16 September 2019
By knocking out moderates like Albert Ho (above, center) in the recent district elections, Beijing has given rise to a new wave of radical nativism in Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ
By knocking out moderates like Albert Ho (above, center) in the recent district elections, Beijing has given rise to a new wave of radical nativism in Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ

Why Beijing’s onslaught against pan-democrats is an own goal

Hong Kong’s mainstream media used “annihilated” to describe the defeat of candidates from three major radical parties – People Power, League of Social Democrats and Civic Passion — in Sunday’s district elections.

But is that accurate?

Numbers don’t lie, so let’s look at them.

Young first-time candidates, dubbed “paratroopers” by the media, who were inspired by last year’s democracy protest, had been dismissed as long shots.

Surprisingly, they pulled off some remarkable upsets, grabbing eight seats among themselves.

On the other hand, the Neo Democrats, which represent the moderate wing of the indigenous faction, fielded 16 candidates and ended up winning 15 seats.

Andrew Wan, a long-serving district councilor and vice chairman of the Democratic Party, lost to a candidate from the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).

(Wan and party chairman Emily Lau had secretly met with a Beijing emissary earlier this year, according to reports.)  

Almost all of Wan’s partymates who had openly opposed reconciliation with Beijing managed to get reelected.

These developments are almost certain to put “nativism” front and center of local politics in the days ahead.

It would be political suicide for any pan-democratic party to insist on continuing a political dialogue with Beijing.

The paratroopers’ victory turned the conventional wisdom on grassroots politics upside down.

Before the election, the general opinion was that the key to reelection was pleasing constituents by offering free meals, free services and gifts.

Political issues were considered irrelevant to the voters.

However, the fact that the eight newcomers, who have zero experience in politics and who have never given voters any incentives, won suggests Hong Kong people in general do care about political issues.

Their success and that of the Neo Democrats are likely to force mainstream pan-democratic parties to adopt a more pro-nativist stance in the upcoming Legco election.

There will be no place for anyone who advocates cross-border harmony, Hong Kong’s economic integration with the mainland or more help for new immigrants.

These themes won’t strike a chord in voters as public distrust of Beijing continues to grow in the wake of last year’s protests.

The results of the voting also illustrate that public support for “old-school” radical parties such as People Power and the League of Social Democrats is evaporating, not least because they failed to show leadership in the democracy movement but also refused to be drawn to the nativist theme.

Unless they clearly spell out their stand on nativism and pledge to give Hong Kong people priority in public services and social welfare, their election prospects next year are anything but promising.

Even though none of the candidates from Civic Passion and the so-called “City State Faction” won, they all managed to get at least 5 percent of the vote, indicating that the idea of independence for Hong Kong is no longer a taboo subject.

Five percent of the vote could be enough to send one of them to Legco next year under the proportional representation system.

Beijing is reportedly keen to knock out pan-democrat heavyweights such as Albert Ho, James To and Frederick Fung from the so-called “Super District Council” seats in Legco.

If the reports are true, we can say the plan has backfired in that by defeating Albert Ho and Frederick Fung, Beijing has also eliminated the last remaining moderate voices among pan-democrats.

That could give rise to an unstoppable wave of radical nativism that could cause Beijing more trouble in the future.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 24.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ columnist