Activists from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement will be vying for seats at key local elections this weekend — the first real test of public sentiment after mass protests gripped the city last year.
Dubbed “Umbrella soldiers” by local media, the campaigners have set their sights on the district-level polls, the first elections since the pro-democracy rallies brought parts of the city to a standstill for more than two months.
The protests failed to win concessions from Beijing or the Hong Kong government on political reform and activists now hope launching into local politics will prove a more successful strategy.
“The elections are considered to be a bellwether this year,” says Willy Lam, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies.
“Beijing, Hong Kong and the international community are watching very closely to see whether the mass enthusiasm for democracy galvanised during the Umbrella Movement will bear fruit in the ballot box.”
Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back to China by Britain in 1997, but there are fears its freedoms are being eroded by Beijing.
Last year’s rallies were sparked after Beijing insisted that candidates for Hong Kong’s next leader must be vetted by a loyalist committee.
Yau Wai-ching, 24, is a former pro-democracy protester and one of nine members of new group Youngspiration standing in the district vote.
“I can’t accept that now the movement has ended there is nothing we can do,” says Yau, who quit her job as an administrator to run for office.
“We are Hongkongers. We are not politicians. We are coming out to do something we think is right.”
However, with scant experience and resources, and with the democracy movement splintering, there are questions over how far they will get.
There are also fears the new generation will split the democratic vote as they are competing with members of more established pro-democracy parties in some constituencies.
But young campaigners say it is an important step as they try to reignite the movement.
“Even if they lose (in the district elections), I hope the umbrella soldiers can continue their effort and passion,” Joshua Wong, the teenage face of the democracy movement, told AFP.
At 19, Wong is too young to stand as candidates must be 21 — he has launched a judicial review to bring the age restriction down to 18.
“It is possible to motivate youth and teens after the movement. It’s not an easy thing to do. But I still have expectations,” says Wong.
‘Make our voices heard’
Voters will choose 431 representatives for the 18 district councils — currently pro-establishment parties hold a majority.
With the city deeply divided between those who favour more democratisation and those who support Beijing, pro-government candidates are casting themselves as a force for stability, in contrast with democracy campaigners who they blame for disrupting life in the city.
“We would like to get a comprehensive victory,” said Tang Ka-piu, a candidate for the Federation of Trade Unions, a major pro-Beijing group.
“This will be a message that mainstream society wants stability,” he adds.
“We need to demonstrate… who is really doing good for Hong Kong.”
Although pro-democracy lawmakers succeeded in voting down the Beijing-backed reform bill that sparked last year’s protests, their failure to win concessions has led to a sense of hopelessness for some.
“Even if we elected democrats they wouldn’t have enough power (to accomplish their goals) as they are suppressed… the city is now part of China,” says Lun Hon-hung, 68, who runs a name card business and says he will not vote.
But others remain more optimistic.
“We need to make our voices heard,” said 28-year-old resident Sam Wong, who said she would vote on Sunday.
“Hopefully through voting we can still fight for democracy.”
Stay tuned: HKFP will be live-blogging the elections this sunday.