How Hong Kong is standing up to China

In an election with a record turnout Hong Kongers have delivered a surprise swipe at Beijing, electing young, radical activists to be new members to the Legislative Council. 

by Zofia Reych 

On Sunday 04.09 the people of Hong Kong went to the polls to choose members of the Legislative Council (Legco) of the Special Administrative Region. The elections drew a record turnout of 58%, with large numbers of voters flying in from abroad for the occasion. Many polling stations saw queues of people long after they were due to close.

The opposition has retained its veto power by securing 19 out of 35 seats in the geographical constituencies, and a further eight out of those chosen in traditionally pro-Beijing, functional constituencies.

Hong Kong surprised the world, and certainly Beijing, as more radical, young political activists made it to the council. No fewer than 6 localists and independence advocates emerged victorious from the polls, securing seats thanks to the support of 400,000 voters.

One of the new honourable legislators is Nathan Law Kwun-chung, a 23 year old former student leader, who described his victory as a “miracle”.

The Umbrella Revolution

Two years ago, the main streets of Hong Kong ground to a halt as thousands of people gathered to protest against Beijing’s policies. Central areas of the city remained closed to traffic for 79 days, and the student-led occupation was compared to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

“We’re asking for [popular] vote only, nothing more, and we are peaceful. However, the government will not hesitate to use pepper spray and any other harmful armament against peaceful protesters. As a Hong Konger standing here in Wan Chai, I ask all of you from all over the world, please help us,” said one of the demonstrators, then 18-year-old Glacier Kong.

Beijing had promised to bring “universal suffrage” to Hong Kong in 2017, allowing the citizens to directly choose their Chief Executive. Until 2012, Hong Kong’s leader was chosen by a committee of 1,200 officials loyal to Beijing. The new system will extend suffrage to all Hong Kong citizens. However, all electoral candidates will have to be pre-approved by Beijing authorities, deeming the new policy practically meaningless in the eyes of pro-democracy activists.

“All pan-democrats or anyone who’s not pro-business would not even have a chance to even be admitted into the race,” explained Edward Chin, one of the few financiers backing the protests. Chin worries that mainland influences will bring more corruption and nepotism to Hong Kong’s finance sector, threatening its position as one of the world’s leaders.  

As riot-police stepped in with pepper spray and tear gas to disperse the peaceful crowds, the protesters shielded themselves with umbrellas, giving name to the movement that shook the nation. Despite the clashes, the events didn’t turn as tragic as in 1989 in Beijing, but some analysts say that the importance of the protests was of similar weight.

Although the crowds occupying Hong Kong have disappeared, a shift in collective consciousness remains. “I will continue to devote my time in Keyboard Frontline to defend internet freedom in Hong Kong,” says Glacier Kwong of her foundation that campaigns for online freedom. Although protesters returned to studies and jobs, for many like Kwong, the political awakening can’t be undone.

New leaders emerge

Among those for whom life changed forever were Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Joshua Wong Chi-fung.

Wong, an embattled student leader from the protests of 2014, decided to launch a new political party – Demosisto –  in April this year. One of the core principles of the Demosisto is the organisation of a referendum in which Hong Kongers could decide their future beyond 2047 when the “one country, two systems” deal with China expires. The response from Beijing was harsh. The authorities managed to ban more radical activists from running and others were warned they could be arrested over sedition.

Although Wong didn’t make it to the Legco, he remains Demosisto’s secretary-general. Nathan Law Kwun-chung, as well as five other post-Occupy candidates, were propelled to the Council. If Beijing still plans on making arrests, they will not be detaining student protesters, but honourable legislators.

As pointed out by Law, there are some distinct differences in the agendas of the six newly elected pro-independence legislators. (Others represent alliances formed by smaller Umbrella Revolution-rooted groups.) However, their thirst for democracy, and a defiant attitude towards Beijing make common denominators.

“Hong Kong’s self-determination is one of the main things I want to talk about and that will be at the core of my job,” said Law to Al Jazeera, stressing the importance of uniting the fragmented democratic camp.

Authorities in Beijing have since re-issued their warning to Law and other post-Occupy lawmakers, reminding them that Hong Kong’s independence would be against the Principal Law. At present, it is unclear what real impact on legislation the young politicians may have, but their mere election sends a clear message to Beijing.

As South China Morning Post columnist, Michael Chugani, put it, “Hong Kong voters have tossed a localist time-bomb into Beijing’s court – and there’s no way to disable it”.