Hong Kong has had two major protest election cycles and pro-democracy partisans did better than expected in both.  The first was in 2003-04, the second in 2015-16.  A third will begin next month, and everyone is either hoping, or bracing, for a similar result.

Contending forces remain as before: pro-democracy and pro-establishment, with multiple shades of variation between and among them. The latter include both pro-Beijing loyalists or Hong Kong’s old-style “traditional leftists,” plus their pro-business allies.  Pro-democracy partisans range from moderate centrists to new wave localists.

But in the past, despite the upsurge in turnout by pro-democracy protest voters, their opponents ultimately managed to prevail.  This sequence of popular aspirations, thwarted by the intricate manoeuvres of official power, lies at the heart of the current protests that began five months ago. 

Election Day for Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils is set for November 24, with 452 seats at stake.  The all-city Legislative Council election will be held next year.  Contingency plans for a delay are being made if serious unrest continues, but preparations otherwise continue as usual for the November 24 poll.

The protests erupted this summer over Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s attempt to force passage through the Legislative Council of an extradition bill.  It would have allowed the transfer of fugitive criminal suspects back to China for crimes allegedly committed there.

Her intransigence provoked the trashing of the Legislative Council building itself, on July 1st, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule.  The council stands as the symbol of Hong Kong’s aspirations for “genuine” universal suffrage elections, a promise that Beijing made in 1997 but has yet to allow.

Such elections could have produced a genuinely representative assembly instead of the disfigured post-colonial body it is today, weighted with “safe” pro-establishment councillors willing to do the government’s bidding.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Afterwards, that politically sacrilegious act did not provoke the backlash expected from a public known for its historic aversion to political violence.  Since then, youth-driven protests and similar acts of vandalism have spread throughout the city.

They have also evolved from a simple effort to block the extradition bill, into an upsurge of anger against the central government’s growing interventions in Hong Kong’s political way of life, the procrastination on electoral reform, and the local administration’s failure to protect Hong Kong’s promised autonomy.

Elections and their distorted outcomes are among the most resented effects of Beijing’s interventions.

The angry anti-Beijing, anti-government mood has yet to break, suggesting a landslide turnout in favour of pro-democracy candidates.  Past experience suggests the election will more likely produce an uncertain result.  There are many reasons, and the sequence of a popular vote negated by official manoeuvring is already taking shape.

Setting the scene

The councils are late-colonial British creations introduced to serve as links between the formalities of government and local communities.  The concepts and practices of universal suffrage elections were not introduced here until the 1980s, when the councils were seen as stepping stones along the way.

Photo: Stand News.

Today, two decades after Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule, the councils serve mainly top-down functions by promoting government policies and overseeing the provision of local amenities.

Councillors can nevertheless make what they will of the opportunity by establishing themselves from their neighbourhood offices. Thanks to superior resources, connections, and discipline, the establishment’s coalition of pro-government and pro-Beijing councillors have been able to build a reliable power base sustained by the personal care and attention they devote to their constituents.

As a result, and despite pro-democracy candidates winning 30 more seats in the 2015 protest election than in 2011, they still came up far short: 298 seats to 120. Only 13 seats were won by independents of unclear persuasion.

In terms of individual votes cast, those of the pro-establishment parties and candidates were up by much more than those for democrats. The totals for the two sides: 783,427 pro-establishment; 539,500 pro-democracy. Pro-establishment majorities dominate all but one of the 18 councils.

File photo. Photo: GovHK.

Pro-democracy partisans lack all the comparative advantages and have been further weakened by factional infighting. This has continued, despite valiant attempts to contain it, through many defeats and disappointments.

Cross-currents in a protest election

When Carrie Lam’s extradition bill was first shelved in June, and again when it was formally withdrawn in early September, pro-Beijing politicians worried about the demoralising impact it would have on their own voters.

Patriotic and loyal as they are, any retreat is seen as an affront to government authority and national honour. There was real outrage in these circles when protesters began calling on Chief Executive Carrie Lam to take responsibility for the upheaval by resigning.

Politicians who expressed such worries represent Beijing’s two main sources of electoral strength. The political party is known as the DAB, or Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. Now claiming over 42,000 members, it is Hong Kong’s largest political party by far.

The largest democratic parties can boast only a few hundred members.  But all pale beside the strength of the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU).  It now claims over 400,000 affiliated union members who turn out en masse for coordinated voter mobilisation work at election time.

Photo: inmediahk.net.

The DAB reflects the mass-based strength of its Chinese Communist Party mentor and the FTU represents local working-class solidarity dating back to the late 1940s.

Tough adversaries to beat, except that pro-democracy partisans still account for a majority of the voting public, if only they can be persuaded to turn out and stand united. Four months into the current protest season, the public’s angry mood should provide the necessary incentives.

Pro-establishment candidates now say they are bracing for punishment, not from their own voters but from the wider community where a youth-driven backlash could produce an upsurge of support for democratic candidates.

The latest voter registration drive, completed at the height of the massive peaceful protest marches last June, added a record 386,000 new voters to the rolls. The greatest increase was among the youngest 18-35 age group.   Hong Kong now has a total of 4.13 million registered voters in a population of 7.5 million.  Nevertheless, there are still older registered voters and their turnout rates are typically more reliable.

Key questions: candidate certification, factionalism, turnout

The filing deadline for prospective candidates was October 17. A total of 1,140 prospective candidates will try to throw their hats in the ring. For the first time since 1997, all constituencies have prospective candidates representing both sides of the political aisle. In past elections, many pro-establishment candidates ran unopposed, so there was no need for elections in those constituencies.

The next step is vetting and certification. The gatekeepers are civil servants temporarily assigned to such work at election time when they are known as Returning Officers.

Photo: GovHK.

Establishmentarian candidates are automatically safe. The stumbling block for democrats is a new “voluntary” confirmation form. It was first appended to candidate filing papers for the 2016 Legislative Council election and has just been added at the District Council level as well.

It requires that candidates pledge to uphold Hong Kong’s status as an autonomous Chinese territory in accordance with its post-1997 Basic Law constitution.

This can be done by simply signing the paper. But the Returning Officer’s duty is to enforce the stricter post-2016 standards. That means researching prospective candidates’ verbal and written communications in order to ascertain whether their pledges of allegiance to Beijing’s definition of Hong Kong’s status are “sincere.”

The litmus test for sincerity is the degree to which candidates do now or have ever given cause to suggest that they advocate anything like “self-determination.” This is going to cloud the prospects of most democratic politicians since, by the 2015-16  cycle, virtually all pro-democracy parties had added the term “self-determination” to their campaign promises and platforms.

Beijing denounces all such ideas, labels them “separatist,” and maintains that they are the same as independence, which is tantamount to treason: a threat to national security, state sovereignty, and unified party rule.

Few local politicians have troubled to define exactly what they mean by the term. But it became a simple codeword, used by some candidates in the 2015 District Councils election, to signify identification with the new activist spirit that emerged from the thwarted 2014 campaign for “genuine” universal suffrage elections.

This was the campaign that led to the 79-day occupation of major city thoroughfares in late 2014, known for short as Occupy.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Setting the stage for the current anti-extradition bill anger were all the disqualifications – over questions of political loyalty – that followed the 2015-16 election cycle.

They included a few prospective candidates in 2016; then six legislators newly-elected that year; followed by candidates contesting the special elections to replace them. But for these disqualifications, pro-democracy legislators might have had enough votes to defeat the bill where it should have been defeated: in the Legislative Council rather than from the streets.

Thus, key questions prior to Election Day, 2019 are: what kind of candidates will be certified; will any new-style post-Occupy candidates be allowed to contest; and will the newly registered voters who marched against the extradition bill last summer, when protests were peaceful, still be willing to come out and vote for officially certified candidates next month?

Pro-Beijing campaign managers have become master election strategists. They can also command the resources and discipline needed to maximise results and get out the pro-Beijing vote on Election Day.   Everyone agrees that when fully mobilised, these forces cannot be matched.  And for sure they will be fully mobilised to defend their turf in the coming election.

Their strategists will remember the depressive effect on pro-democracy voter turnout during last year’s special elections. A favourite candidate was disqualified in Kowloon West and the seat was lost. Several strategic disqualifications could have the same depressive effect on voter turnout next month.

A related problem is factionalism. All candidates may champion democracy, but not all are equally eager to challenge Beijing’s sensitivities on the nature of true autonomy, self-determination, and independence. New-style post-2014 democrats did not turn out for an old-time campaigner, the backup Plan B candidate in Kowloon West. They called it a “fake election” and might sit on their hands during the coming round as well.

Self-determination vs independence: the candidacy of Joshua Wong

Challenging all these uncertainties directly is Joshua Wong Chi-fung. His political career began in 2011-12, during his student days. Now 22, Joshua Wong is finally old enough to run for elective office and he is contesting the District Council seat in his home constituency on Hong Kong Island.  If allowed to run, he will be challenging the pro-establishment incumbent, Judy Chan.

Joshua Wong. File photo: Demosisto.

Major question marks nevertheless surround his candidacy, and the biggest is his advocacy of self-determination. After Wong and his middle-school friends graduated, they transformed their student pressure group into a political party. They call it Demosistō and its platform calls for self-determination. One of its most popular members, Agnes Chow, was disqualified as a special election candidate last year over self-determination advocacy.

In response to interviewers’ questions, Wong explains that he is, in effect, challenging Beijing’s hardline contention that self-determination and independence are one and the same. He and his friends are not calling for independence, he says. They are perfectly willing to acknowledge Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. Their challenge lies elsewhere.

They are only asking for what was promised in 1997, namely, autonomy and free elections. Hongkongers should be able to decide for themselves what kind of elections they want and who the candidates can be. These are the conditions Beijing categorically rejected in 2014, for violating the principle of unified Communist Party rule.

Some new-style post-2014 localists can contain their enthusiasm for Wong’s cavalier ideas about independence. Some moderates dislike his audacity, still others his international outreach. For this last, he is regularly vilified as a “puppet” and “traitor” by the pro-Beijing media. As it happens, the incumbent in his constituency has strong pro-Beijing backing.

So, Wong is under no illusions about his election prospects.  His campaign team includes a back-up Plan B candidate list in the likely event that no Returning Officer will be so daring as to approve the candidacy of Joshua Wong. Hong Kong’s top official in charge of constitutional affairs has just reaffirmed that candidate hopefuls who advocate either independence or self-determination should be forewarned: they will be disqualified.

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Suzanne Pepper

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.