Sunday’s District Council elections saw sweeping victories for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, but the fact remains that a large portion of the city’s population continues to support the political status quo. Here’s what pan-democrats need to do to win over a traditionally entrenched pro-Beijing faction.
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng
On Sunday, Hong Kong’s electorate delivered an unprecedented blow to Carrie Lam’s (林郑 Lín Zhèng) beleaguered administration and pro-Beijing politicians. Amid a record turnout of 71.2 percent, far surpassing the previous record of 58 percent set in the 2016 Legislative Council elections, the pan-democratic camp won control of 17 of 18 districts and well over 80 percent of all seats. Some of Hong Kong’s best-known pro-Beijing politicians lost their seats, including the highly polarizing Junius Ho (何君尧 Hé Jūnyáo), who has repeatedly advocated violence against protesters, and the moderate Michael Tien (田北辰 Tián Běichén), one of a handful of pro-Beijing legislators to openly back calls for an independent inquiry into the Hong Kong police. The pro-Beijing camp found itself entirely shut out of working-class Sham Shui Po district, but it also lost scores of seats in affluent neighborhoods like Stanley on the southern coast of Hong Kong Island.
Hong Kong’s pan-democrats have good cause for celebration, but they will not have time for complacency. Beneath the headline results, the District Council elections have also demonstrated the continued resilience of the pro-Beijing camp, whose candidate still received 41 percent of the popular vote. While the increase in turnout benefited the pro-democracy candidates, the pro-Beijing camp also mobilized its supporters and received more than 1.2 million raw votes — more than its vote total in the 2016 legislative election. Furthermore, the 57-41 split in the citywide popular vote reflects the long-established split in Hong Kong’s political system going back to the advent of popular elections in the 1990s. After months of unrest, the city’s overall political divide appears well entrenched.
Chinese state media has made unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud and intimidation, but given the scale of Sunday’s routs, any electoral irregularities are unlikely to have materially affected the overall results. Carrie Lam’s much-touted “silent majority” has turned out to be a figment of her imagination, but the fact remains that a large proportion of Hong Kong’s population continue to support the political status quo to varying levels. Hong Kong remains highly politically polarized, with many voters from all backgrounds supporting more repressive legislation and law enforcement from the government. The pro-Beijing parties can count on a well-oiled electoral machine adept at mobilizing elderly citizens, recent immigrants, rural residents, and employees of Chinese businesses, but even after discounting these “machine votes,” many ordinary middle-class citizens remain sympathetic to the establishment for various reasons.
Carrie Lam’s much-touted “silent majority” has turned out to be a figment of her imagination.
Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections are undemocratically rigged, with 30 out of 70 seats filled by functional constituencies that are heavily tilted toward pro-Beijing corporate interests. Unlike in the District Council, the 35 seats from geographical constituencies are filled by proportional representation, making it difficult for pan-democrats to win sufficient seats by universal suffrage to overwhelm the pro-Beijing camp’s advantage in the functional constituencies. Moreover, the pro-Beijing parties also benefit from superior coordination and campaigning resources, allowing them to distribute their votes more efficiently than their opponents.
Despite these difficulties, it is imperative for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement to make a serious play for the Legislative Council next year. Securing a majority on the Council seems implausible at the moment, but most pundits were similarly cautious about their prospects in Sunday’s District Council elections — certainly, very few people predicted a near-clean sweep of the 18 councils. Controlling the Legislative Council would enable the democrats to block the passage of repressive legislation for the next four years and make it all but impossible for Carrie Lam to remain in office.
But even if this objective is not achieved, a credible and spirited campaign will further demoralize the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong and exacerbate their internal divides. Legislators up for reelection next year will have increased incentives to defect from the governing coalition and push Beijing to accept some or all of the protesters’ five key demands, and will also be able to point toward the nightmare scenario of losing control of the Legislative Council altogether. At the very least, Lam may come under increased establishment pressure to avoid further inflammatory actions, e.g., politically motivated persecutions or heavy-handed policing, which will antagonize the public.
To effectively position itself for the Legislative Council election, the pro-democracy movement needs to win over a sizable proportion of voters who cast their ballots for pro-Beijing candidates on Sunday. According to the respected HK Public Opinion Research Institute, Lam’s popularity rating has fallen to a dismal 19 percent, while 79 percent of respondents are dissatisfied at the performance of the Hong Kong government. Other polling evidence from October shows that well over 60 percent of the public supports an independent inquiry into the Hong Kong police, political reform leading to universal suffrage, and systemic reform of the police force. These figures suggest that a substantial proportion of pro-Beijing voters in the District Council election share the protesters’ disappointment in the government’s handling of the protests, with particular blame laid on Lam and her cabinet.
