HK Protesters Vow to Keep Pressing Following Pro-democracy Election Victory

At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher, Austin Ramzy, and Tiffany May report on the overwhelming victory for pro-democracy candidates in Sunday’s local district council elections in Hong Kong:

It was a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong, and the turnout — seven in 10 eligible voters — suggested that the public continues to back the movement, even as the protests grow increasingly violent. Young Hong Kongers, a major force behind the demonstrations of the past six months, played a leading role in the voting surge.

With three million voters casting ballots, pro-democracy candidates captured 389 of 452 elected seats, up from only 124 and far more than they have ever won. The government’s allies held just 58 seats, a remarkable collapse from 300.

To many democracy advocates, Sunday was a turning point. “There has been a very deep awakening of the Hong Kong people,” said Alan Leong, chairman of the Civic Party, one of the largest pro-democracy parties.

[…] The elections were for district councils, one of the lowest elected offices in Hong Kong, and they are typically a subdued affair focused on community issues. The job mostly entails pushing for neighborhood needs like bus stops and traffic lights. […] [Source]

The elections came amid an ongoing protest movement and increasing violence in recent weeks. While the local victories are being celebrated by pro-democracy protesters and legislators as an expression of the true collective voice of the Hong Kong people, others see the results as a potential sign for increased friction between Beijing and Hong Kong to come. In another report, The New York Times’ Bradsher, Ramzy, and May wrote that Beijing is now “under even greater pressure to respond to the protest movement”:

To the pro-democracy camp, that means addressing the broader Hong Kong public’s calls for more official accountability. Other politicians are concerned that the vote could be seen by Beijing as a sign that the territory is slipping further from its grip and requires a harsher response.

[…] Beijing and its local allies had been convinced that the protest movement had antagonized the public by blocking roads and rail lines and scaring off shoppers and tourists. The democrats’ triumph at the polls showed instead that Hong Kong residents remain broadly sympathetic to the movement.

[…] In China, the pro-Beijing camp’s defeat could only be seen as a repudiation of the party’s rule over the semiautonomous region, just weeks after President  gave Mrs. Lam his enthusiastic backing.

The Chinese government’s reaction on Monday was strikingly muted, as if the authorities were surprised by the results. China’s state television network covered the voting extensively as it happened on Sunday, but then lapsed into silence once the outcome was clear. [Source]

At Quartz, Isabella Steger surveys election-related state propaganda ahead of the vote, and argues that Beijing may now be ill-equipped to accurately assess public opinion in Hong Kong:

A tweet from English-language newspaper China Daily a day before the election, for example, urged people to “vote pro-establishment” (a term referring to candidates loyal to Beijing) in order to help Hong Kong “return to normal life.” Nationalistic tabloid Global Times similarly urged Hong Kongers to cast their vote to “end violence.” Chief executive and her administration ramped up their rhetoric that violent radicals had hijacked the protest movement and that it was time for the electorate to cut ties with them.

The landslide win by the pro-democracy camp, however—which took control of all but one of the city’s 18 local councils—has thrown China’s propaganda machine into confusion, to say the least. Major news outlets remained silent on the drubbing of Beijing’s preferred candidates as the results rolled in in the morning. Later, some publications, such as the Global Times, turned to a classic scapegoat—foreign interference in elections—to explain the election result. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi had little to say beyond reiterating that Hong Kong was a part of China.

[…] One thing that Beijing hasn’t appeared to invest in, however, is better ways of reading the public mood in Hong Kong. HK01, a digital news outlet, reported that (link in Chinese) Beijing knew it was at a disadvantage but was shocked at the extent of the defeat of the pro-establishment parties—the DAB fielded more than 180 candidates, and won just 21 seats. It’s hard to believe that Beijing would be taken aback by the result, given the relentless protests since June, initially over a now-withdrawn bill that aggravated longstanding fears that the territory is losing the autonomy guaranteed upon its return to China.  In recent months, multiple opinion polls have shown distrust of both the police and the Hong Kong government consistently rising. […] [Source]

More from Foreign Policy’s James Palmer, who notes that at many state media outlets copy proclaiming a pro-establishment victory was filed before the vote:

In newsrooms in Beijing, however, the results began a panicked scramble to find a way to spin them in favor of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In stark contrast to most observers in Hong Kong, editors—and the officials behind them—appear to have sincerely believed that the establishment parties would win an overwhelming victory. Propaganda is a heady drug, and Beijing got high on its own supply.

