Hong Kong’s District Council election took place November 24. For the first time, the local polls were internationally followed because of the months-long street protests originating in June — previously protesting against the extradition bill, now for an investigation into alleged police brutality, yet more fundamentally for genuine democratic reform. The election has been deemed historic due to its record-breaking turnout — 71.2 percent — the highest among any Legislative Council (LegCo) and District Council elections ever been held in the city. Unprecedentedly, the pro-democracy bloc rebounded by gaining not just control over 17 out of 18 District Councils (while the pro-Beijing bloc controlled all of them before), but also surprisingly almost 90 percent of the overall seats, including every single seat (except appointed seats) in two districts (Tai Po and Wong Tai Sin District) where residents have been tear-gassed severely for months.
The 18 District Councils in Hong Kong, equivalent to (or less powerful than) town councils in other countries, are the only electoral institutions in Hong Kong that enjoy genuine universal suffrage under a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system for each constituency. Each council, despite their inability to pass any bills with legal validity, is responsible for drafting a budget with funding allocated by the government each year, mainly for community infrastructure or activities that serve their neighborhoods.
Symbolically, the election result delivers a very clear and strong message to the international society and Beijing that citizens in Hong Kong think the government and the pro-government bloc — rather than the pro-democrats — should be held responsible for the chaos happening on the street, despite the overall escalating violence. The whole pro-Beijing bloc is being punished for consecutive fatal mistakes, from endorsing the extradition amendment bills in spite of the furious opposition, to acquiescing to police violence. They failed their supporters, who yearn for stability.
For the pro-democrat camp, we can also see a temporary alliance between traditional pan-democrats, who are generally less receptive to physical resistance, and non-partisan newcomers who are more sympathetic to militant protesters. The “no mat-cutting” principle (which means no severing ties between moderate and militant protesters), one of the main principles among pro-liberals in Hong Kong, was implemented in the election. Most of the constituencies successfully avoided infighting under the FPTP electoral system. Competitions between pro-liberal candidates within the same district were mostly settled by negotiation or primaries. This helped develop a strong common identity among pro-liberal candidates across all the districts, which provided a clear way for the masses to voice their grievances by casting their votes.
The impact of the election is way beyond symbolic. In fact, District Councils in Hong Kong are notorious for patronage practices. Many unreasonably expensive community infrastructure projects or banquets hosted by District Councils became reward projects for the pro-Beijing bloc’s vendors via bid-rigging. Hence, regaining the majority of most of the District Councils can bring these malpractices to a halt. Stemming the patronage chain of the pro-Beijing bloc can definitely weaken its mobilization ability, especially as many of its supporters rely on material inducement in terms of mobilization much more than the pro-democracy bloc in Hong Kong.
The roles of District Councilors go beyond voting on local issues. Making good use of their financial sources and authority, they can provide substantial assistance to arrestees in the movement. Throughout their four-year term, each of them will be able to access approximately 5 million Hong Kong Dollars (about US$638,800) of funding, including their own salary, subsidies for office rent, subsidies for salary for assistants, as well as incidental expenses. Utilizing these resources for the arrested protesters became the platform of some of the pro-democracy campaigners. In addition to financial support, as a public official, district councilors are authorized to visit prisoners outside the intrinsic quotas each prisoner has (twice a month). These appealing resources as well as the precious right to visit the imprisoned are the main reasons why people would still campaign for seats or vote despite their total disappointment in Hong Kong’s government and political institutions.
As for other political institutions, District Councilors can be vote-brokers who are capable of influencing the outcome in the LegCo election next year. That is why the District Council election is also seen as an important indicator for the LegCo election. Besides, by securing the majority of overall District Councilors, the pro-democracy bloc can secure one seat out of 35 in the less-democratic Functional Constituency out of the LegCo, a constituency that had been dominated by the pro-Beijing bloc for decades. They can also guarantee 114 seats out of 1,200 on the Electoral Committee of the Chief Executive, which will definitely put China under a bit of pressure when it comes to safeguarding its majority control over the committee.
The triumph in the District Council election for sure will energize the pro-democracy supporters in many ways, but people cannot ignore the potential menace underneath the result. First and foremost, people should be alerted that in spite of the highest-ever overall turnout, the total vote distribution shows that the pro-Beijing bloc can still secure at least 40 percent of the votes, which is the normal proportion the pro-Beijing bloc had in the past few elections. That means in fact they can still count on most of their traditional votes despite their fiasco in this election.
Besides the vote distribution, owing to the different electoral system in the District Councils and LegCo, such a landslide victory is very unlikely to be replicated in the LegCo election next year. The Functional Constituencies (FCs), with 35 seats out of 70, are interest-group-based and with limited electorates, and therefore they always fail to reflect mass preference. The Geographical Constituencies (GCs), with another 35 seats, proportionally distributed by five districts according to populations under the de facto Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system, would at least assure reasonably proportional seats for pro-Beijing candidates, who can still control about 41 percent of votes. Being famous for their meticulous vote allocation tactics, the pro-Beijing bloc can at least guarantee some seats, which can secure their overall majority (combined with their seats in the FCs) in LegCo.
To conclude, it is undeniable that the pro-democracy bloc has made some progress, both symbolic and substantial, in this local election. But people have to bear in mind that votes cast and seats gained will not guarantee fulfillment of the five demands (complete withdrawal of the extradition bill from the legislative process, retraction of the “riot” characterization of protests, release and exoneration of arrested protesters, investigation of police brutality, and implementation of universal suffrage for both LegCo and chief executive election), nor compensate for the eyes lost, joints and bones snapped, blood shed, and lives lost owing to the brutality of the Hong Kong Police. People sacrifice and risk themselves not for seats, but for genuine universal suffrage and the freedom of Hong Kong. Supporters of the pro-democracy bloc can be elated, but this election should never be an end, but rather a means to achieve democracy. They should never forget the comrades who can no longer cast their votes.
And please remember, there are still desperate protesters trapped at Polytechnic University by the police.
Sanho Chung is the founding member of Hong Kong Democratic Alliance of Overseas Postgraduate Students (Hong Kong AOPS). He is also a PhD student from the School of Government and Public Policy, University of Arizona, USA. His research interests cover politics of Hong Kong and Taiwan, elite politics, influence of capital on institution and social networking.