China Power | Politics | East Asia

How Hong Kong’s District Council Elections Offer a Way out of the Political Crisis

The District Council elections provide both the mandate and opportunity to come to a compromise.

By Brian Wong for
How Hong Kong’s District Council Elections Offer a Way out of the Political Crisis
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

Nearly 3 million Hong Kongers took to the voting booths the recently concluded District Council elections, partaking in a historic vote that saw the anti-establishment, pro-democratic camp seize control of 17 out of 18 districts and 389 out of 452 contested seats (a total of 86 percent). The election saw a record turnout of 71.2 percent, with turnout increasing significantly across most age groups but particularly the youth. Prominent pro-establishment parties – such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the Business and Professional Alliance (BPA), and the Liberal Party (LP) saw their seats reduced to single or double digits, with establishment stalwart Regina Ip’s New People Party (NPP) failing to secure a single seat. On the other hand, fresh political faces knocked out seasoned pro-Beijing lawmakers, including Junius Ho and Alice Mak.

The elections occurred as the city was well into the sixth month of one of its worst political crises on record – triggered by the government’s attempted introduction of a now-shelved extradition bill. While radicals in the movement frame the vote as a resounding victory for democracy, members of the establishment have sought to portray the electoral results as merely the product of a First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system and transient ill winds spurred by the inept administration. The following article argues that while these elections reflect the impressive tenacity of anti-government and pro-democratic sentiments among the wider public, all parties would benefit from seizing this opportunity to de-escalate and avert the deeply worrying prospect of political Armageddon, which the city had previously been sliding toward for weeks.

Why De-escalate?

Why should de-escalation take place, if at all? This preliminary question is well worth briefly clarifying, even though the rationale is – at this point – on the wall for all to see.

Certain radicals within the protest movement have taken to a nihilistic vow of mutual annihilation (“攬炒”), which seeks to combine elements of foreign aggression and sanctions directed toward China and indiscriminate, untargeted violence inflicting significant costs upon any and all shops, businesses, and individuals they deem to be associated with the central Chinese government. Their logic reflects their deeply embedded conviction that, given that they have little to lose under what they take to be a politically and socioeconomically exclusionary establishment, there is little alternative to the expressively cathartic and self-emancipatory move of seeking the city’s destruction. Such forms of nihilism have played out in the forms of arson and rampant destruction of shops deemed to be sympathizers to the Beijing administration, obstruction of key transportation routes, and violent confrontations over university campuses.

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Yet such thinking is both misdirected and indicative of the general need for de-escalation. There seems to be limited recognition of the dangers of irreversible militarization of the ongoing conflict – which has already manifested through an increase in both the frequency and ferocity of deployments of force by the city’s police forces; an emboldening of the rhetoric of hardline hawks in the central government, and the transformation of previously broadly peaceful sites (e.g. university campuses) into sites of physical belligerence. Meanwhile, the surge in the number of arrested individuals (over 4,000 as of late November), the extensive paralysis of key infrastructure in the city (e.g. the Central Cross-Harbor Tunnel, which just re-opened Wednesday after being closed for two weeks), and the economic costs inflicted upon small and medium enterprises suggest that it is high time – for the sake of the city’s core interests – that all parties sought resolution of disagreements through non-violent means.

Why Now?

Yet the question then becomes – why de-escalate now? What makes these elections the crucial “turning point” in the city’s political trajectory, to borrow Jared Diamond’s words from his latest monograph Upheaval (2019)? The following agent-centric analysis highlights why de-escalation both conforms to the interests of various stakeholders, as well as why the upcoming two weeks offer a unique, if fleeting, political opportunity.

Beijing’s concern has always been the preservation of national security in both the mainland and Hong Kong. The rapid escalation in force by the movement since early October has raised the stakes for the central administration – mainland Chinese migrants living in Hong Kong and state-owned businesses have suffered significant physical and economic threats at the hands of the most vindictive in the movement, and the persisting politico-economic instability in the city poses a looming challenge to the current Chinese administration’s ability to claim competence and the possession of a de facto mandate to govern in the city. While the inflaming of anti-Western sentiments among the majority of mainland Chinese – in response to what they perceive to be a foreign-backed insurgency in the city – had previously bolstered Beijing’s political momentum in its negotiations with the hawkish Trump administration, the regime’s need for grassroots nationalism has substantially subsided as it seeks a trade truce. The restoration of certainty and perceived legitimacy in Hong Kong is crucial in China’s development of a robust meta-narrative justifying its increasing political and economic outreach within East Asia and beyond.

More importantly, Beijing’s proactive response to the movement (without necessarily answering its demands directly) after the District Council elections would be pivotal in demonstrating that only peaceful, non-violent means can convince the central authorities to engage in political change. For Beijing, this would both be helpful in reassuring the Hong Kong public that peaceful engagement and progressive dialogue are necessary conditions for political reforms, as well as helping discredit what the central authorities perceive to be mal-intentioned foreign propaganda seeking to portray the Communist Party as allegedly repressive and recalcitrant. Above all, it could easily regain the trust and favor of many moderates in Hong Kong – who turned to the voting booth as a last resort in expressing their disillusionment with the current Hong Kong administration. The District Council elections provide Beijing with both the mandate and opportunity to spin any liberal, dovish responses to the movement as being distinctly unrelated to the disingenuous Trojan horse of the Human Rights and Democracy Act launched by the American Senate. Thus de-escalation now aligns with both Beijing’s external foreign policy and internal legitimacy-centric prerogatives.

