Hong Kong elections: new generation, new political agenda
by Mary Mee-Yin Yuen*

The vote for the Legislative Council has provided needed data to show that, after the umbrella movement, Hong Kong society is changing. Traditional pan-democrats are losing ground to separatists and localists, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The "old" politics must find new ways of communicating with young people and with the people who have the common good at heart. The edifying examples of some leaders bode well for the future.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - On September 4, 2016 the first city-wide Legislative Council (Legco) election after the 2014 Umbrella Movement was held in Hong Kong. The election is considered to be the most important legislative poll since the handover of sovereignty from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Two years ago, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong occupied several busy areas of Hong Kong for weeks. Western media called it Umbrella Revolution or Umbrella Movement. Protesters were demanding greater democracy in Hong Kong and concerned that Beijing was increasingly interfering in the politics of Hong Kong, thus, breaking the “one country, two systems” agreement.

The election encountered a record high of 58% of the electorate or around 2.22 million voters casting votes. The voters included not only those who were dissatisfied with the incumbent Hong Kong government and those who were against filibustering in the Legco, but also those who were dissatisfied with the performance of the traditional pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong who were seen as not radical enough in striving for democracy in the city.

The election result allows the pro-democracy lawmakers retaining the veto in the legislature, to block a legislature supported by pro-Beijing lawmakers from passing unjust bills, if all non-establishment legislators work together. The pro-democracy or non-establishment camp had not only retained their numbers, but had expanded their presence in the legislature by taking 30 seats among 70, with three more seats than the last election. Of the 30 pro-democracy legislators, six new faces belong to the so-called “Umbrella Generation”—young people who participated in the Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests. 

A Generational Shift

Undeniably, the result of this election demonstrates a cross-political party and cross-district generational shift. Although this younger generation are lack of experience in Legco, they can bring in their values and new ideas in the Legco. Some commentators think that these young legislators do not compromise easily and it may be difficult for legislators to reach agreement. But they can also be a force of hope with new ideas in this chaotic time in Hong Kong. 

Among the newly elected legislators, Nathan Law Kwun-chung is one of them. Aged 23, he is the youngest lawmaker in the history of the Legco. Law was one of the student leaders of the Umbrella Movement. With other student activists and supporters of the Umbrella Movement, Law established the political party Demosisto which campaigns for self-determination, so that Hong Kong people can decide their own future. This means Hong Kong can maintain an independent judiciary; people are guaranteed their fundamental rights and enjoy real democracy.

Law said in a press conference that the “miraculous” election results reflect voters’ desire for change. “Especially in light of stalemate and deadlock in the democracy movement, voters wish for a new way of doings things so that the democracy movement will have a new future. Thus, the people’s spirit of resistance can be strengthened.”

Apart from the six newly elected legislators who are regarded as self-determinationists or localists, there are also new faces among the traditional political parties, including both pan-democrat and pro-establishment camps.  Only a few senior legislators who joined the Legco in 1980s or 90s were able to win and remain in the Legco. It is a pity that a number of senior elected legislators, such as labour activists Lee Cheuk-yan and Ho Sau-lan, lost their seats. They contributed a lot in the protection of the underprivileged.  It is true that the new legislators lack experience in legislative work or the Legco, some of them are social activists and are capable of social analysis. They are probably able to bring in new ideas and link up issues of concern in both Legco and civil society effectively.

Towards a Political Paradigm Shift

Generational shift is just change on surface. The real change is the agenda of resistant movement, that is, from advocating universal suffrage of electing political leaders and legislators to self-determination of Hong Kong’s political future, as suggested by Hong Kong scholar Fong Chi-hang.

In the past, pan-democrat and pro-establishment were two big camps in the political scene of Hong Kong. This paradigm has dominated during all these years because democratization has been the core political agenda, thus, overriding other conflicts among various political parties. 

However, after experiencing the political reform controversy and the Umbrella Movement, the relationship between the Beijing government cum the Hong Kong government and Hong Kong people turns sour, leading to the emergence of localists, self-rule and self-determinationists, and indigenous. Such relationship can be found in the Legco too. In order to block unjust and “evil” legislation which may infringe on the basic rights of people, some legislators employ radical tactics such as filibustering.  Recently, attention is given to the rising thought of independence among young people. They are dissatisfied with the increasing intervention of Beijing government in Hong Kong affairs. They query the possibility of “one country, two systems” policy under the Chinese Communist rule.

In this election, localists and self-determinationists won six directly elected seats which share 19 percent of the votes, with pan-democrat and pro-establishment share 36 percent and 40 percent respectively.  This means almost 400,000 Hong Kong people would like to give a chance to the young self-determinationists and localists to bring change to Hong Kong. During the election campaign, they proposed “self-determination through democracy”, “the sustainability of the Basic Law”, and “the future of Hong Kong in 2047 should be decided by Hongkongers”.  While the localists force is still emerging, it has potential to expand. It may not be able to integrate with the traditional pan-democrat easily. In fact, the localists tries to keep a distance from the pan-democrat which is seen as old-fashion and not progressive enough. The other way round, some supporters of pan-democrat are also dissatisfied with the localists who have taken away votes and support from pan-democrat. The localists are even suspected of being undercover of the pro-Beijing government.

