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    Mar
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    What now for Hong Kong’s democracy candidates after upset?
    What now for Hong Kong’s democracy candidates after upset?
    POLITICS

    What now for Hong Kong’s democracy candidates after upset?

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    by
    Alan Wong
    Alan Wong
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    In a rare upset, a pro-democracy politician in Hong Kong lost at the voting booths to his pro-Beijing rival over the weekend.

    It's a surprise because until Sunday, pro-democracy candidates had always won in head-to-head polls of this kind. In a somber press conference on Monday, election campaigners bowed to apologize for the defeat.

    It's a setback for the city's democracy movement, right? Well, yes – and no. Let us explain.

    In a somber press conference on Monday, pro-democracy election campaigners bowed to apologize for the defeat of one of their candidates.
    In a somber press conference on Monday, pro-democracy election campaigners bowed to apologize for the defeat of one of their candidates. Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

    What election?

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    Nearly a million voters across Hong Kong went to the polls on Sunday to elect four people to the city's 70-strong legislature. 

    The elections – technically by-elections – were held to fill four of six empty seats. There had been vacancies after the government removed six pro-democracy lawmakers from office in 2016, ostensibly because they altered their oaths to protest the Chinese government.

    The former British colony was promised wide-ranging freedoms when it returned to Chinese rule 20 years ago, but many fear that their autonomy and rights are under threat of Beijing's growing interference.

    Who won?

    Three of the four elections on Sunday were direct elections, open to more than two million registered voters in three electoral areas. 

    Edward Yiu, a surveyor, was the only pro-democracy candidate who didn't win in those elections, losing by a small margin to Beijing loyalist Vincent Cheng.

    Yiu's defeat was surprising because Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp of politicians have long enjoyed majority support in direct elections. 

    That popular support was still true on Sunday when all votes are considered across all the by-elections, but the narrowing gap doesn't bode well for them in future elections.

    A fourth election was won by a pro-Beijing candidate, but it wasn't considered broadly representative because only a few thousand people in a professional group – specifically, architect, surveyors and planners – could vote.

    Group 5
    We must not let our guard down.
    -
    Joshua Wong, democracy activist

    What now?

    The pro-democracy camp's loss was "symbolically quite hurtful," said Sebastian Veg, a Paris-based professor at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and an analyst of Hong Kong politics. 

    But, he said, "the result doesn’t matter that much in practical terms."

    That’s because they had largely lost their veto power long before the latest elections.

    After the government successfully sued in 2016 to remove six opposition lawmakers, the pro-democracy camp lost the number of members in office to be able to veto legislation proposed by their pro-Beijing counterparts. 

    And because nearly half of the 70 seats were elected not through direct elections, but voting within members of special interest and professional groups, Beijing loyalists have a majority in the legislature.

    The elections on Sunday didn't change the political math. They only perpetuated the pro-Beijing lawmakers' dominant position.

    Au Nok-hin (right), is one of two pro-democracy candidates who won in the legislative by-elections on Sunday.
    Au Nok-hin (right), is one of two pro-democracy candidates who won in the legislative by-elections on Sunday. Photo: Sam Tsang/SCMP

    What next?

    The truth is, the Hong Kong government can pass most of the laws it wishes to, and the opposition parties can do little to stop it.

    One of those laws is an expected security law that human rights and democracy campaigners fear would threaten civil liberties in Hong Kong.

    The legislation has not yet been re-introduced because there's popular pressure against it.

    In 2003, half a million people protested after the government proposed the law. The plan was eventually shelved because of popular opposition.

    Whether the national security legislation will stay off the table depends on whether the people can "keep up the pressure," said Joshua Wong, a young leader of massive pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 known as the Umbrella Revolution.

    The legislation is still so contentious that the Carrie Lam, the current leader of Hong Kong, said last month that "a favorable social environment" is needed to push it forward.

    Still, Wong cautions that the government may attempt to pass other controversial laws, such as one that punishes anyone who disrespects China's national anthem in public.

    "The government can still make any legislation it wants anytime," Wong said. "We must not let our guard down."

    ALAN WONG
    ALAN WONG
    Alan is editor at Inkstone. He was previously a digital editor for The New York Times in Hong Kong.

    ALAN WONG
    ALAN WONG
    Alan is editor at Inkstone. He was previously a digital editor for The New York Times in Hong Kong.

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