hkfp district elections banner ribbon

Yes, the District Council election was a referendum on last year’s pro-democracy Occupy protests, because pro-Beijing partisans did everything they possibly could to make it so. The November 22 Election Day special issue of Ta Kung Pao led off with a banner headline: “Use Your Vote: Send the Trouble-Makers Packing.”

Loyalists were finally acknowledging what they’ve been doing unannounced all along. The lowly District Councils are not just about providing social services for neighborhoods in need. The councils have been transformed into the base of Hong Kong’s political power grid and they are now weighted heavily in Beijing’s favor.

Turnout was a record high for the typically low-interest district elections. Of Hong Kong’s 3.69 million registered voters, only 3.12 million could participate because many constituencies were uncontested – 68 of them, virtually all occupied by pro-Beijing/pro-establishment contenders. Among those 3.12 million, only 1.46 million actually voted. But at 47%, the turnout was the highest ever for a District Councils election.

district council election poll
Photo: HKFP.

What must have been the motivation? Perhaps a poll will tell us, but then again perhaps not. In years past Hong Kongers’ favorite answer to the question about why they voted was a bland: “Because it’s my civic duty.”   Better to pencil in some preliminary conclusions. The results look like the after-effects of Occupy… not just anti- but pro- as well and the tension between them, hyped by the loyalist media campaign.

Last year, anti-Occupy forces had threatened to register a million new voters and bury what pro-Beijing loyalists love to write off as “the opposition.” The threat didn’t quite materialize, although not for want of trying. Nor were pan-democrats buried. Instead, they held their own and offshoots sprang up from the Occupy movement in a way that its opponents didn’t foresee. But then neither did anyone else.

During the election campaign, the pro-democracy camp as a whole ran scared. Instead of standing tall over what they did last year, everyone was on the defensive, intimidated by the anti-Occupy blitz. Even newcomer candidates from the Occupy generation who defied conventional wisdom and refused to join pan-democrats’ candidate coordination effort were no exception. If people ask us about Occupy we’ll explain, they would say, otherwise we won’t make an issue of it.

Ballot box opened by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
Ballot box opened by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Photo: Gov HK.

In the end, they didn’t need to. The battle was joined because loyalists made it the central focus of their election campaign. Sympathizers came out to defend, just like they did on that first day last year when the public rushed out onto the streets to protect protesting students against the police tear gas barrage.

The upside for pan-democrats is that thanks to Occupy and its opponents, voters are finally focusing on political realities. Hong Kong’s District Councils are part of the larger political struggle against the advance of mainland political ways.  If anyone wants to stand guard against that advance, they need to begin on the first rung of the ladder, instead of writing off these councils as democracy activists have always been inclined to do.

Success of anti-Occupy stratagems
The downside of Sunday’s election for pan-dems was the relentless professional campaign waged by their opponents. The only thing they miscalculated was the upsurge of voters willing to stand with Occupy.

Pro-democracy parties actually won 30 more seats than in 2011 and pro-establishment parties won one seat less. The main pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) ran fewer candidates and won fewer seats. But the difference was made up by other like-minded parties.   The total seat count is still weighted overwhelmingly in their favor against pan-dems: 298 seats to 120. Only 13 seats were won by independents who couldn’t be identified as being on one side or the other.

In terms of individual votes, those for the pro-establishment parties were up by considerably more than those for pan-dems. The totals for the two sides were: 783,427 pro-establishment; 539,500 pan-dem.

As for the councils themselves, pro-establishment parties have retained their majorities on all but one. With the abolition of appointed seats, pan-dems had their hearts set on regaining the majority they used to hold on the suburban New Territories Kwai Tsing District Council. In 2011 they won a bare majority, but the government-appointed councilors reversed the balance.

Determined not to cede ground, the DAB targeted Kwai Tsing, the campaign there was a chaotic mix of insinuation and innuendo, and the result: 19 pro-establishment seats to only 10 for pan-dems. Had they not proclaimed their goal beforehand, they might not have alerted the DAB campaign to the district’s easy pickings.

In contrast, no one thought much about the Shatin District Council, also in the New Territories, since it has long been the turf of DAB ally Civil Force. To everyone’s surprise, and despite the new Civil Force alliance with Regina Ip’s New People’s Party, pan-dems made major gains. So Shatin has become the new Kwai Tsing with pan-dems securing exactly half the seats on the Shatin council: 19 to 19.