As for the local political establishment in Hong Kong, there truly is no better time to act than in the aftermath of arguably its most humiliating defeat. By openly backing an independent Commission of Inquiry and reconciliation-centered efforts, pro-Beijing parties could demonstrate both a willingness to listen and openness to admitting past errors – both features that have very much been lacking in their public images. The establishment should realize by now that their attempt to exaggerate the destructiveness of the movement and attribute the ongoing civil unrest to solely socioeconomic inequalities have been less than effective in convincing swing or apathetic voters – the mythical “Silent Majority” – that pro-Beijing voters deserve their support. While the tactic of framing the unrest as damaging livelihoods and social order certainly has some merit and potential appeal, the establishment has apparently under-estimated the degree of resentment and widespread conviction that the costs of the protests are less the direct product of protesters than the result of an apparently obstinate and unresponsive administration that has failed both the Hong Kong public and Beijing.

More substantively, by co-opting elements of the movement’s demands and articulating a positive vision for political reform and change, pro-Beijing parties could skillfully distance themselves from the current administration and place the ball – once again – in the court of the pan-democratic camp. By framing themselves as open to change, compromise, and dialogue, they could refocus the media spotlight on the inability of pan-democrats to engage in substantive livelihood-centered governance or pragmatic, reasonable conversations about Hong Kong’s political future. De-escalation through strategic concessions could further bolster the establishment’s game-plan of shifting public attention to socioeconomic inequalities. These are all trends that would indubitably be helpful in paving the way for pro-Beijing parties to regain electoral credibility and momentum in next year’s Legislative Council elections. A particular corollary of this would involve pro-Beijing parties lobbying for the recommencement of dialogue about universal suffrage and political reform under a framework that is amenable to Beijing’s baselines – which would not only force the pan-democrats’ hands, but also institutionally absorb most of the moderates who have been vastly disillusioned toward the establishment over the past months.

Finally, it is also in the movement’s interests to seek genuine peaceful reconciliation. Pitched battles, regularized clashes between police and civilians, disruptions to civil order and physical safety of civilians – these are both unsustainable and detrimental to the viability of any democratic opposition in the city’s medium to long run. The “Now or Never,” doomsday narrative propelling the radicals is not conducive toward any compromises or concessions from the Hong Kong and Beijing administrations. By bundling all of its demands in the “five demands, not one not less” tagline, the movement is engaging in a risky gambit that is likely to culminate in its dissipation or fading into political irrelevance. The District Council elections provide movement participants with a bargaining chip that they ought to deploy wisely – as opposed to discarding or squandering through re-initiating unbridled violence.

Why is Resolution Likely?

There is still one more question, however: is resolution likely? Would key parties involved find the above reasoning – among other factors – persuasive? There is some room for optimism.

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The pro-establishment camp must – and indeed has begun to – engage in serious rethinking of its political positioning and branding. It is likely that they will pivot to more moderate stances, in light of three crucial conclusions that many among them, even the ideologically rigid or opinionated, have quickly clocked after the elections. The first is the imperative to distance themselves from some of the worst failures of the ongoing administration – which is crucial in enabling them to continually support Beijing without committing unnecessarily to the politically toxic Extradition Bill and its aftermath. The second conclusion is that the pragmatic central administration is likely to want to hear constructive and ameliorative proposals from these parties. It is high time that those with an appetite for risk-taking and political tact stepped up to normalize relations between the Hong Kong public and Beijing, a much-needed task in a rapidly polarizing society. Finally, veteran pro-establishment lawmakers have realized with this landslide result that their previous diagnosis of the movement’s inevitable subsiding and loss of public support is likely erroneous. Responding to the crisis requires a more hands-on and flexibly dynamic approach from those loyal to Beijing.

On the other hand, many in the protest movement are both burned out and battered by repeated altercations with law enforcement and vigilante pro-establishment mobs. It is likely that should peaceful de-escalation be seen as a viable option – as expressed through the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry and binding dialogical structures – a majority in the movement would gladly distance themselves from the violence adopted by a radical minority. The administration’s extension of an olive branch, coupled with what they perceive to be a resounding victory for democrats in the recent elections, would be highly conducive in discouraging the public’s continued deployment of violence.

Finally, there appears to be a bizarre, one-sided narrative that seeks to portray Beijing as completely unwilling to budge or engage in pragmatic dialogue. Such characterizations may be politically convenient, especially among subscribers to the “China is Evil” meta-narrative, yet they also neglect the fact that Beijing is no monolith, and certainly not an inept monolith driven by solely ideological frenzy. There have been clear signs that the central government is reconsidering its political positions and approach to Hong Kong – and the softening in the local administration and police force’s stance in the aftermath of the elections is certainly testament to this change. Beijing is likely to find engagement in constructive dialogue with Hong Kong’s political middle a fruitful enterprise; indeed, such dialogue would not only be helpful for Beijing in re-establishing its legitimacy and popular mandate in the city – it would also be in the common interests of all parties, save those who are bent on egregious, retaliatory violence.

Conclusion

The future of Hong Kong hangs on a fine thread. The analogy with Ireland during the Troubles is both alarming and depressing. Yet the recent elections provide a much-needed and welcome halt to the city’s slide into anarchy and civil warfare. The above analysis suggests that there is every incentive for all parties to seek a peaceful resolution of the ongoing crisis. It behooves these actors, however, to act as such. There is still hope in Hong Kong’s future – let us hope it would not be squandered.

Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar-Elect from Hong Kong (2020), and a current MPhil in Politics Candidate at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Wong is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review, Founding Director of Citizen Action Design Lab, and a frequent contributor to the South China Morning Post, the American Philosophical Association, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.