has lost its legitimacy.”
What all sides agree on is that the election landslide puts China’s ruling Communist Party under even greater pressure to respond to the protest movement. Where their views differ is on what it means.
To the pro-democracy camp, that means addressing the broader Hong Kong public’s calls for more official accountability. Other politicians are concerned that the vote could be seen by Beijing as a sign that the territory is slipping further from its grip and requires a harsher response.
The protesters started campaigning in June against a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Their demands have since morphed into broader calls for expanded democracy and an investigation into alleged police brutality.
Beijing and its local allies had been convinced that the protest movement had antagonized the public by blocking roads and rail lines and scaring off shoppers and tourists. The democrats’ triumph at the polls showed instead that Hong Kong residents remain broadly sympathetic to the movement.
The councils have very little actual power. They advise the government on neighborhood issues like the location of bus stops, not big questions like democracy. But the democrats’ victory also means that they will gain a larger say on the committee that chooses the territory’s chief executive in 2022.
Democracy advocates were ebullient Monday as they made clear they would continue to challenge government policies and stand in solidarity with anti-government demonstrators. They walked as a group to Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where dozens of protesters have been trapped for more than a week by police.
“Save our brothers and sisters,” chanted Owan Li, a newly elected district councilor who is also a student member of the university’s management council. “We have shown the police force that university campuses are not to be trampled upon.”
The victory in the district council races handed the pro-democracy movement a boost of confidence — and new financial support for its campaigners. (Council members earn about $50,000 a year for the part-time job.) The camp will now be looking at how it can build on this momentum to drum up support for legislative elections next year.
The city’s pro-Beijing camp, in contrast, found itself in full retreat. Leaders of the main pro-Beijing political party gathered Monday to bow their heads in a televised public apology. A federation of pro-Beijing labor unions that suffered heavy losses in district races Sunday angrily blamed Lam’s policies, seeking to distance itself from the unpopular administration.
Lam gave few clues on her next move, saying in a statement that the Hong Kong government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect.”
Now what remains to be seen is how Beijing will respond, and one possibility is — it won’t.
Leaders in Beijing may just ignore the outcome of the elections and maintain their hard line against the protest movement, which they have denounced as the work of foreign-backed separatist forces.
Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a powerful Beijing advisory group, said that the Communist Party had already decided at a high-level meeting last month that it would more closely oversee Hong Kong. Beijing would not allow the outcome of the local elections to affect that decision and would not yield to the demands of protesters, he said in a telephone interview Monday.
“The gist of the decision is to strengthen Beijing’s leadership of the Hong Kong government and strengthen the protection of national security,” he said. Trying to put a positive spin on a huge electoral defeat, Lau said that with the democrats seizing control of 17 of the city’s 18 district councils — compared with none before — the opposition might find activism on councils to be an alternative to violence.
“The opposition forces will have a new platform to attack Beijing and the Hong Kong government,” he said. “At the same time, they will have less need to go to the streets.”
Ronny Tong, a pro-Beijing moderate in Lam’s Cabinet, also tried to find a glimmer of hope in the government’s crushing electoral defeat.
Tong said that the vote was proof that “democracy is alive and well” in Hong Kong — and there was no need for the United States to proceed with legislation to punish Hong Kong officials for their role in harsh police tactics. President Donald Trump has not yet said if he will sign the legislation, which passed both houses with veto-proof margins.
But Lau, the Beijing adviser, said that he believed either the Hong Kong government or the Communist Party would now have to push through stricter security legislation for the territory — a step that the democracy movement would be certain to oppose stridently.
In China, the pro-Beijing camp’s defeat could only be seen as a repudiation of the party’s rule over the semiautonomous region, just weeks after President Xi Jinping gave Lam his enthusiastic backing.
The Chinese government’s reaction Monday was strikingly muted, as if authorities were surprised by the results. China’s state television network covered the voting extensively as it happened Sunday, but then lapsed into silence once the outcome was clear.
A number of state media outlets, while not describing the results as either a win or loss, on Monday accused hostile foreign forces of aiding the opposition. A foreign ministry spokesman said Beijing would not brook any challenge to its sovereignty over the territory. “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,” said Geng Shuang, a ministry spokesman.
Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said by telephone that the results in Hong Kong showed how out of touch the Communist leadership in Beijing was when it came to understanding popular sentiment and democratic processes.
“Whenever China has tried to manage democracy, they have failed,” she said. “They are very bad at understanding democracies and how democratic societies function.”