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  • Arthur Kleinman

Hong Kong's Local Elections - Moving the Needle?

What happens when an unmovable object is met with a seemingly unstoppable force? The intractable conflict between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and the Chinese state might be instructive in this regard. Over the last six months, the streets of the wealthy semi-autonomous territory have been beset by successive waves of protests, which in turn have elicited responses of gradually increasing intensity by the authorities. At the time of writing, there have been more than five thousand arrests; nevertheless, the protestors remain undeterred. This fact has been starkly illustrated by the results of the recent district council elections, which saw pro-democracy candidates achieve an unprecedented landslide victory. Will this display of discontent force the government – or, more crucially, its client in Beijing - to moderate its hitherto firmly rejectionist stance towards the protestors demands? Or does the election simply constitute an affirmation of the status quo, and point to its stubborn persistence into the future?

Since the United Kingdom ceded sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the territory has been no stranger to protests. In particular, anxiety has mounted around the perceived encroachment by Beijing upon the civil liberties uniquely enjoyed by its inhabitants, which are hypothetically guaranteed by the doctrine of “One Country, Two Systems”. However, this year’s protests have been distinct in virtue of both their length and intensity. Originally induced by the Hong Kong government’s introduction of a bill that made provision for the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China – which, due to the relative opacity of the latter’s legal system, was a prospect which alarmed pro-democracy activists and members of the general public alike – the protests have since widened in scope.

Initially, Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong government’s chief executive, committed to suspending the bill; however, this left open the possibility of it being brought back at a later, more convenient date. The protestors were understandably dissatisfied with this move, and remained on the streets. Only several months later, in October, would Lam agree to completely withdraw the bill, but by this stage the damage had been done. The protestors, not only exasperated by her perceived intransigence, but also by the state’s conduct in cracking down on their resistive acts, now had five demands, including an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality and “complete” universal suffrage. Notwithstanding the withdrawal of the bill, these were met by the government with indifference.

It is against this backdrop that, on November 24, the district council elections occurred. Of the 452 seats in contention (out of a total of 479, the remainder of which are automatically granted to representatives of the rural population), 388 were won by pro-democracy candidates, while pro-Beijing candidates scored only 59. These results are particularly impressive in light of their diametric contrast to those from the 2015 elections, where the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps gained 126 and 239 seats respectively. This huge swing is undoubtedly attributable to mobilisation on the part of the protestors, as reflected in the unprecedented 71% turnout rate; to put this in perspective, 47% of the electorate turned out for the 2015 vote.

On paper, this seems like a major coup for the pro-democracy movement. However, in actuality, domination of the district councils will do very little towards the end of achieving sweeping reforms and guarantees vis-à-vis Hong Kong’s constitutional arrangements, as their function is predominantly advisory, coming with little tangible power. That said, neither can the territory’s other political institutions be considered democratic in a meaningful sense. Hong Kong’s legislative council (LegCo) – responsible for formulating and amending laws – is constituted by 70 seats, but only 40 of them are democratically elected. The remainder represent “functional constituencies”; in other words, exclusive interest groups inclined towards Beijing. It should be said that 117 of the aforementioned district councillors sit on the 1,200 member Election Committee, which selects the chief executive – however, as is arithmetically axiomatic, they constitute only a minority in a body overwhelmingly comprised of representatives drawn from interest groups and key economic sectors. Even within the confines of an intensely curated institution like the Election Committee, democracy is still restricted, as candidates for the role of Chief Executive must be pulled from a pool approved by Beijing.

It is this very democratic deficit that motivates the protestors – but, somewhat appropriately, it is also the reason why the local election results will be of little medium-to-long term benefit for the pro-democracy movement in achieving their goals. True, they retain a degree of symbolic importance, but if the government can for all intensive purposes disregard protests that brought more than a quarter of the territory’s population onto the streets, they will have few qualms ignoring the results of elections for a functionally impotent local institution. For now, this stalemate is here to stay.

Image - Unsplash

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