What China must learn from the recent elections
Beijing now knows what Hong Kong locals really think of its heavy-handed rule. Unfortunately, China is unlikely to draw the right lessons from the defeat of its candidates in the recently held district council elections. Hong Kong’s district councils handle local services, and their elections are generally ignored. Thanks to the unprecedented urban unrest in Hong Kong in the past six months, the present elections immediately became a contest between the Beijing-backed government and the protest movement. The latter won all but one of the 18 district councils and about 60% of the popular vote. This will have repercussions higher up: Nearly a tenth of Hong Kong’s legislative council and a tenth of the electors who choose the executive are district councillors.
Beijing reportedly expected the pro-government candidates to win. Both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments believed that locals would show their displeasure at the months of disruption, tear gas and violence. The voters did — but it was the government which was at the receiving end. Beijing’s claims that the protestors represented a small fringe group backed by foreign governments today ring hollow.
The question is what lesson China’s leadership will take from the elections. Unfortunately, given the general tenor of the Xi Jinping regime, wielding batons harder, firing more tear gas and making a larger number of arrests is the most likely path. Until now, China has tended to keep its guns holstered, in part because of the international repercussions, but also because Hong Kong is the gateway for over 60% of the capital that goes in and out of the country. There is a slender hope that Beijing may decide to choose the path of conciliation. This would mean easing Hong Kong’s social inequities, opening the closed shop of its ruling plutocracy, and granting the city-state greater self-rule. On the day the district council elections were held, Hong Kong dissent was expressed peacefully through banners and speeches. Beijing should take note.