An Election Heard 'Round The World?
On Sunday (November 24), Hong Kong held their elections for their legislative council.
Democracy won. In a landslide.
The triumph is not just that there was record turnout, with some reports putting voter participation at greater than 70%. The surge of previously non-participating voters powered the election of councillors backed by the pro-democracy protest movement to as many as 90% of the contested seats, leading many to characterize the election as a rejection of Beijing's heavy handed and increasingly fascistic authoritarian rule.
“Almost three million voters sent the Carrie Lam administration an unmistakable message on Sunday, flooding to the ballot box in record numbers to vote against pro-establishment candidates and usher in what by all indications should be a staggering victory for the pro-democracy camp,” Public broadcaster RTHK reported. “While official results are yet to be announced, partial counts suggest that opposition candidates should win an overwhelming majority of the 452 District Council seats up for grabs, and may have a winning ratio of as high as nine-to-one.”
Hong Kong Still Part Of Mainland China
While political leaders here in the US tweeted out expressions of support and solidarity to the protest movement and the newly elected pro-democracy councillors, Beijing predictably reiterated that Hong Kong was "still" China proper, and still under Beijing sovereignty, not just suzerainty.
Beijing has reaffirmed its "firm support" for troubled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, despite a landslide win by opposition parties in local elections, as voters vented their frustration over her administration's handling of anti-government protests.
"Our position is crystal clear. The central government firmly supports the Chief Executive Carrie Lam in leading the Hong Kong government, supports the police in enforcing law and restoring order, and supports the judicial organs in punishing violent criminals.," said Geng Shuang, spokesperson at China's Foreign Ministry, at a regular press conference on Monday.
Geng echoed remarks made by his boss Foreign Minister Wang Yi earlier in Tokyo, claiming that Hong Kong matters were China's domestic affairs. He also restated Beijing's commitment to enforcing the "one country, two systems" framework, under which the city is meant to enjoy a high degree of autonomy that mainland Chinese cities are denied. "Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong," Geng said.
Earlier on Monday, Wang told reporters in Tokyo: "Any attempts to undermine the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong will end in failure." Prior to that, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at a meeting with Wang, had urged China to maintain a free and open Hong Kong.
Yet is that really the situation? Is Hong Kong truly Beijing's to command at this point?
Even the political punditry advises Beijing to "listen" to the Hong Kong electorate (ignoring for the moment the irony of a plea to an unapologetically fascist and increasingly legalist oligarchy to pay greater heed to the voices and concerns of the broader polity), highlighting that the dominant election themes had little to do with local issues and everything to do with the democracy movement itself.
Although the pro-China camp is bravely trying to suggest that the election should be seen as a reflection of mundane local matters, it is hard to ignore the reality that the victorious candidates campaigned on explicitly pro-democracy platforms, largely overlooking district issues.
The Hong Kong local government is now unabashedly, unashamedly, and unwaveringly pro-democracy. About the only reason they are not pro-independence and pro-freedom is the protest movement itself stopped short of demanding full independence or even full local automony. For Beijing to bend itself to pay heed to the rabble rousers from the protests is hardly the posture of full control over the city.
The Crackdown That Didn't Happen
But there is an even more compelling reason to question the firmness of Beijing's stance on the Hong Kong Elections. These elections occurred in large measure because President Xi Jinping of China never pulled the trigger on sending in troops to take control of the city by force, despite considerable saber rattling on the point.
It was barely two months ago, at the beginning of September, that Xinhua "warned" Hong Kong and the pro-democracy supporters that "the end" was coming, hinting that Xi was reaching the end of his patience and that troops could be expected at any time. Xi himself hinted as much when, a few days later, he used distinctly Mao-like language in a televised speech in the run up to China's October 1 National Day holiday.
But if a televised speech by Xi on Tuesday is any guide, their struggle to achieve those goals will be much harder. In that speech, Xi listed Hong Kong, along with Macau and Taiwan, as one of the challenges threatening the rule of the Communist Party. Excerpts of the speech dominated China Central Television’s nightly prime-time news slots. Xi gave the speech to a group of young and middle-aged senior officials enrolled in a training course at the central party school. He called for “constant struggles” against myriad challenges and risks in the areas of economics, politics, culture, society, ecology, national defence and the armed forces, diplomacy, party building and, notably, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
Hong Kong's response to Xi's speech was to call on US President Donald Trump to "liberate" the city. Protesters on the streets carried banners which called on President Trump by name to "save Hong Kong" and "Make Hong Kong Great again".
To say the citizens of Hong Kong were not moved by Xi's warnings is an understatement.
We should remember that, as China's National Day holiday approached, the protests themselves grew increasingly violent, with the Hong Kong police themselves resorting to tear gas and water cannon to disperse the seemingly endless protests. At times the protests themselves resembled nothing so much as an "Asian intifada", with unarmed protesters hurling rocks, bricks, and whatever else could be found at the riot police.
We should remember that on the eve of National Day, Beijing quietly doubled the normal contingent of PLA soldiers present in Hong Kong, leading many to speculate (myself included), that a Tienanmen-style crackdown was at long last about to happen. Except the crackdown never came.
