The way lies open before him if only Chinese leader Xi Jinping can bring himself to take it. The way leads to a solution for Hong Kong’s current political crisis, which took a violent turn this year on July 1, and has continued ever since.
The solution has appeared in the form of the District Councils election, on November 24, not important in itself, but with a significance far beyond the 452 seats at stake in Hong Kong’s 18 neighbourhood-level councils.
By Hong Kong standards, the dimensions of the November 24 exercise were stunning: highest number of registered voters; at 70+% the highest turnout ever recorded for any kind of election since universal suffrage was belatedly introduced here in the 1980s; the highest number of pro-democracy candidates, with no constituency left uncontested; and the largest number ever to win at that level.
Before the election, pro-establishment forces dominated all 18 councils, with near parity between the two camps on only two: the Sham Shui Po and Shatin District Councils. Before the election… considering how democrats had struggled in years past, and without pre-election polls to guide… it was possible to speculate that democrats would do well enough to win majorities on those two councils.
That speculation could not have been more wrong because the entire system has now flipped. Pro-democracy forces have majorities on all but one of the councils.
The election also scored another new first: the greatest number of pro-democracy candidates ever to unite and run together on a commonly agreed platform, turning the election into a referendum on the protest movement.
They called themselves the Democratic Coalition for the District Councils Election and their platform endorsed the five demands of the five-month-old youth-driven insurgency. One demand has already been achieved. Three others are protest-related. The fifth is a resumption of Hong Kong’s electoral reform project abandoned in 2014-15.
In contrast, their pro-establishment and pro-Beijing opponents ran with anti-protest slogans calling for a “Vote Against Violence,” and “Vote to Save Hong Kong,” and they were defeated by a landslide.
The message was clear. Hong Kongers were willing to turn out in record numbers to support an anti-government resistance movement. This the voters did even though it had escalated into politically motivated violence long feared by a community with memories dating back to China’s 20th-century experience of foreign invasion and civil war.
What caused such an unexpected surge of public anger? What lessons should Beijing leaders and their Hong Kong subordinates learn from the experience? And what future scenarios might they follow? The election offered insights and suggestions on all points.
The protests began last summer, provoked by the Hong Kong government’s attempt to force passage of an extradition bill through a reluctant Legislative Council. The bill would have allowed fugitive criminal suspects to be transferred back to China for crimes allegedly committed there. But the proposed legislation was only the most potentially dangerous provocation in a long list of such grievances.
All derive from the promises Beijing made when Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997. The promises included autonomy, universal suffrage elections, judicial independence, free speech, and all the standard rights and freedoms. But Hong Kong has gradually been forced to learn that Beijing claims the right to interpret all these promises, with Beijing rules and standards-setting the norm.
An important step in preparing the way for the current crisis were strict new standards of political loyalty introduced in 2016. They led to the disqualification of six newly elected legislators and some candidates to replace them as well.
Public anger over the extradition bill was heightened by the knowledge that the unreformed Legislative Council, further disfigured by the disqualifications, was powerless to halt passage of the offending bill, despite massive peaceful marches against it and widespread reservations even among members of the government’s own pro-establishment coalition.
The violence actually began in mid-June, when young protesters tried in vain to storm the Legislative Council as its members were preparing to fast-track the bill. Physical disruption was the only remaining means available to prevent its passage.
The commotion outside did disrupt the proceedings, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to withdraw the proposed legislation, or even acknowledge it as the cause of growing alarm among the public. She kept saying it was a “good” bill and must be passed sooner or later, so the sooner the better.
The siege finally succeeded on July First, when protesters broke in and trashed the main council chamber “Peaceful Protest is Useless,” said a graffiti message left behind on a wall that day.
The lessons of the past five months were written again in the results of the November 24 election. The message was clear enough, but what next? What should be done?