I spoke with editors and journalists, both foreign and Chinese, at China Daily, the flagship English-language newspaper of state media; at the English-language version of the nationalist tabloid Global Times; and at the People’s Daily—the CCP’s official newspaper. (My sources universally asked for anonymity.) At each paper, copy was filed to editors the night before the Nov. 24 elections assuming a strong victory for the establishment. This included predictions of increased majorities (with numbers left to be filled in as needed) for figures such as Junius Ho, whose vicious rhetoric against protesters has left him widely hated but whose comments regularly appear in the Global Times.

The misplaced confidence in Beijing’s victory points to a worrying problem; at high levels within the CCP, officials believe their own propaganda about Hong Kong. That’s a frightening prospect for both governance in China and for the future of the city, especially as the system struggles to come up with political excuses for a cataclysmic failure. […] [Source]

At The Guardian, Emma Graham-Harrison reports further on Beijing’s response following the election, noting how the results further complicate things for embattled chief executive Carrie Lam:

“No matter how the situation in Hong Kong changes, it is very clear that Hong Kong is a part of Chinese territory,” [Foreign Minister Wang Yi] told reporters on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Tokyo. “Any attempts to disrupt Hong Kong or undermine its stability and prosperity will not succeed.”

The election results pose a dilemma for Beijing, and Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam. Hand-picked to rule by party leaders, Lam always insists she rules independently, but is widely accepted to have coordinated her hardline response to protesters with China’s top leadership.

Before the vote, Lam often claimed she had the support of a “silent majority”, as she escalated the police response to protests, invoked sweeping colonial-era emergency powers, and ruled out meeting any of the protesters’ main demands. [Source]

In a public statement posted on the Hong Kong government website, Lam said the results reflected “people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society,” and that her government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect.” At The Atlantic, Timothy McLaughlin notes that Lam took no blame for the defeat, and that despite celebrations by pro-democracy protesters, a running violent standoff between protesters and police at Hong Kong Polytechnic University is still ongoing:

The losers included a lengthy list of pro-Beijing heavyweights. The most notable and celebrated was the bombastic Junius Ho, whose contempt for protesters and allegedly cozy relationship with organized-crime figures behind an attack on demonstrators in June made him loathed in pro-democracy circles. Ho was stabbed this month during a campaign rally, but the attack garnered him no sympathy: Revelers popped champagne, cheered, and left mocking offerings for Ho as election officials announced he’d lost his seat, though he remains a member of the city’s legislature.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader who has disappeared from public view for days at a time in recent months and who protesters have demanded resign, took no blame for the defeat. In a statement, she instead said that there were “various analyses and interpretations” of the voting results, and “quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society.”

Celebrations in the pro-democracy camp did not last long, though. The siege at PolyU was still ongoing by Monday afternoon; several newly elected district councillors were planning to descend on the campus in an effort to end the stalemate, and Leung—now an elected representative—was still inside. [Source]

At The Globe and Mail, Nathan VanderKlippe talks to pro-democracy protesters, newly elected candidates, and observers who see the recent results not as a victory for the movement, but as a source of empowerment to continue pressing forward with their demands:

The election is “not the end,” said Ms. Lau, the legislative assistant for pro-democracy lawmaker Jeremy Tam, who won in Wang Tau Hom district. What’s more important, she added, is to “continue our protests and continuously raise the social concerns of the whole movement.”

[…] If the weekend vote held little prospect of an immediate solution to the unrest that has brought violence and bloodshed to the Asian financial capital, it at least suggested a longer-lasting change to the city’s bedrock of political power.

[…] “It’s really a game-changer. I think at this point our movement is so much more empowered,” said Jeffrey Ngo, a historian and chief researcher for Demosisto, a youth activist group in the city.

District councils typically confront the minutiae of urban life: planning bus stops, advocating for speed cameras. But “each district councillor has a budget to rent an office, to hire a staff. They can establish a presence for the next four years in the communities that they serve,” Mr. Ngo said. [Source]

On Twitter, commentators urge caution against mis-understanding the results of the district council election: while the results may serve as counter to Beijing’s propaganda about in Hong Kong, seats were won on both sides, and Beijing has other means to continue working towards its agenda in Hong Kong:

On the morning of November 26 in Hong Kong, Carrie Lam acknowledged that the record voter turnout highlights public dissatisfaction with her government, and thanked the city for peacefully voting.

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