Voters have elected a new group of democracy activists, resisting interference in the territory by the autocrats in Beijing, writes Neville de Silva

The election of six young pro-democracy activists to Hong Kong’s 70-member Legislative Council, or Legco, might not seem that significant to a world which has paid fitful attention to the territory since Britain handed over its former colony to China 19 years ago. But it has caused reverberations in Beijing, and perhaps some raised eyebrows in Whitehall.

To the 7.3 million people of Hong Kong itself, the result of the September election was a demonstration that nearly two decades of rule by one of the world’s greatest autocracies has not extinguished the desire for representative government, but rather stimulated it. The election has thrown up a new breed of youth who think more radically than their predecessors. Entering Legco, they have brushed aside some veteran pan-democracy legislators who had hitherto filled the anti-establishment space and stood for political reform, without ever challenging China’s sovereignty.

Not all Hong Kongers have welcomed the changed political landscape. But the unprecedented turnout of 2.2 million people – over 58 per cent of registered voters – and the unexpected gains made by young candidates new to mainstream politics, indicated that the desire to preserve the territory’s greater freedoms, compared to mainland China, remains strong. This will not be welcome to China supporters and sections of Hong Kong’s influential business community.

Legco has been carefully engineered to provide a recurrent majority supportive of the establishment. Only half the members are directly elected through universal suffrage. But in those 35 seats, pro-democracy candidates won 55 per cent of the vote. Among the six newly-elected young ‘radicals’ are leaders of the student-led ‘Umbrella Movement’, or ‘Occupy’, the two-month long sit-down protest blocking entry to some business areas in Autumn 2014.

Not all Hong Kongers have welcomed the changed political landscape

Angered by an adamant Hong Kong government that refused to entertain meaningful political reform, instead presenting proposals perceived to be Beijing’s handiwork, up to 100,000 people joined the protest at its peak. The demonstrators, led mainly by a cross-section of university and high school students, claimed the ‘reforms’ presented were intended to preserve the status quo, and ensure that China’s encroachment into Hong Kong’s internal affairs would continue despite the promise of ‘one country, two systems’ – a formula devised by the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, to allow the former colony’s way of life to continue for 50 years.

PASSING THE BATON: Chinese and British representatives at the Hong Kong handover ceremony, June 30, 1997
PASSING THE BATON: Chinese and British representatives at the Hong Kong handover ceremony, June 30, 1997

It was agreed to in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that set down the terms of the change of sovereignty. This principle was to be implemented through the China-drafted Basic Law, which serves as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution and is supposed to guarantee that Hong Kong would continue its way of life until 2047. During that time, Britain retains a role in ensuring that ‘one country, two systems’ is adhered to.

But the emerging young radicals are complaining that Beijing is already interfering in the internal affairs of Hong Kong, violating the promise of autonomy. The disappearance last year of five Hong Kong booksellers, some of whose critical publications on prominent mainland Chinese had probably angered Beijing, and their unexpected reappearance in different places, including the mainland, was seen as one of the most flagrant of China’s attempts to clamp down on its freedoms. One of the booksellers was a British citizen, and the then Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, called it a ‘serious breach’ of the Joint Declaration.

Some would argue that winning six seats in a 70-member chamber is hardly a significant step in the long march towards democracy. But it is a giant step for Hong Kong. These new legislators, who call themselves ‘localists’ to avoid persecution if identified as advocates of independence from China, garnered nearly a fifth of the votes won by the pro-democracy parties. It was a remarkable achievement for a group of political ‘upstarts’ with no practical experience, unknown before the ‘Umbrella’ protest, to edge out veterans of both right and left, and emerge as a force that would have to be reckoned with.

A politically apathetic Hong Kong seems to have suddenly awakened to the fact that its way of life, built during relatively benevolent colonial rule, was under threat from a one-party system that brooks no dissent. Even when the Legislative Council was set up by Britain in 1985, a year after the Joint Declaration, there were no popularly elected members. Instead the representatives were chosen mainly by the financial, trade and banking sectors and professional groups, in a system intended to perpetuate control by the elite.

Newly-elected Legco members face a delicate task

Few objected that a semblance of political power had been given to those who produced the wealth that made Hong Kong prosperous. The shock to the system came four years later. Over a million Hong Kong people took to the streets condemning the state violence in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 in an unprecedented show of sympathy for the protesters and against China’s leadership, shaking the business community, the colonial government and the future sovereign power. Hong Kong had never seen anything like it before.

The departing colonial power’s sudden desire for a Hong Kong Bill of Rights was a consequence of the territory’s awakening to the dangers ahead, and Britain’s fear that it would be accused of leaving behind an exposed Hong Kong, with no protection against attempts to dismantle its way of life. The last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, was the first politician to hold the post. He proposed a package of political reforms that sought to enfranchise the population and dissipate the power of the territory’s movers and shakers. If the business lobby was appalled, China was apoplectic.

Patten could not achieve all that he wished, but he must be heartened by the rise of a new generation of Hong Kong politicians, intent on defending the different way of life in what China calls the ‘Special Administrative Region’. They face a delicate task. China will never relent on its sovereignty, so any call for independence is out of the question. How Beijing will deal with demands for self-determination, and the popular election of Hong Kong’s leader, is the issue.

China cannot ignore the lessons of Tiananmen Square over 25 years ago. But Hong Kong’s brash and inexperienced new legislators cannot afford to overreach themselves without dangerous consequences.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who worked in Hong Kong for many years in senior roles at The Standard and in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, Le Monde, Asian Wall Street Journal, AFP and other foreign media. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy chief of mission in Bangkok and deputy high commissioner in London, where he now lives

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