Protesters Never Backed Down
There will be endless speculation on why President Xi did not order martial law and suppression of the protests by force, but Xi may simply have recognized that force would not resolve the issue.
During protests on the October 1 National Day holiday itself, the police began using live ammunition against the protesters. The protests did not diminish.
When Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attempted to enforce an "anti-mask" order designed to inhibit the protesters habit of wearing masks to conceal their faces from the ubiquitous Chinese surveillance apparatus, the protests merely escalated in intensity and levels of violence.
Every escalation by the Hong Kong police, every arrest, was only met with more protests. Intimidation was met with determination.
Intimidation was met with grim determination. As one observer noted, writing for The Atlantic, the protesters had few, if any, illusions about the improbability of success.
Aren’t you afraid? I asked, gingerly. “We are afraid,” they quickly admitted. They even giggled, but it got serious quickly. This is our last chance, they said very matter-of-factly. If we stand down, nothing will stand between us and mainland China, they said. They talked about Xinjiang, and what China had done to the Uighur minority. I’ve heard about the fate of the Uighurs from so many protesters over the months. China may have wanted to make an example out of the region, but the lesson Hong Kongers took was in the other direction—resist with all your might, because if you lose once, there will be a catastrophe for your people, and the world will ignore it.
The two women weren’t sure whether they would win. That’s also something I’ve heard often—these protesters aren’t the most optimistic group. No rose-colored glasses here. “But we cannot give up,” one insisted, “because if we do, there will be no future for us anyway. We might as well go down fighting.”
It is not hard to conclude that substituting riot police with soldiers in the face of that measure of determination would have not changed anything except the number of casualties. Perhaps Xi recognized that, and preferred not to have violent repression played out on Facebook and livestreamed video for the world to see; those certainly would not have been images to help China advance on the international stage.
Has The Moment For Crackdown Passed?
With elections roundly endorsing the protests and the sparse agenda of the democracy movement, and with those elections hailed around the world, has Xi allowed the window in which he could have seized control of Hong Kong militarily to close? Certainly a crackdown now would be seen as a repudiation of the elections, not just of the protest movement itself. Such a move now could easily result in more than just condemnatory tweets and other forms of virtue-signalling. Sanctions from other nations would almost surely follow, just as sanctions came against Russia when it annexed Crimea.
Already, the United States House of Representatives has adopted a bill that, if also passed by the Senate, would mandate an annual review by the State Department to determine whether Hong Kong remained sufficiently autonomous to justify its special trading status under US law. As China’s central government tramples on Hong Kong’s rights, more Western democracies – including those that have hesitated to support US President Donald Trump’s efforts to contain China – are likely to support comprehensive economic sanctions.
While Russia was able to shrug off the worst of them and essentially wait them out, Xi, being in the middle of a low-level trade war with the US, might not have felt quite so sanguine about the prospect.
Whatever the reason for forbearance before, democratic elections amplify the reasoning many times over. A crackdown may still happen, but the risks to Beijing have increased tremendously.
It must also be acknowledged that any repression or reprisal against Hong Kong's democracy movement carries a potentially ruinous cost: the loss of Hong Kong as a financial hub and source of foreign capital.
The U.S. bill is widely seen by Hong Kong protesters as a form of economic pressure for the Hong Kong government and Chinese regime, which relies on the financial hub as a source of foreign reserves and investment capital.
Perhaps the price tag for repression was at long last more than President Xi was prepared to pay.
The Question Still Unanswered
The greatest question in all of this remains unresolved. How shall China successfully continue its "one country, two systems" policy? How can a democratic Hong Kong, rooted in the traditions of the British legal system and Western appreciations of civil liberties, exist peacefully within an increasingly repressive and fascistic Beijing autocracy?
More importantly for Beijing, if it is unwilling to repress Hong Kong, how will it justify repressing Tibet, Xinjiang, and other parts of the country? Having allowed Hong Kong to thumb its collective nose at Beijing's authority, how will it prevent other cities from attempting to do likewise? The PLA has some 2 million men in its ranks--hardly enough to pacify a population of a billion and a half.
In Hong Kong, democracy and autocracy clashed--with democracy emerging the clear winner. The choice of the people has been cast for freedom rather than slavery. If Hong Kong leads other cities in China to choose likewise, there is no way for Beijing to sustain its authority.
In 1989, a restive East German population pushed through the Berlin Wall without opposition from either the East German government or the Soviet hegemon in Moscow. Two years later the Soviet Union disappeared forever.
In 2019, a restive Hong Kong population pushed back against a totalitarian Beijing, with what ultimately proved to be only a token opposition (against what presumably could have been mounted). Will history rhyme, and usher in the collapse of the Beijing oligarchy within the next few years?
To suggest that is the inevitable outcome of all that has transpired in Hong Kong is to extrapolate far beyond the bounds of all available evidence. Yet if it should pass that Beijing declines and disintegrates in the coming years, there is no doubt that the beginning of that decline was this year's democracy movement in Hong Kong.
It is a hope, perhaps a dream, but in Hong Kong we may have witnessed elections that will be heard around the world.