Hong Kong’s 18 community-level District Councils are largely powerless, and lucky they are, too. Otherwise, the officials in charge – Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her team of advisers and administrators – would be in even greater disarray.
As it is, they have barely managed to contain months of unprecedented public protest sparked by her ill-conceived extradition bill, and an election on November 24 that unexpectedly flipped the entire neighbourhood-level District Council system from blue to yellow. That was followed by a rebuke from the central government in Beijing for its leading representative here who was allegedly recalled and demoted to bear responsibility for the debacle.
As for Carrie Lam and her team, their punishment is evidently to remain at their posts until they can set matters right. Despite much hopeful speculation to the contrary, both she and Beijing appear resigned to share each other’s fate, at least for the time being. Beijing seems to think its existing Hong Kong formulas can still be made to work. And there is as yet no shortlist of candidates with the right combination of bureaucratic and loyalist credentials who might replace her.
From blue to yellow
Yellow has become the symbolic colour of pro-democracy protest, dating back to the 2014 Occupy-Umbrella Movement for universal suffrage. Blue is an anomaly… something to do with police colours, although pro-establishment symbols should now be coloured red to signify overall loyalty to Beijing.
District-level elections are held every four years and as luck would have it, 2019 was an election year. The November 24 date had been fixed long in advance, but Hong Kong’s latest upsurge of political protest showed no signs of receding as the day approached. These episodes have been occurring periodically ever since Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer from British to Chinese rule. The eruptions are provoked by the central government’s ongoing intrusions into what was supposed to remain Hong Kong’s autonomous political space.
Beijing officials reportedly gave the green light to go ahead on November 24th without sufficient warning as to just how thoroughly their carefully tended coalition of candidates would be trounced. Probably, the Hong Kong Liaison Office failure in this respect is what led to Director Wang Zhimin’s recall. But of course, he was not to blame. The failure derived from Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge Hong Kong’s culture of protest as an authentic response to Beijing’s interventions.
Still, there was one additional reason for the failure to anticipate what happened on November 24. A late colonial innovation, the District Councils were originally intended to serve as community links with a reforming partially elected government. But due to their unlimited resources and internal discipline, pro-Beijing politicians and trade unionists and their pro-establishment allies have been able to dominate the councils for over a decade.
During that time, they all settled into largely consultative routines enlivened by cheerleading functions for various government policies and initiatives. Meanwhile, individual councillors were able to build solid political bases from their neighborhood offices that specialized in providing small services and leisure-tune actives for appreciative constituents throughout the city.
Pro-democracy partisans in effect ceded the field to their opponents. Lacking the resources but also the interest necessary to sustain their presence at the lowermost neighbourhood level, candidates would often jump into races just for the experience of contesting, even if it meant overcrowding ballot lists and splitting pro-democracy votes among like-minded competitors.
Factionalism has also grown worse in recent years as differences deepened between old-style moderates and new-style post-Occupy “radicals,” localists, and pro-independence advocates… all seeking to build name-recognition for their causes.
The 2019 crisis climate had a dual impact, shocking both pro-democracy candidates and voters out of their defeatist lethargy. Candidates set aside their differences and for once ran, mostly, clear contests with individual democrats competing against their disciplined individual pro-establishment rivals. Democrats were also able to form a united front with a common platform. The new Democratic Coalition for the District Councils Election invoked the protesters’ rallying cry, “five demands, not one less” and denounced police brutality.
Of the five demands, one had already been achieved. Carrie Lam finally withdrew the extradition bill in September. Three other demands were protest-related. The fifth was a resumption of the universal suffrage electoral reform project abandoned in 2014-15.
Protesters’ violence and vandalism, including the trashing of opponents’ neighbourhood offices was widespread and trumpeted by pro-establishment candidates as their main campaign issue. But only relief from the police component figured in democrats’ platform. They closed ranks on this question and by all reports, voters agreed: protesters’ violence was understandable because the government had been ignoring their concerns for decades.
Also unlike previous years when democrats ceded some contests as lost causes, all 452 constituencies were contested on November 24.
The ‘new’ councils
Voters then did their part by turning out en masse to support pro-democracy candidates despite their refusal to distance themselves from the law and order transgressions of the protest movement. Turnout was 71.2%, or 2.94 million among 4.13 million registered voters. It was the highest ever achieved for any election since the British began experimenting with universal suffrage in the 1980s.
Of the 452 directly elected seats in the 18 councils, pro-democracy candidates won some 392 or about 86.5% of the total. Exact numbers vary slightly due to a few independents whose political leanings were not immediately apparent. That made for majorities on all but one of the 18 councils. Without the seats reserved for rural community leaders, that one council would have gone democratic as well.
In contrast, pro-establishment candidates won only 60 seats compared to the 292 they held before.
No one had known what to expect. Certainly, no one anticipated that the fortunes of all the main contenders would be so emphatically reversed. Democrats put their mutual differences aside and were rewarded accordingly. The Democratic Party – one of Hong Kong’s oldest and long in decline since the heyday of founders Martin Lee and Szeto Wah – received a new lease on life. It emerged the biggest winner with 91 seats of the 99 contested. Leading party members stood in the forefront among the professional politicians who spoke out on behalf of protesters in confrontations with police throughout the city.
The younger smaller Civic Party, never a force at the district level, won 32 of the 36 seats contested. The services of its lawyer members were much in demand as protesters were being arrested and charged, first in the hundreds and then by the thousand. To date, the police have announced over 7,000 arrests.
But most surprising of all were the novices, first-time candidates, mostly young, activists and student leaders both present and others from the Occupy era. All were drawn to the political arena by the protest movement. Just over a hundred ultimately joined the race and 81 emerged victorious. It was the sort of election where voters were inclined to reward anyone, known or unknown, who could claim pro-democracy anti-establishment credentials.
For contrast, consider the plight of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. With over 36,000 members, the DAB reflects the discipline and mass-based work style of its Chinese Communist Party mentor. But the DAB saw the number of its District Council seats reduced from 119 to 21. The pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions with its tens of thousands of affiliated members contested 62 seats but won only five.
Victorious democrats, new agendas
Hong Kong’s protest movement is moving from the streets to elected assemblies where it should have been all along, even if the powers that be have not sanctioned the transfer. But although protest reverberations led the headlines, they were not the only or even the first order of business.
The new term began on January 2, and inaugural meetings followed soon after with pro-democracy councillors moving into most, but not all, the leadership chairs. From there they led councillors in voicing complaints long heard from concerned critics about how councils spend their government allocations, as well as councillors’ bad work habits.
Absenteeism and proxy voting were easy targets. Meetings should be made accessible to the public, said the new people. Officials demurred. It would be too costly. The newcomers said it could be done easily via live streaming. The public should be able to learn who is saying what and hold councillors accountable for the decisions they make.
Ultimately, all 17 of the democratic-majority councils agreed to allow media reporting of their meetings. Only the one establishment-led council held out … reaffirming the public image of its rural kingpin representatives who allegedly have the most secrets to keep.
Critics have regularly complained about the misuse of taxpayers’ money. Government funds are allocated to the councils for local amenities with projects tendered out by the councils to friendly pro-establishment companies. Among the most famous of these “white elephants” is a HK$ 50 million musical fountain approved by the old Kwun Tong District Council in Kowloon. It was thought to be a suitable addition to the neighborhood’s long-running gentrification upgrade. The old street market is gone and its aged banyan trees as well, all in the name of progress. But a minimalist musical fountain located in the shadow of the elevated commuter train running above the district?
Candidates used the fountain as a favourite topic in their campaigns, along with its parent scheme. In 2013, the government had launched an amenities program allocating HK$ 100 million per council toward that end. Rather than representatives to meet with councillors in person, the Home Affairs Bureau sent a letter. It explained that construction had already begun and would not be halted. Details of the contracts were commercial secrets and would not be made public
Another costly budget item is the one million dollars per council per year, on average, earmarked for patriotic celebrations. These take place on Hong Kong’s two political holidays: National Day, October 1, and Hong Kong Establishment Day, July 1.
The Home Affairs Bureau, which also oversees elections, is loyalist-led so it follows that these funds must be spent and that contradictions with the new councils must arise. The funds are used for decorations and special events sponsored by Hong Kong’s multiplicity of patriotic organizations. Freshmen councillors are naturally contemplating all sorts of ways to economize on this wasteful budgetary item.
But such irritations pale beside the real conflicts between the 2019 class of councillors and Carrie Lam’s Home Affairs Bureau. Its representative officials now find they must walk out of council meetings rather than be seen to be observing so many politically incorrect submissions.
Most victorious democrats ran on the coalition platform endorsing protesters’ five demands and denouncing police violence. Newly elected councillors are now trying to make good on their campaign pledges with questions about the police foremost among those being tabled for debate. Two councils got off to a head start by straight away setting up workgroups dedicated to investigating incidents in their districts. Most are doing the same. But these initial efforts are not going too smoothly since the police are not going out of their way to cooperate and Carrie Lam remains their leading champion.
On Hong Kong Island, two Democratic Party members were elected to head the Central and Western District Council. Among its first items of business was a minute of silence for those who had died during the protests. Chairwoman Cheng Lai-king read out a statement that said Hong Kong is becoming a “police state.”
Far across town in the New Territories district of Sai Kung, its council will also be doing some police investigations. This district was home to the university student who fell to his death in uncertain circumstances while police were conducting a clearance operation nearby. It was his death, on November 8, that sparked the violent response on college campuses throughout the city in November.
Also in the New Territories, the Kwai Tsing District Council chose two Democratic Party members as its chairman and vice-chair. Members then launched into an impromptu rendition of the new protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong.” A handful of pro-establishment councillors who had survived the electoral tsunami protested in vain. The song is suspect in loyalist’s eyes because it allegedly conveys separatist pro-independence sentiments and therefore challenges Hong Kong’s status as an integral part of China. This episode earned a stern editorial rebuke form the China Daily. It called for an official “disciplinary investigation into this deplorable episode.”