But woe to those who find themselves in the crosshairs of the pro-Beijing campaign machine because it’s probably no longer possible for any democrat to survive that kind of targeted attention. And Beijing’s attention is now focused squarely on seeing to it that its forces win five more seats in the next Legislative Council election. That would give them the two-thirds super-majority they need to pass Beijing’s electoral reform design over the objections of pan-dems who vetoed the design last June.

Campaign posters of Albert Ho
Campaign posters of Albert Ho. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Super-seat fiasco
Where better to look for those five seats than the five so-called “super-seats” now reserved for District Councilors on the Legislative Council? As a result, pan-dems greatest loss last Sunday was their failure to hold or gain big-name representation on the lower-level councils. Territory-wide name brands are needed because of those conjoined seats. Although only District Councilors can nominate and be nominated for the five Legco seats, they are ultimately elected by all voters from a single territory-wide constituency. A sixth District Council representative in the Legislative Council is elected only by the District Councilors themselves.

The five super-seat addition is the compromise design that then Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan agreed to in 2010 when he was negotiating a reform proposal on behalf of the entire democratic camp. How could he know one of those seats would lead to his downfall five years later?

Democrats won three of the five seats in the 2012 Legco election. Albert Ho had long represented the Lok Tsui constituency on the New Territories’ Tuen Mun District Council and he won one of the super-seats. Hard to remember now that in 2010-11, when he was being pilloried by fellow democrats for agreeing to the compromise, he could do no wrong in loyalist eyes. This year, after he had supported Occupy, he became the target of almost daily diatribes and mocking cartoons in the pro-Beijing press. That they meant to bring him down was clear when a well-connected lawyer was tapped to run against him.

Still, Albert Ho might have survived but fighting in the spotlight as he was, other pan-dems rushed to exploit the attention. The loudest were the “anti-mainland, Hong Kong-first” Civic Passion activists eager for another chance to settle scores old and new. They never explained why they thought it was more important to bring down Albert Ho than worry about Beijing winning five more Legco seats, but they did succeed in what they set out to do.

Results: loyalist lawyer Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, 2,013 votes; Albert Ho, Democratic Party, 1,736 votes; Cheng Chung-tai, Civic Passion 391 votes; Cheung Wing-wai, independent democrat, 25 votes; Shum Kam-tim, pro-establishment, 94 votes; Yuen Wai-chung, democrat, 99 votes.

But at least Albert Ho’s opponents were for real. Civic Passion is always looking for opportunities to attack what they regard as back-sliding dithering democrats. Frederick Fung Kin-kee’s loss was skillfully contrived. Tapped to run against him was a young Federation of Trade Unions candidate with the entire DAB/FTU campaign machine behind her. Yet Fung, too, might have survived – had someone or something not induced a disgraced ex-member of his own Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood (ADPL) party to come out of political retirement and contest the constituency seat as well.

frederick fung
Frederick Fung. Photo: TVB via Stand News.

Eric Wong Chung-ki did what he was presumably lured to do and threw the election to the FTU. Results: Joephy Chan Wing-yan, FTU/DAB, 2,531 votes; Frederick Fung, ADPL, 2,432 votes; Eric Wong, 215 votes.

Days before the election, name lists of all the pro-democracy candidates who had been arrested last year during the Occupy street blockades appeared in pro-Beijing papers along with photographs to prove they were there. Albert Ho and Frederick Fung were named. So was Civic Party legislator Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, who joined the race in hopes of providing another big-name super-seat candidate. He lost as well.

As a further result, pan-democrats’ safest super-seat prospects have been taken out. Only four remain including incumbent James To Kun-sun who for some reason was spared the full treatment. Perhaps because he has the least prospect of running or winning again.

Of the four, the strongest possibility is Gary Fan Kwok-wai of the Neo-Democrats. This is a Democratic Party spin-off whose members quit after Albert Ho’s 2010 compromise. Neo-Dems are new-style ballot-box radicals, unequivocally pro-Occupy, and a bright spot for pan-dems in Sunday’s election. They won 15 of the 16 New Territories seats they contested.

In contrast, the pro-establishment list of prospective candidates for the super-seats has grown both longer and stronger. From next to nothing in 2012, they can now boast a total of 10 incumbent Legco members who have won District Council seats and can be considered viable super-seat candidates.