Some of these swing voters may have been swayed by the incumbency and district work of entrenched pro-Beijing local councilors, while others were in all likelihood put off by the increasing violence of the past few weeks. To win over these voters next year, pro-democracy politicians should follow a twin-track strategy. On one level, they can now use the institutional platform afforded by their control of the District Councils to demonstrate their competency and accessibility in grassroots outreach and liaison. Unlike in their previous breakthrough at the 2003 District Council elections, where the pan-democrats ultimately only won control of two councils, Sunday’s results gives them a citywide base for reaching out to grassroots communities that are most in need of assistance from district councilors and have hence been traditionally regarded as part of the pro-Beijing camp’s core vote.
Second, pro-democracy politicians need to focus on winning over middle- and upper-class pro-Beijing voters who are deeply dissatisfied with Lam and the wider political situation, but blame the protesters for undermining Hong Kong’s economy. These voters often seem to be a lost cause for the pan-democrats, but they remain a sizable and important electoral bloc. In the weeks and months ahead, supporters of the protest movement should make the case that Hong Kong’s value to the international community lies in its distinctiveness from China. It is not the protesters that have driven international conferences and foreign tourists from Hong Kong, but worsening police brutality, which has both appalled and alarmed business leaders from across the globe.
Further repression by the Hong Kong or Chinese governments, including any moves to undermine the city’s much-touted judicial independence and Common Law-based legal system, may well definitively spell the end of its status as an international financial center. To avert this nightmare scenario, Hong Kong’s socioeconomic elite should join forces with the pan-democrats for once and vote for the latter’s candidates in the Legislative Council so as to preserve the city’s attractiveness to the international business community. If nothing else, the events of the last few months demonstrate that repression alone cannot put an end to the protests and restore “normality” — only meaningful concessions on the protesters’ five demands can do so, and that in turn requires removing or at the very least further curbing the power of Lam’s inept administration.
The pan-democrats have given the Chinese government what may well be a last chance to pull Hong Kong back from the brink.
Perhaps most importantly, the elections offer a golden opportunity for the Hong Kong and Chinese governments to respond to popular demands, expressed in a peaceful manner within the institutional status quo. By refraining from further escalation in the past week or so, the protesters have demonstrated their willingness to explore peaceful dialogue with the government. But if the authorities continue to ignore the protesters’ demands, it will not take long for radicals to proclaim that “elections do not work,” in the same way that “it was you who taught us peaceful protests don’t work” has now become a staple of pro-democracy graffiti in the city.
The pan-democrats have given the Chinese government what may well be a last chance to pull Hong Kong back from the brink. It is now incumbent on pro-Beijing moderates — especially the city’s commercial and financial elite — to push Beijing and Carrie Lam to the negotiating table and offer genuine concession. If that fails, these elites need to recognize that supporting pro-democracy candidates who are still willing to work within the institutional status quo is their last, and best, chance of preserving Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center. For once, the eyes of the world are genuinely on the city, as evidenced by the unprecedented global media interest in Sunday’s local elections — hardly designed to capture the world’s attention in ordinary circumstances.
Naturally, the pan-democrats should also take this opportunity to reach out to these elites, many of whom have lost all faith in Lam and, behind the scenes at least, increasingly fear and distrust Beijing. Fortunately, the protest movement has discovered a newfound sense of unity notwithstanding disagreement over tactics. The pan-democrats will need to preserve this unity over the next few months. On one hand, they must continue to demonstrate their solidarity with the frontline protesters if they wish to retain the support of younger voters. At the same time, some pan-democratic candidates will need to adopt a more moderate tone ahead of next year’s elections in order to win over these wavering voters who dislike and distrust the Hong Kong government, but also oppose the use of violence by protesters.
Ultimately, both moderate pan-democratic politicians and frontline protesters are striving for the same goal, albeit through very different means, but the former should not take the latter’s support for granted. Many youthful voters, and not merely frontliners, distrust the established pro-democracy parties and regard them as ineffectual. The onus now is for the pro-democracy politicians to build up sufficient trust with the protesters through demonstrating their solidarity with and concrete support for the frontline radicals, especially those who have been arrested in recent weeks. Only then can the pan-democratic camp as a whole gain the political capital to make the necessary concessions for broadening its existing coalition ahead of next year’s Legislative Council elections.