26 October 2016
With the Legislative Council elections drawing near, Hong Kong and Beijing authorities are stepping up rhetoric against pro-independence groups. Photos: Reuters, HKEJ
With the Legislative Council elections drawing near, Hong Kong and Beijing authorities are stepping up rhetoric against pro-independence groups. Photos: Reuters, HKEJ

How Beijing is trying to set the agenda for the Legco election

With the Legislative Council election less than three weeks away, Beijing and its proxies in the Hong Kong government are stepping up their game and reminding the public what is at stake.

Stirring the nationalism pot, top officials are saying that it is the duty of all Hong Kong citizens to defend China’s sovereignty and that the city will prosper only if it embraces Beijing’s rule fully.

To ensure Hong Kong’s well-being, voters must reject radical localists and candidates with pro-independence leanings, officials suggested. 

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and Education Secretary Eddie Ng took the lead in delivering indirect messages to the electorate in the past few days.

First off the block was Lam, who stressed last Friday that China’s rights over Hong Kong cannot be called into question.

“Since time immemorial, Hong Kong has always been a part of China,” she said at a youth forum, defending the government’s move to bar some pro-independence candidates from the Legco polls.

While candidates may not agree with all aspects of the Basic Law, one cannot reject the fundamental aspects of the mini-constitution that spell out Hong Kong’s status under China, Lam said.

Her boss, Leung Chun-Ying, carried the discussion forward on Sunday by saying that “every Hong Kong resident has a duty to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Addressing a military camp for university students, Leung said a stable China is in Hong Kong’s interests and that there is no room for compromise on the sovereignty issue.

On the same day, the Education Bureau, led by Ng, said schools should keep an eye on teachers who propagate the idea of Hong Kong independence.

If any teacher is found engaging in improper and “unprofessional” behavior, the person could be stripped of the teaching qualifications, the bureau warned.

Observers interpreted the move as an attempt to prevent discussions and debates in educational institutions on the issue of Hong Kong independence.  

Given the public comments of top officials in the past few days, it is clear that authorities are trying to rekindle the patriotism agenda and dent the prospects of opposition activists in the Legco election. 

The aim is to create divisions in the pan-democratic alliance, which is already struggling over the issue of localism, and help the pro-Beijing camp win the majority of geographical constituency seats.

A landslide win for establishment candidates will help Beijing declare that pro-independence groups have very little backing in Hong Kong.

As top leaders are confident that Hong Kong people will not support independence, they are pushing a campaign to underline the importance of China’s sovereignty.

That will also help steer the discussion away from “Anyone but CY Leung”, or the so-called ABC.

Given the new push by authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong, the opposition camp is indeed finding it quite difficult to set the agenda for the poll campaign.

The current debate on independence is a trap for the opposition as traditional democrats dare not oppose Beijing’s rule of Hong Kong, while some radicals question the long-term effectiveness of the Basic Law.

Amid this, the election is seeing some first-time candidates who support Hong Kong independence getting marginalized by mainstream politicians.

The pro-Beijing camp appears to be gaining ground as it wins the support of people who are feeling tired of the political arguments between the opposition camp and Beijing authorities.

The atmosphere is quite unfavorable to the pan-democrat camp, including the traditional democrats as well as radical pro-independent activists.

Beijing’s tactics seem to be working well at this stage of the election campaign.

Surveys conducted by the Public Opinion Program of the University of Hong Kong have indicated that the pan-democrats could lose one-third of their seats in the 70-seat Legislative Council.

Democrats are predicted to win only two seats out of five from the territory-wide district council (second) functional constituency, down from three in the current Legco.

In the five geographical constituencies, the New People Party, which was founded by former official Regina Ip, is expected to do very well in three constituencies in Hong Kong Island, New Territories East and New Territories West, possibly bagging two seats in each of the constituencies.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, the oldest party in the opposition camp, may retain only one or two seats in five geographical constituencies.

Candidates from radical groups like People Power may fail to keep their existing two seats in the Legco.

The opposition camp may bag only around 15 of the 35 seats in geographical constituencies, down from 18.

A fragmentation in the vote can lead to unfavorable election outcome for the pan-democratic camp.

Establishment groups believe Hong Kong people, despite their grievances, will prefer a stable social environment rather than a radical political struggle.

Given this, it’s a well-planned strategy by Beijing and Hong Kong authorities to set the sovereignty issue at the forefront of the agenda for the upcoming election.

Beijing feels it has nothing to lose as it is confident that most Hongkongers will shun separatism.

For the opposition camp, it might be a good idea to focus their campaign solely on the poor performance of the Leung administration, rather than get sucked into the nationalism debate.

They should take up issues such as delays and budget over-runs on construction projects, matters that are of concern to the so-called silent majority.

If the opposition doesn’t get its act together, Beijing will be the ultimate winner as the establishment camp may gain full control of the legislature 19 years after Hong Kong’s handover to China.

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EJ Insight writer

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