Silence after the storm: Beijing ponders next move after game-changing Hong Kong elections
The central government has been surprisingly quiet since six radical localist lawmakers won seats in the legislature and the pro-establishment camp lost support – so what will it do next?
Beijing’s silence since the results of the Legislative Council elections were announced three weeks ago has been conspicuous. It is particularly strange as Beijing has been increasingly assertive on Hong Kong affairs and has been keeping a watchful eye on the political situation in Hong Kong in recent years.
Yet behind its apparent reticence, advisers to the central government have been doing some soul-searching over the outcome of the elections, the first Legco polls since the Occupy protests in 2014.
While pro-Beijing newspapers put a positive spin by claiming that the pro-establishment camp had achieved good results, prominent mainland experts on Hong Kong affairs who have the ears of top Beijing officials admitted that the camp’s performance was by no means rosy.
The pro-establishment camp’s share of the popular vote slipped to about 40.3 per cent from 44.1 per cent in the 2012 elections. The number of seats it got in the legislature dropped from 43 in the 2012 election to 40.
The pan-democratic camp and localist groups garnered 54.8 per cent of about 2.2 million valid votes cast in the five geographical constituencies. Candidates from localist groups, including six winners, secured 409,025 votes, accounting for 19 per cent of total votes.
Qi Pengfei, director of Renmin University’s research centre on Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, said the victory of localists would alter the city’s political landscape, resulting in a tripartite confrontation between the pro-establishment camp, pan-democrats and localists.
Qi, also vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, warned
the already tense relationship between the executive authorities and legislature would be further strained after six localists entered the legislature.
‘Influence on wane’
The association, headed by former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Chen Zuoer, is the central government’s top think tank on Hong Kong affairs.
“Many localists who were returned to the legislature say they won’t bother to co-operate with the Hong Kong and central government,” Qi said. “As traditional pan-democrats’ influence is on the wane, they will be more easily hijacked by radicals and localists.”
The number of seats held by traditional pan-democrats dropped from 27 in 2012 to 24.
Jiang Shigong, deputy director of Peking University’s Centre for Hong Kong and Macau Studies, meanwhile, said the optimistic mood among some pro-establishment figures before the elections was an indication of their estrangement from the actual situation in the city.
Some Hong Kong and mainland officials, as well as some prominent pro-establishment figures had thought last year that the pro-establishment camp could win as many as two-thirds of Legco seats as they believed the Occupy protests would cost the pan-democrats public support.
“It’s a matter of fact that the number of seats won by the pro-establishment camp in the latest election is three fewer than what it grabbed four years ago. Its advantage in some functional constituencies is shrinking,” Jiang said.
He was referring to the rout suffered by pro-establishment candidates in the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape sector, as well as the accountancy and information technology sectors.
Liberal-minded scholar Edward Yiu Chung-yim unseated pro-establishment incumbent Tony Tse Wai-chuen in the architectural and surveying sector, winning 43.4 per cent of the vote.
It was the first time since the handover that the functional constituency had gone to pan-democrats.
Kenneth Leung and Charles Mok, incumbent pan-democrats representing the accountancy and information technology sectors respectively, beat their pro-establishment rivals by a much bigger margin than in 2012.
Jiang also noted that compared with the pro-establishment camp, more young pan-democrats and localists were returned to the legislature this time.
“Voter demographics in Hong Kong are originally favourable to the pro-establishment camp as the proportion of middle-aged and elderly voters is bigger than that of young ones,” he said. “But the pro-establishment camp still struggled hard to hold on to their turf in geographical constituencies.”
‘Even harder times’
According to the latest electoral roll, almost 47 per cent of the city’s 3.77 million voters were 36 to 60 years old, while young voters aged below 35 and elderly voters aged above 60 made up 24 per cent and 29.3 per cent of the pie respectively.
“I expect the pro-establishment camp to face even harder times in the next five or 10 years as young voters favouring radical candidates will become the dominant forces in Hong Kong’s electorate,” Jiang said.
Qi agreed that prospects for the pro-establishment camp in future elections did not look good amid a highly politicised environment. He said the outcome of the Legco elections would affect polling for the Election Committee that selects the city’s next chief executive on December 11 and the election for the city’s leader itself in March.
The pan-democratic camp won 205 of the 1,200 seats on the committee in 2011.
“I expect the pan-democrats to win up to 260 seats in the forthcoming Election Committee polls,” Qi said.
There is little doubt Beijing was watching the September 4 elections closely, but its conspicuous silence on the outcome in the past three weeks is noteworthy.
“It is a signal that Beijing is still assessing its strategies,” said Dr Benson Wong Wai-kwok, an assistant professor at Baptist University’s department of government and international studies.
“Obviously Beijing is not happy with the results. It has put in a lot of resources and effort to condemn the separatists and to canvass support for Beijing-friendly leftist candidates. But it ended up that all this seemed to strengthen the opposition camp,” Wong said.
There were reports that Beijing officials would go to Shenzhen in the near future to meet their Hong Kong “contacts” to assess the post-election situation of Hong Kong.
The strongest response so far was a statement by the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs
Office, issued on the day after the election results were all out.
It reiterated the official stance that “we firmly oppose any activity relating to Hong Kong independence in any form, either inside or outside the Legislative Council, and firmly support the Hong Kong government to impose punishment in accordance with the law”.
Wang Zhenmin, legal chief of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, shared his thoughts on the election of some candidates advocating self-determination for Hong Kong when he attended a lunch hosted by the Asia-Pacific Law Association on Thursday.
In a measured and restrained tone, Wang said: “We also had some crazy ideas when we were young. But now you [the newly elected lawmakers] are legislators and will need to handle legislative work for various issues.
“No matter whether they come from the pro-establishment camp or the opposition camp, our young lawmakers should treasure this opportunity and shouldn’t let their voters down.”
Feng Wei, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, also sounded a similarly pragmatic tone in an interview with the South China Morning Post in March.
The top Beijing official in charge of Hong Kong affairs said at the time he was fully prepared to accept the reality of several young radicals winning Legco seats, but he expected them to mature politically over time.
But Wang got tough when he spoke of the “heartbreak” caused by growing talk of Hong Kong independence, which he ruled out for “1,000 years and forever”.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, co-founder of the moderate Path of Democracy think tank, said some Hongkongers were worried the National People’s Congress Standing Committee would make an interpretation of the Basic Law in the wake of the election of localists calling for the city’s self-determination.
“I have told my mainland contacts that another interpretation of the Basic Law would be very damaging to Hongkongers’ confidence in the ‘one country, two systems’,” he said. “They appear to heed my advice.”
Tong, who has been advocating dialogue with Beijing on Hong Kong’s political reform, said tensions would ease if localists calling for self-determination did not make a big fuss when they were sworn in at the first Legco meeting on October 12.
According to the law, Legco members are required to swear to uphold the Basic Law, which might be a sticky issue for some of the six localists. At least two who won seats said earlier they would come up with their own distinct ways of taking the oath.
Professor Priscilla Lau Pui-king, a local deputy to the National People’s Congress – China’s legislature – believed Beijing would try a softer approach and seek to have informal contacts with the opposition camp, including the localists, before mapping out its next step.
Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, expected Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s future to be impacted by the election results.
“That six radicals from the localist camp were elected is solid proof that the people are discontented with the Leung administration. When the central government considers the next chief executive, it cannot avoid weighing the factor of whether he or she can ease the social discontent,” said Lau, formerly head of the Central Policy Unit, the Hong Kong government’s think tank.