The Debate | Opinion

Hong Kong Just Sent Beijing a Clear Signal. Will Anyone Listen?

The pro-democrats’ landslide victory in district elections could prove a turning point for the city.

By Benedict Rogers for
Hong Kong Just Sent Beijing a Clear Signal. Will Anyone Listen?
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

“The ballot is stronger than the bullet,” read some graffiti on a wall in Hong Kong yesterday as the city went to the polls for district council elections. These were the first electoral test of public opinion since the crisis of the past six months unfolded. And just as Hong Kong seemed on the brink of an abyss or a collapse, a bright light has burst through.

After weeks of darkness, with horrific scenes of police brutality and disturbing images of young people throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks, firing makeshift arrows and home-made catapults, and barricading themselves in universities with no food, water, or sanitation, Hong Kong has a moment of hope. Now is a carpe diem moment – this brief interlude of clarity must not be squandered.

From the results of the November 24 district council elections, turnout was more than 71 percent, compared with 47 percent in the same elections four years ago. Over 2.9 million people voted, more than a quarter of the entire population. At the time of writing, 92 percent of the 452 seats have been declared – and of these 88 percent have gone to the pro-democracy camp. Whatever the exact final result, it is clear that this is an unprecedented landslide victory for pro-democracy parties and a massive defeat for Beijing. Despite the regime’s attempts to frame the protest movement by the acts of violence of a minority of protesters – even though they were acts of desperation in response to police brutality and government intransigence – Hong Kong people stayed with the movement and have sent an overwhelmingly clear message to their Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Chinese President Xi Jinping: things must change.

Those who have been elected in this landslide to positions in district councils have, of course, a primary responsibility to their local electors to address the grievances particular to their district, whether in terms of housing, roads, education, or any of the other responsibilities any local councilor in any democracy in the world would be expected to deal with. Except Hong Kong is not a true democracy, and that is why these elections take on a level of significance perhaps unprecedented anywhere else.

In Hong Kong, district councils are the only entirely directly elected level of government. The next level up, the Legislative Council, which is like City Hall – or a Parliament if Hong Kong were a sovereign country – is only 50 percent directly elected by universal suffrage. The other half is elected by professional sectors – so-called “functional constituencies” such as the business, financial, legal, and other sectors – and is heavily dominated by pro-Beijing representatives. The chief executive – in effect the mayor of the city – is chosen by an electoral collage of just 1,200, most of whom are chosen by Beijing. In essence, the candidates for chief executive are handpicked by Beijing and then put to an unrepresentative body that also is largely handpicked by Beijing — thus the central authorities choose their puppet.

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Hence the tensions in Hong Kong over the 22 years since the handover and the crisis that has intensified in recent years as Beijing has become more heavy-handed. The people of Hong Kong have felt increasingly disenfranchised, with no say or stake in how they are governed – and that has been exacerbated by a series of stupid, ill-thought out policies and bills that almost seem designed to incense Hong Kong people. To cap it all, Hong Kong’s series of woeful chief executives have come either from a background of tycoonism, sometimes with a whiff of corruption, or from the civil service, which, though policy-oriented, has absolutely no experience of winning hearts and minds and engaging with people in the way a candidate seeking votes does.

As a result of this system, trust has broken down between the people and the political establishment – hence these remarkable election results. To see bankers and lawyers supporting and voting for people associated with those who may have been throwing bricks a few weeks ago tells you a lot about the united cry for democracy in Hong Kong. Few people, and certainly not myself, condone violence – but we recognize the underlying reasons behind it and the noble motivations of even those who dress with gas masks and construction hats.

Last night I spoke for over an hour with a doctor who has treated casualties from the protests, both in hospitals and on the streets, and described the horrors that have already been reported: The arrest of doctors and first-aiders, the presence of police in hospitals, cases of the police demanding medical records of protesters while they are in hospital wards, police demanding entry into operating theaters, the horrific effects of chemical substances in teargas canisters, gang-rape in detention, and a case of the police actually signing approval for releasing the medical records of a patient, in the patient’s absence – while he was in a coma. The litany of barbarity described to me in just a single one-hour telephone call convinces me, along with the numerous second-hand reports I receive almost every hour, that there is a grave crisis in Hong Kong that must be addressed.

It can only be addressed in three ways.

The first is a top-to-toe inquiry into and reformation of Hong Kong’s police. The doctor I spoke to last night told me that the problem is there is no real command or accountability structure. “No one is above them anymore,” he said. Trust between the people and the police has broken down completely and entirely. The only way to rebuild trust is to establish a fully independent inquiry into police conduct, with full powers to hold those responsible for abuses accountable – and the authority to reform the structure of the police force

The second is a move toward universal suffrage at all levels. Yesterday Hong Kongers demonstrated at the clearest and most basic level that they want democracy. Even though there were attempts by pro-Beijing parties to buy votes, they lost. Hong Kongers spoke in large numbers and said: “We want to be able to choose our government.” It could not be clearer from the results – and so it is up to Carrie Lam and Beijing to react, and the international community to respond, to respect that result.

And the third is for all sides to pull back from the brink, to say let’s work with the ballot not the bullet, and let’s dialogue about a timetable for reform. Perhaps a regional or international mediator could be deployed to bring the two sides – Beijing and its proxies and puppets and the pan-democrats in their various forms – together.

It is important, in all this, not to lose sight of the 20 or 30 individuals still holed up in Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University. As Hong Kong Watch and Baroness Bennett said yesterday, their safe passage must be secured.

But today may – tentatively – have been a turning point for averting the disaster to which Hong Kong was headed and commencing of the prospects of reform. It will require political courage and imagination by Beijing, the Hong Kong government, and the international community. That courage and imagination is there among the people with whom I am privileged to work in civil society. I look forward to seeing it spread – for the sake of Hong Kong.

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch and co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.