Further north in Yuen Long, councillors chose a Democratic Party chair and another democrat vice-chair. They then discussed one of the summer’s most notorious incidents. It had occurred on the night of July 21 when police allegedly stood by while a band of New Territories thugs attacked passengers on a commuter train that remained stopped in the station with its doors open while the assault continued.
The police were invited to attend the meeting but sent a letter instead. They had finally managed to apprehend and charge some of the assailants but could not comment further because judicial proceedings are underway. Well-known former student leader Tommy Cheung, now a Yuen Long District Councilor, was assigned to lead the council’s workgroup set up to investigate the July 21 incident.
Ultimately, the police did respond. The Commissioner of Police himself paid a visit to the Central and Western District Council on January 16. He spent two hours answering questions and trading insults with critical councillors. Asked if he was willing to apologize for the aggressive policing, Commissioner Chris Tang said it was the protesters who should apologize. He blamed the public’s negative view of the force on fake news, unfair press reporting. So does Carrie Lam. A few days later, Commissioner Tang travelled across town for another meeting but his reception by the Tsuen Wan District Council was no better.
He must take comfort in pro-Beijing press reports, and some others, that continue the old custom of referring to Hong Kong’s police chiefs affectionately as “number one brother.”
With their ranks seriously depleted, loyalist politicians are trying to make the best their humiliating losses. Like all officials, both here and in Beijing, even now no one is willing to acknowledge any political reasons for the “deep-seated” social and economic contradictions said to be fueling Hong Kong’s anger. Pro-establishment analysts are pointing to the overall vote count and relative strength of the two main voting blocs to emphasize that there is no sign of a seismic shift between them one way or the other.
Some 1.67 million votes were cast for pro-democracy candidates and 1.2 million for the pro-establishment coalition. This 55% versus 41% split has held roughly constant for most of the past two decades.
What these analyses never say, however, is that despite the consistent pro-democracy voting majorities, their representatives are shut out of all official and even the government-sponsored advisory posts. These pro-democracy majorities are also routinely referred to by everyone, including officials and the press, as “the opposition,” when in fact they consistently account for a majority of Hong Kong’s voting public… another political reason for the deep-seated anger. The majority has been permanently relegated to the status of an out-of-power opposition.
On the November 24 exercise, loyalists also blame the first-past-the-post direct election system allowed for the District Councils’ single-seat constituencies. These exaggerate the effect, say loyalists, unlike proportional representation. It was mandated for use at the Legislative Council level by the system’s designers, in the 1980s, precisely because they feared that pro-Beijing pro-communist candidates would not be able to compete successfully in the alien Western-style electoral system the British belatedly insisted on introducing.
More to the point, defeated loyalists are vowing to stand strong and fight their way back from oblivion. This they did once before, between 2003 and 2007, by means fair and foul, and they are determined to persevere. Jobs must be found for defeated politicians and staffers. The DAB and FTU are also promising to maintain neighbourhood offices and continue serving their old constituents in all 18 districts, so as not to cede the field to the “violent democratic parties.”
The DAB is also sponsoring a District Councils observers project to monitor their work. Observers will be looking to uncover misuse of government funds, and funds that might be used for pro-democracy political ends. This tactic has served loyalists well in the past. And, as everyone knows, they are well-funded while democrats are not.
Observers will also be watching carefully and calling out councillors who violate their oaths-of-office by not showing proper respect for Hong Kong’s constitutional order, national sovereignty, unity, security, and so on.
Lessons from the past
Loyalists suffered a similar setback in 2003 when democrats pulled themselves together for the first time after their young movement frayed during the early post-1997 years under Chinese rule. The surge of public anger then was directed against the government’s 2003 attempt to force passage of national security legislation.
But political memories are short and there was no political emergency four years later when the next District Councils election rolled around. Democrats reverted to their early 2000s undisciplined ways and have suffered one setback after another from 2007 until last year.
Pro-establishment politicians are mindful of this history. But so are democrats, who are now saying they aim not to let it happen again. For them, it is not just the 2003-07 sequence, but the larger factional disarray that had already begun then and has only gone from bad to worse. The 2019 protests shocked everyone out of their lethargy including activists, professional politicians, and the voters.
On November 24 – by some miracle that nobody realised was happening until it did – all the divisions that have plagued Hong Kong’s democracy movement fell away. Suddenly, the fractious existential arguments – between old-style pre-2014 moderates and radicals, and then between new-style post-2014 pan-democrats and localists – no longer mattered.
Meanwhile, what has been underway since 2003 are the steady intrusions from Beijing. Carrie Lam’s extradition bill sharpened that slow-moving threat in a way that made it easy for everyone to understand.
The question for democrats as they prepare for their next challenge – the Legislative Council election in September – is whether the new-found cohesion can be sustained. September will mean a different kind of election. Everyone’s favourite candidates will be vying for votes amid the temptations of proportional representation where even a marginal advantage can mean the difference between victory and defeat.