HONG KONG—After months of protests, this city’s voters have sent a direct message to the Chinese Communist Party, a massive rebuke to the stranglehold that pro-Beijing figures have tried to maintain over Hong Kong politics.
Just three weeks ago, CCP leader Xi Jingping gave his public endorsement to Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive—and by extension, the city’s establishment politicians. But in district elections on Sunday the pro-democracy camp won by a landslide, taking 388 of the 452 available seats. That’s a six-to-one majority.
The vote showed Hongkongers are using every means they have to ensure their own interests are represented in government, and the Party can take a back seat.
District councilors are at the base of the pyramid in Hong Kong politics. They are officials who manage funds for things like environmental improvements, community activities, or public services in small neighborhoods—in other words, local matters that normally don’t receive too much attention even from Hongkongers.
In the past, campaign platforms revolved around matters like the placement of recycle bins and traffic lights. But nearly six months of unrest—involving massive political rallies, a trashed legislative building, the development of a syncretic protest philosophy and strategic planning, chaos at the airport, and the city’s leader invoking emergency powers to ban face masks—have turned the election into a one-issue race: Do Hongkongers want public representatives who will push for change at the highest level?
The answer is an assertive, resounding yes.
The polls opened across the city at 7:30 a.m. By the early afternoon, more than 1.5 million people had cast their ballots—surpassing the total turnout in the previous district council election four years ago. At 10:30 p.m., when polling stations closed, more than 2,940,000 people had showed up to the voting booth. That’s 71.2 percent of the 4.1 million people who are registered to vote in Hong Kong. In some districts, turnout was greater than 80 percent.
While results rolled in, it was the first time since June that crowds gathered in public were smiling, laughing, celebrating instead of expressing rage or heartbreak.
This city of 7.4 million has never seen so many people show up for any election. Some stood in line for more than three hours to vote. And there's a good reason for that. Sunday’s election involved more than 1,100 candidates. For the first time ever, every incumbent faced a challenger. It was a chance to disrupt the status quo—not by using roadblocks or clashing with the police, but by building political ownership one vote at a time.
Ahead of the election. establishment figures had called repeatedly for postponing the Sunday vote, often citing security concerns referring to protesters barricading and taking over university campuses, even shooting arrows at riot police. But many Hongkongers saw that as those in power developing cold feet—the side that expects to win doesn’t ask for the race to be delayed.
There were some candidates who muddied perception. In swing districts, “independents” adopted protest slogans in their campaign materials, yet received funding from or had links to pro-Beijing organizations.
Never mind. The pro-democracy camp found overwhelming popularity at the polling booths, boosted by recent demonstrations and as a consequence of the constant community organization that has been conducted at the grassroots level. Here are some of the candidates who won or kept their seats:
— Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit is the leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized the rallies that drew one million, then two million people to march on the government headquarters. In mid-October, four men attacked him by slamming his head with hammers and wrenches before speeding off in a car. Sham’s head is still scarred. He walks with a cane now due to his injuries.
— Incumbent councilor Andrew Chiu Ka-yin, whose ear was bitten off by a knife-wielding man three weeks ago.
— Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, the former spokesperson of Scholarism, an organization that spearheaded the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.
— Lester Shum, one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement.
— Stanley Ho Wai-hong, a Labor Party member who in September suffered fractures and a head wound after being beaten by men dressed in white and wielding rods.
— Clara Cheung Ka-lei, an artist and grassroots cultural worker. One of her volunteers was attacked and punched by a man on election day.
— Jocelyn Chau Hui-yan, a 23-year-old accountant who was attacked when she was campaigning in October.
— Cathy Yau Man-shan, a former police officer who resigned from the force after she saw how her colleagues treated people who have been arrested.
One figure is particularly loathed by Hong Kong’s black bloc and pro-democracy camp: Junius Ho Kwan-yiu was seen expressing gratitude to thugs who attacked protesters and passers-by in a train station in July. In early November he was the victim of a knife attack. As Sunday's vote approached, local press asked Junius Ho if he was confident about retaining his position as councilor. He said the question was “retarded.” And then he lost.
Such was the landslide that even Michael Tien Puk-sun, a legislator and relatively well-respected, moderate voice among establishment politicians, lost his seat to a newcomer.
The protest movement has galvanized Hongkongers, who first cornered the city’s government into scrapping proposed extradition to mainland China, then more broadly rose up against a political system rigged by Beijing and its proxies. Some who were abroad flew in from the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and other places just to cast their ballots on Sunday, flying out almost immediately afterward.
There were anomalies, like phantom voters at real or fake addresses. Some elderly people were guided in to cast their ballots—typically in favor of establishment figures. Others were bussed in to polling stations and handed gifts like sacks of rice, pillows, even rolls of toilet paper, plus palm-sized reminders of who their vote should go to.
The Chinese Communist Party had previously said the seeds of terror were present in Hong Kong. CCP-run media outlet China Daily went further to say university campuses in Hong Kong are the “fortresses” of terrorism and democracy is a “malignant virus.”
Beijing has been flirting with the idea of a violent clampdown, or at least signaling that it is in the cards. In August, thousands of members of the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force that is typically deployed to quell civil unrest in mainland China, was stationed in a stadium in Shenzhen, near the border with Hong Kong. And in November, troops of the People’s Liberation Army stationed in Hong Kong exited their barracks for about half an hour to clear a road section in Hong Kong; they weren’t in military uniforms, but wore basketball jerseys that indicated they were part of a counterterrorism brigade.
Watching from Beijing, the chief editor of the bombastic CCP mouthpiece Global Times, Hu Xijin—a man who 30 years ago marched on Tiananmen Square to demand democracy in China—claimed that Western powers were meddling in Hong Kong’s elections.
When faced with opposition—or simply a lack of fealty—the CCP relies on disinformation, intimidation, brute force, and economic strangleholds to force allegiance.
In Hong Kong, the Party’s proxies have for years invoked the idea that a “silent majority” exists in the city, that those who dare to dissent are merely a vocal, belligerent minority. Yet on Sunday, the pro-democracy camp and its supporters formed the largest voting group Hong Kong has ever seen.
Months of street-level violence, clashes with riot police, labor and student strikes—with more than 4,400 people arrested so far—have translated into solid action within the political arena, nullifying the CCP mischaracterizations.
The people of Hong Kong understand that fear feeds tyranny. The Party and its proxies thrive on that. So now the Hongkongers’ weapon of choice against that fear has proven to be the ballot.
There is a sigh of relief across the city, because months of street-level organizing and outreach have formally evolved into a modicum of power in political office. On Monday, there were celebrations and congratulations, but Hongkongers have been conscious of remembering the individuals who died along the way, with each seeking their own form of resistance to upset the status quo.
And the next step? Of Hong Kong’s district councilors, 117 will be able to join the 1,200-member committee to vote for the city’s leader in 2022. But before then, in September 2020, they will lay the groundwork for candidates running to become legislators.
Right now, an immediate challenge exists: There are still about 30 protesters on the occupied campus of Polytechnic University. They are surrounded by police and say they will not surrender. Already, incoming councilors like Jimmy Sham are calling for the police to retreat from the school’s peripheries. Perhaps, knowing that the black bloc’s efforts have helped shape Sunday’s results, there can be a peaceful resolution to the standoff. That would be yet another triumph.