In 2014, the Chinese government decided to deny Hong Kong citizens’ right to vote directly for their chief executive by giving itself sole prerogative over choosing the candidates. This system of “You can vote, but we select the candidates” led to over 100,000 Hong Kong student protestors gathering in the streets in an event that would come to be known as the Umbrella Movement or Umbrella Revolution. When the protests were forcibly shut down by the police, the protesters left the streets full of signs declaring, “We Will Be Back.” On September 4, 2016, they made good on their promise—but this time, in the Hong Kong legislature.
The results of September 4’s election have clearly upset Beijing. The first Legislative Council (LegCo) election since the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, it boasted record voter turnout and swept six young pro-democracy candidates to victory, giving them enough seats to veto proposals they oppose. Unlike the Umbrella Movement, this election produced tangible results that allow Hong Kong legislators to lawfully resist Beijing’s repressive actions, like its interference in Hong Kong’s election process.
Upon resuming control of Hong Kong in 1997, the People’s Republic of China granted the city a high degree of autonomy—in theory at least—under the principle of “One Country, Two Systems.” However, the build-up to this September’s election reveals that China has by and large ignored this principle and has infringed upon Hong Kong’s freedom in various ways.
First, Beijing has established voting arrangements that ensure that pro-democracy politicians have almost no chance of taking a majority of seats in the LegCo. Thirty of the legislature’s seventy candidates are chosen through functional constituencies, which are for the most part pro-establishment. The Chinese government clearly felt that this was not enough, however, since they also decided to ban six pro-independence activists from standing in this September’s election. As a result, several thousand protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong, instigating a pro-independence rally in August.
In addition, in January of this year, Chinese authorities unlawfully abducted and detained five employees from Causeway Bay Books, a Hong Kong publishing house specializing in books critical of China’s leaders. This event was seen as the culmination of an intensifying attack on Hong Kong’s freedom of the press. Since 1997, China has obtained editorial control in eight of Hong Kong’s twenty-six mainstream media outlets, triggering self-censorship in Hong Kong’s media. Hong Kong’s academic freedom has also come under renewed attack. Communist Party-backed newspapers have called for “patriotic education” to be introduced in Hong Kong’s schools and have criticized leading liberal academics.
Amid these controversies, the selection of six pro-independence candidates marks an important victory for Hong Kong activists. Another important result of this election is the marked shift in the average age of Hong Kong’s new legislators from 54 in 2014 to 49. The youngest new legislator, Nathan Law, active in the Umbrella Movement and the leader of the Demosistō Party, is just 23. The shift toward a generation is a sign for optimism.
While Hong Kong’s Basic Law, drafted by Chinese and British officials ahead of Hong Kong’s return to China, promised Hong Kong people basic rights like free elections, a free press, and free assembly, Beijing has clearly reneged on all of these guarantees. There is no reason to suppose that the communist regime will respect these election results either: Beijing released a statement on September 5 declaring that it would “resolutely oppose any form of Hong Kong independence activities inside or outside the legislature.”
Things came to a head on October 26, when two recently elected candidates, Sixtus Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-Ching of the Youngspiration Party, barged into the LegCo chamber despite having been banned from it. Earlier this month, on the 11th, the pair had had their oaths of office invalidated because they had departed from the established script and used language deemed derogatory to China. When they attempted to take their oaths for the second time a week later, pro-establishment politicians walked out to deny them a quorum. On Tuesday the 25th, Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, the President of the Legislative Council, announced that the third attempt at a swearing-in had been removed from Wednesday’s schedule due to a legal challenge. But Leung and Yau paid no heed. With the help of anti-establishment lawmakers from a range of parties, they entered the chamber on Wednesday morning and demanded to take their oaths. The ensuing uproar resulted in the early adjournment of the meeting. Outside, nationalist protestors demanded that Leung and Yau “apologize to Chinese people everywhere” and step down.
As the events of the last days demonstrate, the Chinese government and pro-establishment legislators in Hong Kong are still determined to block pro-independence activists from assuming their positions. Although it remains to be seen how these dramatic events will unfold, one message is already clear. The LegCo election results have deeply perturbed Beijing. If Hong Kong voters were seeking to shake things up, they have already succeeded.