China Suffers Hong Kong Blow as Voters Elect Young Activists

Beijing Critics Win Seats in HK Legislature
  • Candidates seeking vote on city’s future win legislative seats
  • Beijing warns that support for independence violates law

China will face new challenges managing Hong Kong’s demands for democracy after a record turnout of voters sent a crop of younger, more radical lawmakers to the city’s legislature.

At least six candidates who expressed support for holding a vote to decide the future of Chinese rule won seats on the 70-member Legislative Council, helping expand the pro-democracy bloc’s numbers in the chamber. Winners in the biggest election since 2014 street protests included Nathan Law, 23, a former student leader who encouraged classmates to camp on city streets for 79 days.

The outcome calls into question Beijing’s hard-line approach to dealing with campaigns for greater autonomy in the former British colony, which was guaranteed free speech, independent courts and a capitalist financial system for at least 50 years after its return to China in 1997. Legislative seats will give members of an emergent “localist” movement who seek self-determination -- or even independence -- a new platform to challenge Beijing.

The election results aren’t "conducive to improving mainland-Hong Kong ties,” said Zou Pingxue, director of Shenzhen University’s Hong Kong and Macau Basic Law Research Centre. “The localists aren’t all necessarily Hong Kong independence advocates, but they put Hong Kong’s interests ahead of everything else, and the extreme version of their cause will be Hong Kong independence. That’s something the central government is very wary of.”

China noted that some organizations and candidates advocated separatism in violation of the city’s Basic Law, Xinhua reported on Monday, citing an unidentified spokesman from the Hong Kong and Macau affairs office. China opposes separatist moves of any form, saying calls for independence “endangered national sovereignty and harmed Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability," the report said.

“We resolutely oppose any form of Hong Kong independence activities inside and outside the Legislative Council," the spokesperson was quoted as saying. “We resolutely support the Hong Kong government to punish these activities according to the law.”

The election poses problems for the city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who would need Beijing’s support if he seeks a second five-year term at a meeting of 1,200 electors in March. His government had sought to dissuade voters from supporting more radical parties, barring six candidates who had supported outright independence because the city’s charter holds that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.

Leung pledged to co-operate with the new lawmakers “in accordance with the requirements of the Basic Law.” The chief executive, who refused to meet with Law and other student leaders in 2014, also said in a Facebook post that he would write letters congratulating each of the victors.

“We are pleased to see a number of new faces who serve as LegCo members for the first time and the government will continue to work with LegCo,” Leung told reporters Tuesday before meeting with his cabinet.

Some 2.2 million voters, or about 58 percent of those registered, cast ballots on Sunday, the largest share since the city held its first direct legislative elections in 1991. Supporters of self-determination, including those who lost and winners like Law who stopped short of advocating independence, got almost a fifth of all votes, according to a count by the Apple Daily newspaper.

“The results indicate a growing distrust of Beijing and a greater level of frustration with the governance of CY Leung,” said James Rice, an assistant professor of philosophy and law at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. “This is a generational as well as an ideological shift.”

To read a QuickTake on Hong Kong’s democracy, click here

The Asian financial hub has been beset by political clashes since the last election in 2012. Student rallies forced the government to abandon a plan for patriotic education in schools, protests against cross-border traders prompted a reduction in mainland visitors and localists were charged in connection with a riot that injured scores of police officers last February.

The “pan-democractic” camp picked up three legislative seats for a total of 30. That strengthened their one-third membership in the chamber, allowing them to block legislation such as government proposals that would let Beijing vet leadership candidates and restrict criticism of the central government.

Holden Chow, the 37-year-old vice chairman of the largest pro-Beijing party that won one of five citywide “super seats,” pledged to work with the new-look opposition. 

“With so many new faces in the forthcoming LegCo term, I would insist on communicating with people of different views,” Chow said, referring to the legislature. “That would be important to reconcile between the two camps.”

Still, the result did little to change the balance of power, since pro-establishment groups will hold 40 seats, including 22 of 30 chosen from various trade and professional sectors whose members typically support Beijing’s policies. The opposition will also face difficulty forging unity since several new lawmakers have blamed the pro-democratic old guard for being too accommodating toward the government.

Hong Kong’s benchmark equity index climbed the most in almost two months Monday, sending the Hang Seng Index 1.7 percent higher amid an overall rise in Asian shares. Fitch Ratings affirmed Hong Kong’s AA+ rating with a stable outlook, citing the city’s “exceptionally strong external and public finances, credible policy framework, high income levels and resilient and flexible economy.”

The election saw an across-the-board shift toward a younger legislature, as several veteran lawmakers retired or were swept aside by voters. Founding Labour Party Chairman Lee Cheuk-yan, who spent more than two decades in the legislature seeking to hold China to account for the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, lost his seat.

‘Very Shocked’

Law, the legislature’s youngest-ever member, said advancing a vote on Hong Kong’s post-2047 future would top his agenda. The Demosisto chairman was sentenced to 120 hours of community service by a Hong Kong court last month after he and fellow student leader Joshua Wong, 19, were convicted of illegally taking part in an assembly outside the government headquarters that sparked the Occupy protests. Wong was too young to stand as a candidate.

Localist candidates Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and Yau Wai-ching both won seats after their group Youngspiration was endorsed by pro-independence activist Edward Leung, the most prominent candidate barred from running. "Hong Kongers enjoy freedom of expression, too, and are entitled to discuss the sovereignty of their home and their own future," Yau, 25, told reporters.

Other winners who had expressed support for self-determination were Lau Siu-lai of Democracy Groundwork, Cheng Chung-tai of Civic Passion, and independent Eddie Chu. The latter’s 84,000 votes made him the single biggest vote-getter among candidates for the 35 geographic districts.

“I’m very shocked,” Chu said after votes were tallied Monday. “We were just a dozen young people who had an idea about our future of Hong Kong. It was like an experiment that’s become a huge success.”

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