Besides, there are differences in the localists and self-determinationists faction, in regard to their vision and ways of resistance. While the self-determinationists incline to be leftists, emphasizing community-building, mutual assistance, and sharing resources; others localists incline to be rightists, focusing on ethnicity and separation between Hongkongers and mainlanders. The former insists on employing peaceful, rational and non-violent means whereas the latter upholds valiant means when necessary.

Nevertheless, localism and self-determination became two keywords in the political scene of Hong Kong. There is a tendency of forming two big camps: localists/self-determinationists versus pro-establishment.  Thus, the core issue of political reform becomes the “centre-periphery relations” apart from democratization.  Such political shift can bring many uncertainties. Not all citizens favor independence and employing violent and radical means to achieve democracy. It is also unknown whether they can cooperate easily in the Legco. However, it is no doubt that the new force in the Legco with their supporters hope to participate in the formulation of Hong Kong’s future, not just waiting for others’ decision passively. This is exactly the spirit of the Umbrella Movement which focuses on the agency and subjectivity of Hongkongers, with the slogans “determine our own future” and “not to forget the original goal”. This is in line with the Catholic social thought which gives emphasis on human dignity, freedom to determine one’s future, the social nature of human persons, social responsibility and participation, and common good. In the view of this, Hong Kong government should try every means to improve the social and political situation and listen to people’s voices, including the legislators who represent people to formulate policies and laws.

Speaking Truth and Courage

Apart from political reform, livelihood matters and people’s participation are concerns of candidates during the election campaign. Indeed, they are inseparable. The “king of votes” Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, who got 84,121 votes, the highest number obtained by any candidate, is a strong advocate of “democratic self-determination” and bottom-up democracy, that is, to build up and consolidate democratic forces in the community. At the same time, he is a core member of a community movement organization “Land Justice League” which suggests urban and rural areas co-exist and develop side-by-side. He has engaged in preserving farmland and developing a sustainable communal economy in the New Territories, environmental and heritage preservation activism, and accompanying and organizing people of forced eviction, for example, residents of a farming village called Choi Yuen Chuen.

During election forum, Chu disclosed the problem of “the collusion between the government, businesses, rural forces and the triads” as these forces try to monopolize political and economic power, reinforcing unjust policies on land planning and development. Chu’s in-depth analysis of the social problems and the courage to speak up allowed him to gain a landslide victory in the Legco election. However, he also faces intimidation and threats during and soon after the election. From his example, we can see the importance of possessing courage and intelligence as a political and community leader as well as among citizens. This is very much lacking in the existing political scene in Hong Kong. That is the reason why Chu can gain so much support from people of different walks of life and classes. All Hongkongers should have the courage to support such kind of leader too.

Mutual Support and Integrity

During the election, there are some touching stories which show the integrity and solidarity among candidates who are indeed competitors.

In Eastern New Territories, one of the geographical election districts, Alvin Yeung and Leung Kwok-hung, two candidates who have eminent fame and strong power to rally support, can win the election easily. However, both of them put the common good and welfare of Hong Kong as their priority rather their own self-interest. Instead of merely asking people to cast vote to them, Yeung and Leung offered help to other pan-democrat candidates and campaign for votes with them. Yeung and Leung asked people to support pan-democrat camp so that more candidates of this camp could win in the election. Just before the election, even when opinion poll showed that Leung may not gain enough votes to win, he refused to put forward urgent appeal as this may endanger other candidates.  This indeed reflected the spirit of solidarity and mutual support. They are outstanding political leaders with long-term vision. Finally, in Eastern New Territories was the constituency that the pro-democrat or non-pro-establishment camp won most seats, including Yeung and Leung, the two political leaders who are capable in coordination and mutual support.

One of the candidates who got support from Alvin Yeung and is well-respected is Fernando Cheung. Cheung is famous for helping the vulnerable groups, including disabilities, people recover from mental illness, and asylum seekers. Since these marginalized groups are often blamed as burden of the society and they cannot secure votes, few Legco members stand on their side and concern about them. I saw other candidates in election forum challenged Cheung for helping fake refugees and wasted resources of Hong Kong. At a certain point, opinion poll showed that Cheung did not gain enough support. But Cheung stood firmly on the side of the vulnerable and insisted that he would not change his position in order to gain votes.

In the words of Cheung, “Candidates of pan-democrat, though belong to different political parties and in competition with each other in election, should cooperate and unite with each other. Our goal is not only to secure individual seats, but to secure enough power in the Legco to resist the pro-establishment camp. Otherwise, the pan-democrat camp would lose the veto power in the Legco. Thus, we are not appealing for ourselves, but appealing for Hongkongers, for justice, and for the vulnerable of the society.” In Cheung, we can see integrity, the virtues of courage and justice, and solidarity with the poor.

It is true that there are many uncertainties in regard of the Legco and future of Hong Kong. Moreover, many Hong Kong people still only concern their own interests. However, the active voting behavior of Hongkongers and employment of strategic voting to non-establishment candidates are compatible with the Umbrella Movement spirit “saving Hong Kong by oneself”. Moreover, we can see new ideas and hope among the new legislators of the younger generation and their supporters. We also find the virtues of mutuality, solidarity and courage among some old and new Legco members. These are important qualities of a political leader as well as every citizen. They are also imperative elements to overcome difficulties and a society with common good.

* Researcher at the Catholic Studies Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong