New Territories East By-Election

It’s within Beijing’s power to halt the march of radicalism in Hong Kong

Alice Wu believes the central government should soften its attitude towards democratic aspirations and convince the people that ‘one country, two systems’ is still viable

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 March, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 March, 2016, 8:00am

Of course Beijing is concerned with the New Territories East by-election results. Hong Kong Indigenous candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei garnered an impressive – shocking, to some – amount of votes. Capturing a little over 15 per cent of valid votes cast in his debut campaign is no small feat. Leung himself interpreted the result as “considerable [support for] our political philosophy… and also our means of protest”.

READ MORE: Beyond the by-election: Hong Kong young people fuel rise of localism at city’s universities

For those who fear that Beijing would take Leung’s bait and react provocatively, we can breathe sighs of relief to hear Qi Pengfei (齊鵬飛) – a mainland expert on Hong Kong affairs and director of Renmin University’s research centre on Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan – say that the central government “won’t tighten or change its policies on Hong Kong simply because Leung won more than 66,000 votes in the by-election”.

The most important thing, perhaps, is that Qi sees these voters not as potential enemies of the state, but as people who used their ballot to express “discontent with the Hong Kong government and its handling of some social issues”. In Qi’s view, these people are “worried that the central government is tightening its policies on Hong Kong”, and they “think traditional pan-democrats cannot speak for them”. That seems like a sensible analysis.

READ MORE: Localism is becoming a force to be reckoned with in Hong Kong politics

Speaking at the opening of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing last week, chairman Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲) didn’t offer any inflammatory words either, which is a good sign that Beijing is not going to be provoked. Because if it were, then it would be playing right into the hands of those who want it to tighten its grip on Hong Kong and, by doing so, provide people with the perfect excuse to act – violently – against it.

Yu called for more youth engagement, which cannot be wrong. Alienating and marginalising people will only legitimise more efforts to disrupt public order. What Beijing needs to think deep and hard about is why people – including the 66,000 who voted for Leung – felt that they have “nothing to lose”. That is the sort of mentality that would make people advocate Leung’s “means of protest”, like rioting in Mong Kok. It obviously isn’t an obsession with martyrdom that propelled people to take these risks. It’s their sense of having “nothing to lose”.

Some make excuses for lawlessness because they don’t see a way out – whether we are talking about social, economic or political problems. Exasperation makes extremism appealing. And the causes of that is what Beijing needs to focus on.

Beijing made a mistake ignoring and marginalising the political middle from both the pro-establishment and pro-democracy camps, especially during the failed constitutional reform process, which exacerbated the radical shift of Hong Kong’s political landscape.

READ MORE: Full coverage of the reform vote

Although the pan-democrats succeeded this time in uniting behind Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, the eventual winner in the by-election, Beijing must now consider the implications of what a growing number of radical supporters would mean. Leung has already said that his group would not collaborate with the pan-democrats for the September Legislative Council election. The pan-democrats will have to face the changing political realities, and adjust accordingly. Whether Beijing continues to adopt a hawkish stance on engagement with the pro-democracy camp will determine how far those in the camp venture into radicalism. If the pan-democrats, too, have “nothing to lose”, they may find the radical pro-independence stance appealing.

It’s going to take a lot more than just youth engagement to save ‘one country, two systems’

It’s going to take a lot more than just youth engagement to save “one country, two systems”. Calls for independence is a total rejection of that. And this is what is at stake. It isn’t about how the pro-establishment camp will fare in the Legco polls, or whether the chief executive is fit to lead in a second term. What is at stake is whether “one country, two Systems” remains Beijing’s and Hong Kong’s best option. And that is where Beijing plays a crucial role. It determines whether “one country, two systems” remains viable, and worthwhile for Hongkongers to invest their hopes in.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA