23 October 2016
People queue up outside a polling station in Hong Kong's Legislative Council election on Sept. 4. The election saw the so-called localist groups make big gains. Photo: Reuters
People queue up outside a polling station in Hong Kong's Legislative Council election on Sept. 4. The election saw the so-called localist groups make big gains. Photo: Reuters

Never underestimate the people of Hong Kong

The results of the Legislative Council election have underlined yet again one vital fact of political life – never underestimate the people of Hong Kong and their love of liberty.

There was a record turnout for this poll because the people understood what was at stake as there is growing awareness of the degree to which the city’s autonomy has been undermined, and concerns over what happens after 2047 when current constitutional arrangements will lapse.

This was supposed to be the election in which the great silent majority, yearning for an allegedly constructive legislature, would deliver a mandate to the pro-government camp, leaving the democrats severely wounded and the so-called radicals with nowhere to go.

The vast sums of money poured into the pro-government camp’s election campaign and attempts to frighten voters with well-publicized training exercises by police riot squads, if anything, had the effect of pushing voters closer to the more radical elements in the election.

What happened was that all the established political parties, with the exception of Regina Ip’s New People’s Party and, by a sliver, the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, lost their share of the popular vote.

The biggest gainers, by a mile, is the conglomeration of localists and radicals who scooped up almost 20 of the popular vote, putting them on a par with what must now be called the old pan-democrats.

As a result several long-serving and hard-working democrat legislators were defeated but it is clear that this was not a defeat for the democracy movement as they were replaced by new faces with a firm commitment to democracy and defending Hong Kong’s autonomy.

When the noise fades it will be discovered that while the new faces are speaking loudly about localism and the independence movement they are more profoundly fighting for what the old pan-democrats have been fighting for: an end to the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the assertion of “one country, two systems” according to the original understanding of the concept.

It will also become increasingly clear that the government probably did more than anyone else to bolster the localist candidates following its cack-handed moves to ban their colleagues from standing in the election. Hong Kong people have a strong sense of fairness and will react when they deem fair play to have been undermined.

On the other side of the coin the formidable election machine of DAB managed to consolidate its support and provided the first point of call for electors who believed that a pro-government vote meant exercising discipline and going for candidates who were part of a well-ordered machine with close connections to the mainland.

Even the most avid democrats must acknowledge that a substantial part of the local population are keen for closer ties with the mainland and see it as their patriotic duty to support the party which so clearly has the mandate of Beijing.

There can no longer be any pretense that mainland officials, who are not supposed to meddle in local elections, are interfering like mad. Their pressure ensured that the pro-government camp, unlike the democracy camp, had a far more disciplined set of election choices.

However the pro-government camp simply cannot get to a stage where it is able to secure the largest share of the popular vote. The majority of people remain stubbornly committed to the idea of a democratic and autonomous Hong Kong.

Moreover the notion of a pro-government camp is severely undermined by the dire unpopularity of the head of government, Leung Chun-ying. Candidates who are labeled as pro-government squirmed and prevaricated when asked whether they supported him and, of course, Leung was kept well away from the campaign to avoid erosion of support.

And what of the famous middle ground, the candidates and parties who claimed that the silent majority was sitting at home waiting for a chance to support them?

The answer is simple: the silent majority is not quite as silent as they are painted to be. Even the most plausible among the candidates, such as Christine Fong, in the NT East constituency, failed to get elected. As for the likes of the Path to Democracy, formed by former Civic Party legislator Ronny Tong, well that’s on a path to nowhere.

Digging deeper into these results shows that while the opposition forces still command majority support and the overall pro-government share of the vote is shrinking, the democrats have yet to recover the high watermark achieved in the 1990s.

And before the old pan-democrats are consigned to the dustbin of history it is worth noting that in the professional seats out there among the rotten boroughs of the functional constituencies, every single seat which allows individual professionals as opposed to their bosses to vote on their behalf, returned a pan-democrat legislator.

If this is the verdict of some of the brightest people in Hong Kong, it tells you something.

Meanwhile the confident assertion that the Occupy Movement was defeated and that its sons and daughters would be laughed off the field in an election was shown to be hollow. The spirit of this movement was alive and well on Sept. 4.

We need more research on this but it seems pretty clear that this election marked a very clear dividing line between the future generation that has voted for change and aligned itself with the opposition and an older generation that resists change and continues to be represented by the aging dinosaurs who fill the rotten borough seats in Legco.

The new participants in the election from the younger generation can no longer be dismissed as lacking political awareness or being bereft of a commitment to society. Some of the brightest and best members of this generation will now be sitting in the legislature.

So, anytime you are feeling gloomy and despair as to where Hong Kong is heading, just remember that one of this place’s greatest assets – its people – will not let you down.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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