Pro-Occupy Success Stories
The big surprise was victory for so many young and not-so-young newcomer candidates, although the results wouldn’t have been so unexpected had everyone not been so distracted by the anti-Occupy drumbeats sounding from the other side. The pundits had written them off and the older parties were exasperated, expecting they would split the pro-democracy vote because so many of them had refused to join pan-dems’ candidate coordination coalition.

In the end, Albert Ho was one of the few to suffer from the intervention of what was dubbed the “umbrella soldiers.”  Yellow umbrellas were last year’s Occupy symbol, although most of these first-time candidates thought it the better part of political wisdom not to feature it on their campaign hand-outs.

Occupy protest one year anniversary in Admiralty
Occupy protest one year anniversary in Admiralty. Photo: HKFP.

Because so many of them didn’t identify themselves as such, fact-checkers are having a hard time trying to identify how many candidates there were to begin with and how many won. Originally about 115 candidates refused to join pan-dems’ candidate coordination mechanism but those outliers included democrats of all kinds and some of the old radical types like People Power and Civic Passion.

Best calculations are that the newcomer candidates were close to 50 in all, and that they accounted for about 70,000 votes. That would be 15% of the total 480,000 won by all pan-dem candidates, if that figure is correct. China Daily has pan-dems receiving a total of 539,500 votes.

But as of now, eight to nine candidates who will admit to being umbrella soldiers have been identified and they scored two stunning upsets. Probably their cautious political instincts served them well. Had the DAB/FTU campaign machine realized that two of its Legislative Councilors were in danger of being unseated by such unknowns, they could not have slipped so easily under the political radar. The two legislators are Christopher Chung Shu-kun on Hong Kong Island and Elizabeth Quat Pui-fan across town in Shatin.

Chris Chung spelt his name wrong.
Chris Chung spelt his name wrong. Photo: Facebook/Claudia Mo.

Christopher Chung is the sort of loyalist that even other loyalists would just as soon not feel obliged to vote for. This time their Election Day get-out-the-vote routines that saved him in the past missed their cue. They didn’t see the 48-year-old Occupy supporter Chui Chi-kin moving up from behind. This is his first foray into politics and unlike many others, he is happy to cite Occupy as the reason for his new-found political energy.

Elizabeth Quat was defeated by 28-year-old disabled candidate Yip Wing. His mentor is the lawmaker activist Fernando Cheung of the Labour Party who stood with Occupiers during some of their toughest confrontations with police last year.

Everyone is again downplaying the impact of these umbrella soldier victories and especially of their possible influence on next year’s all-important Legco poll. But the new political atmosphere has also heralded, perhaps, a striking decline in something old: the older generation of “traditional” radicals. These are: the original League of Social Democrats led by a now greying “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung; its People Power spin-off originally led by Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man; and its spin-off Civic Passion that has just written an end to Albert Ho’s political career. These three most rambunctious parties, all Occupy advocates, fielded a total of 20 candidates, and only one – Mandy Tam of People Power – had been successful.

occupy long hair leung kwok hung
Leung Kwok-hung. File photo: HKFP.

After the last district election in 2011, when Raymond Wong’s parachute jumping strategy went down to total defeat, supporters took comfort by arguing that it wasn’t a total defeat at all because they had succeeded in growing their “voter base” to build on in future elections. Civic Passion didn’t exist then, but the number of ballots cast for LSD and PP in 2011 was: 21,833 and 23,465, respectively. Last Sunday their respective shares were: 6,526 and 14,477. The template for Hong Kong radicalism is being passed to a new generation.

Since the newcomer candidates have been so reluctant to explain who and what they are, maybe it’s better to consider what the public thought it was voting for. My constituency offers a glimpse of the political trends that marked this election.

The FTU incumbent is new to the district, first elected in 2011. He was by far the most diligent starting from voter registration last summer right through Election Day and the day after when he stood on the same street corner to thank voters for electing him. His hand-outs were plentiful and slickly produced.

A second candidate also ran an energetic campaign, well-enough financed, and with some good ideas about service to the district. He was explicit in denouncing political parties and presenting himself as a true independent.

The third candidate apparently had the least money to spend on her campaign and was the least familiar with the provision of district-level services. But she provided a clear if discrete signal of political sympathies in line with those of the Occupy generation. She proclaimed herself to be non-party and non-faction, but for Hong Kong self-determination and autonomy. Approximate results: FTU, 3,500 votes; Independent, 600; Hong Kong self-determination, 2,000.

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.