Ideally, Beijing should lighten up on its interventions into the autonomous space Hong Kongers were promised in 1997. Ideally, there should be less talk about “organic” or natural cross-border integration. This is the trendy new official term, introduced by Xi Jinping himself in his report to the 19th Party Congress in 2017. Presumably he was referring to all the many cross-border plans and projects including economics, infrastructure, and two-way population flows.
Especially, officials might re-think their determination to adapt the old Leninist definitions of Communist Party rule for use in implementing the promises of 1997. The contradiction is proving to be more than Beijing’s one-country, two-systems governing formula can effectively contain. And foremost among the contradictions is the promise of universal suffrage elections… as distant a goal today as it was 20 years ago.
The District Councils were effective as barometers of public anger on November 24, because they provide Hong Kongers with their only opportunity to cast direct one-person, one-vote ballots. It is Hong Kong’s only truly representative election, allowed because the councils themselves are powerless.
By contrast, the Legislative Council is designed to produce “safe” pro-government majorities. And it serves that propose quite well, spliced and diced as it is with a mix of proportional representation, indirect election, and occupational constituencies. Beijing’s idea of a universal suffrage election for Hong Kong’s Chief Executives is public endorsement for Beijing-vetted candidates. This Hong Kong reformers only discovered during the most recent abortive electoral reform campaign of 2014-15.
Since there is no sign of Beijing contemplating any such ideal solutions any time soon, does that mean Hong Kong is doomed to a downward spiral of economic decline driven by non-stop political resistance? Not necessarily. The November 24 election suggested how Hong Kong might begin to hold free elections, even within the confines of the existing national Communist Party-led system.
Whether by deliberate design or only force of circumstances, the election marked an important step back from the brink of loyalty-oath vetted candidates that have become the norm since 2016. They had also become another major source of aggravation and the government’s unannounced and unexplained retreat is what gave November 24 the unexpected aura of a “free and fair” election.
This is because, with only one exception, candidates were vetted and cleared to contest whose political persuasions are the same as those who have been disqualified in recent years.
Pro-democracy partisans had hit upon “self-determination” to signify the 1997 promise of autonomy being eroded by Beijing’s constant interventions. Beijing has responded by saying self-determination is actually a treasonous demand for independence. Popular representation and popular rule to replace the party as representative of all.
Trying to distinguish between independence and self-determination is a distinction without a difference, say the guardians, and therefore a threat to national security, unified party rule, and all the rest. Leninist rules, Communist Party definitions.
Why the vetting officers in 2019 chose to disregard what had been grounds for disqualification in 2016, has yet to be explained. But whether an order from on high or improvised from below, a practical solution to the political impasse has appeared. It points to a break in Beijing’s dogmatic assertion that independence and self-determination are one and the same.
Had that break not occurred, no pro-democracy candidate could ever hope to be allowed to contest any election forever more because, by 2016, virtually all Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties had incorporated the goal of self-determination into their platforms.
Over the long term, this positive scenario may be able to point the way toward elections relatively free of Beijing-style rules and standards, that is, toward what Hong Kongers originally thought autonomy and universal suffrage elections were supposed to mean.
The precedent set on November 24 may be allowed to stand as a guide to follow. But even if it is only an improvised expedient, the possibilities are now being reinforced by the ongoing protests themselves.
The violence must end, say officials. Only then can we begin to seek positive solutions. But the only solutions they have ever mentioned since the violence began are about “deep-seated” social and economic contradictions brought about by income disparity and unaffordable housing. Tighter security and patriotic political studies for youth can take care of the rest while deep-seated solutions are explored.
In response, protesters are saying let us know that someone in authority at least understands what the problems are, then we can talk peace.
Officials are in a bind, held in check by a volatile rebellious community that is no longer afraid to come out onto the streets. The younger generation has set the pace, but the rest of the community is standing firmly right behind them. November 24 proved that point if there was ever any doubt. More disqualifications will only provoke more protests, and the downward spiral will continue.
Hong Kong’s younger generation and the voting public have, for better and for worse, made a telling point about the logic of violence… when all else fails and peaceful protest reaches a dead end.