Hong Kong: “A Referendum on Competing Ideologies”

On Sunday, Hong Kong will vote in the first Legislative Council elections since the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014 in which protesters called for reforms to election laws and the implementation of full universal suffrage. For the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Kaiman outlines the ways that the 2014 movement may impact the weekend’s polls:

It’s important to note that Sunday’s election is not the one for which the Umbrella Movement protesters were fighting — in June 2015, local opposition defeated Beijing’s plan for electoral reform in 2017, which barred “unpatriotic” candidates from running for the city’s top office. So next year, the chief executive, as in years past, will be chosen by a 1,200-member committee of elites, many of them pro-Beijing.

Enter the Legislative Council — known colloquially as “” — Hong Kong’s legislature and mini-parliament. Candidates who resent and resist pro-Beijing legislation hope to win at least 24 seats so they can act as a bulwark. There’s no guarantee that it will happen.

[…] Many Hong Kong residents, especially older generations, are weary of constant protests; they fret over the economy, which has suffered as mainland visitors seek out friendlier destinations. Yet the younger generations “want to fight tooth and nail,” Ng said. “It’s a sign of extreme frustration and anger after Umbrella failed to achieve any tangible results, despite them having spent some 79 days camping out on the streets.”

Sunday’s election is “a referendum on the competing ideologies,” he said. “Competing visions of the city’s path forward.” [Source]

While the 2014 protests didn’t achieve the results that participants hoped for, they have had a lasting impact on Hong Kong politics, as an article in the Economist explains:

For more than 30 years Hong Kong’s political parties have been split roughly into two camps. On one side are the “pan-democrats”, who argue that only a democratic system can safeguard the civil liberties the territory enjoyed under the British (whom many of the pan-democrats opposed, before the handover). They stand against the “pro-government” or “pro-Beijing” politicians, who regard themselves as patriotic allies of their counterparts in the rest of China. They tend to say that fair elections are less important than smooth relations with the Communist Party in Beijing. The role of Legco is to debate the laws and budgets put forward by the territory’s executive branch.

[…] Since the protests of 2014, which began as a demand for the democratic election of the chief executive, the traditional two-camp distinction has been eroding. A new category has emerged within the pan-democratic side, one that favours greater autonomy. Many of the young activists who led the sit-ins two years ago have turned into politicians. Known as “localists”, this new generation is frustrated with the traditional pan-democrats and infuriated with China’s rulers. Demosisto, a prominent new party, advocates civil disobedience and a referendum to determine Hong Kong’s fate after the 50-year agreement is up. Other parties, such as the Hong Kong National Party, have called for outright independence. This alarms China and so becomes a problem for Hong Kong’s rulers. [Source]

Six candidates have been blocked from running for office after failing to sign a required pledge confirming their support for a unified Hong Kong and China. From James Pomfret and Venus Wu of Reuters:

In July, Hong Kong’s Electoral Affairs Commission had ruled that all those standing in the election must sign a pledge that Hong Kong is an “inalienable” part of China.

Since then, the commission has rejected applications to run from half a dozen candidates, including some who signed, on the grounds that advocating independence was incompatible with that pledge.

“They laid down a direct order, that this pro-independence movement must be purged,” said a source in frequent touch with Chinese officials, referring to a verbal message he said was sent from Beijing to the Hong Kong government.

The source, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, did not give further details of how the message was conveyed. [Source]

Edward Leung, one of those blocked from running, was a participant in the Umbrella Movement and now says he is willing to take a stronger stand in support of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Carrie Gracie at the BBC interviews him:

“After the failure of the protests I started to question myself – am I willing to pay a higher price? Like the history of black power in US in 1960s. There was a man called Malcolm X, there was a man called Martin Luther King. People advocate their own means no matter if it’s peaceful or forceful one. I advocate all means.

“Of course if peaceful means could change society then I would love to do so because it’s less costly. But if it’s essential to use more radical means to put pressure on the government I’m open to use this means, more forceful means.” [Source]

Other disqualified candidates are trying to affect change by influencing school children to support their cause. Other “localist” or pro-independence candidates who are running hope to put Hong Kong independence on the agenda for the city’s voters. According to polls cited by Global Voices, this effort is so far having the intended effect. Michael Forsythe and Alan Wong profile one such candidate, Sixtus Leung:

Mr. Leung, 30, is part of a new, youthful force in Hong Kong politics that is on the cusp of acquiring a small measure of actual power. Polls indicate that his Youngspiration party has a real chance of acquiring one or two seats in elections on Sunday for the 70-seat Legislative Council, whose influence is limited but which can block initiatives by the city’s Beijing-friendly government.

Other political parties dominated by young people, and supporting some degree of greater self-determination for Hong Kong, will also be on the ballot in districts across this territory of 7.3 million.

“The path to Hong Kong independence is hard to draw,” Mr. Leung said, taking a break at a Japanese noodle shop in the far-flung suburb of Fanling before heading back out to meet voters. “But if we’re elected, it means that Hong Kong independence is formally on the agenda.” [Source]

Yet some fear that a divide between the traditional pro-democracy groups and the younger pro-independence candidates may split the vote and hand more power in the LegCo to candidates who support Beijing. From James Griffiths and Vivian Kam at CNN:

“There’s like a civil war going on, which isn’t good for both sides,” Nathan Chan, a 20-year-old supporter of the traditional pro-democracy Civic Party, told CNN.

Tom Lui, 25, who is leaning towards pro-independence candidates, says choosing who to vote for “is much more difficult after the Umbrella Movement.”

Several pro-independence candidates have been blocked from running, leading some to say they will boycott the poll in protest. “I will choose not to vote,” Anthony Yip, 28, told CNN, saying the ban was depriving Hong Kongers of their “freedom of speech.” [Source]

Isabella Steger at Quartz has more on the split between groups that support varying degrees of democracy and autonomy for Hong Kong:

“The Occupy movement was probably the beginning of the collapse of that unity, in terms of how far one is prepared to go down the road to fight against Beijing,” said Cheung Chor-yung, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. “We no longer see a united opposition.”

The issue threatens to destabilize the world’s most important financial center behind New York and London, a city that is home to the Asian headquarters of some 1,400 international companies, and a transportation and shipping hub responsible for over 5% of the world’s trade.

Ahead of the election, pro-democracy opposition parties hold enough seats in the Legislative Council to veto legislation, making it harder for pro-Beijing parties to push through laws that could potentially strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s grip over Hong Kong and weaken the things that make it so attractive to global companies and investors, like an independent rule of law and a strong anti-corruption agency.

But that veto power is fragile, and many worry that legislation could be introduced to curb civil liberties such as free speech, media freedom, and the right to protest. Teachers and parents fear that government could try once again to introduce laws to make patriotic education compulsory schools. There are worries that Hong Kong’s much-admired anti-graft agency has already started to succumb to the influence of Beijing. [Source]

In a last-minute bid for unity, five candidates running on the pan-democratic platform have withdrawn from contention, citing a need to unify votes behind like-minded contenders and increase their chances of maintaining the 24-member voting bloc needed to wield veto power. Last year, the current 27 seats held by pan-democratic groups allowed them to veto electoral reforms that would have required all candidates for chief executive to be approved by a panel loyal to Beijing, following a vote in which several pro-Beijing representatives walked out. (For a full explanation of the “magic numbers” behind the LegCo elections and how various groups gain veto power, see this article by Kris Cheng of Hong Kong Free Press.)

While the Communist Party does not have any official candidates in the election, pro-Beijing businesses are trying to maximize their influence by directing their staff how to vote, according to a report by Clare Jim and Venus Wu of Reuters:

Staff at the Bank of China (Hong Kong) (2388.HK) have been given lists of pro-Beijing candidates and told to call their managers after voting, according to employees who have shown a list to Reuters.

Staff at property developer China Resources Land (1109.HK) were handed a letter from the Hong Kong Chinese Enterprises Association asking them to vote for patriotic candidates who “love China and love Hong Kong”. They were also shown specific candidate lists in meetings with managers, one staff member told Reuters.

In a written reply to Reuters’ questions, Bank of China (Hong Kong) did not address whether it gave voting recommendations to staff, but said it “supports and respects” its staff’s right to vote.

China Resources Land and the Electoral Affairs Commission did not immediately respond to Reuters’ questions. [Source]

But for some voters, issues concerning day-to-day sustenance take precedence over concerns about Hong Kong’s relationship to Beijing. Catherine Lai interviews several voters who are putting financial concerns first when casting a vote:

Mr. Cheng, who owns a shop selling dry goods and condiments in the wet market, says he is not voting in the next election, but had a lot to say about livelihood issues.

He did not think voting would change anything and because common people can’t “see through politics,” it is hard for them to tell if the government is working, he said.

[…] A refugee from Chaozhou, Guangdong, who came to the city because he was unable to go to school during China’s tumultuous cultural revolution, Cheng was nostalgic about Hong Kong before the 1997 handover, saying that people of his generation didn’t make a lot of money back then, but life was more relaxed.

“The most important things to the people are the basics – clothing, food and shelter,” he said. He said he was most angry about house prices in Hong Kong. “I’m worried about the next generation.” He said he has several sons, who will not pay off their mortgages until they retire. [Source]

September 2, 2016 11:45 PM
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