Beijing wants pro-democracy activists to go away. Instead, they're getting elected.
- By Suzanne SatalineSuzanne Sataline is a writer based in Hong Kong.
In late 2014, Hong Kong protestors used umbrellas to shield themselves as police soaked them with pepper spray. Student leaders demanded elections free of intrusion from the Chinese central government, capturing headlines around the world, but their efforts failed. On Sept. 4, city residents pushed back again. Voters elected several of those young activists to the city’s legislature, a sharp rebuke to Beijing’s increasing encroachment on political life in the city.
A record 2.2 million people queued to cast ballots — hundreds reportedly waited at one polling station past two o’clock in the morning — in the financial capital’s first city-wide election since protests two years earlier. Voters tossed several veteran moderates from the Legislative Council (LegCo), and replaced them with six activists who want to wrest Hong Kong from mainland China’s control. While the chamber’s majority still tilts toward Beijing — thanks mostly to voting rules that grant greater power to trade and industry groups — the new term will seat 30 lawmakers who favor democracy in the 70-member chamber. They will collectively pose a greater obstacle to the city’s unpopular chief executive, C.Y. Leung, a man widely considered too deferential to Beijing.
By the terms of its constitution, called the Basic Law, Hong Kong has autonomy, but with an asterisk. Individual residents cannot elect the city’s leader, nor try to change policies through referenda; they pick just half of their lawmakers. This arrangement of 19 years — engineered by the British crown, enforced by mainland China after it took Hong Kong back — never sought, and was never given, resident approval. Hence the widespread, youth-driven protests two years ago, quickly dubbed the Umbrella Movement.
Since then, Beijing appears to be tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city. Many residents were unsettled when five members of a local book publisher disappeared last year, and yet Hong Kong’s government seemed to do little to help. (One man later resurfaced, sharing details of how he’d been kidnapped by state security and held for months in mainland China; a colleague is still missing.) A sudden demotion and resignations at the city’s independent graft commission signaled that the lauded agency might not be so independent anymore. The central government’s chief lawyer in Hong Kong said in April that the government could deploy British colonial laws still on the books, such as those for treason and sedition, to prosecute independence activists. This summer, the city government’s Electoral Affairs Commission barred six candidates from the LegCo race, five of whom demand either independence, or a vote on the issue among Hong Kong residents. (The commission’s chairman is appointed by the city’s chief executive.)
But that didn’t stop the election of young upstarts who aim to amend the constitution, expand voting rights, and bolster civil liberties. Sixtus “Baggio” Leung of a new party called Youngspiration thinks Hong Kong should declare independence from China. (None of the Leungs mentioned in this article are related.) Nathan Law, at age 23 the youngest lawmaker in city history, believes residents deserve a vote for self-determination. Beijing officials “are scared of our influence because we are not controllable,” Law, a leader in the 2014 protests, said. “We can mobilize people and arouse people and create enough tension between Hong Kong and China.”
Some of those activists have been preaching on radio and street corners that Hong Kong is historically and culturally separate from China. The city, they have said, cannot trust China, and city residents should decide their own fate. By July, according to one survey, more than 17 percent of residents, and nearly 40 percent of those aged 15 to 24, said the city should separate from China when the “one-country, two-systems” plan ends in 2047. In August, the banned candidates organized what they called the city’s first independence rally, drawing several thousand people. One of the organizers was Edward Tin-kei Leung, a 25-year-old philosophy student born on the mainland.
“Get rid of the illusion of one country. Get ready to fight,” Edward Leung told the crowd seated on the lawn outside government headquarters on Aug. 5. “We are no longer asking those in power for top-down change. We need a bottom-up revolution.”
Such talk irks government officials in Beijing and Hong Kong, who have long believed that social stability and China’s territorial integrity are key to the country’s success. Some in the Communist Party have accused Edward Leung and his ilk of being radical separatists, language often reserved for activists in the troubled western regions of Xinjiang or Tibet. Mainland newspapers have warned the new members to get in line, and officials may be seeking ways to keep the activists from taking their seats; one Communist party newspaper said that the vote results must be “certified and approved” by Beijing, a requirement not found in the city’s constitution.
LegCo’s newcomers have heard such attacks before, chiefly during 2014’s Umbrella movement. As lawmakers, the young activists will likely push to end the hated system of bloc voting that gives the largely pro-Beijing industry groups sway in the legislative and chief executive elections, and propose citizen voting by referendum, a needed step for a self-determination vote. That would require a constitutional amendment.
While the central government’s office in Hong Kong did not answer repeated requests for comment, it’s virtually certain that constitutional reform is not something it will accept. In September, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the mainland’s liaison office in Hong Kong, said that “there exists an inseparable relationship between the political system of the [Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region] and that of the nation.” Zhang also nixed the notion that city lawmakers might be able to maneuver a separation. He said the legislature, even the judiciary, is subservient to the chief executive, the central government’s representative in the city. “Hong Kong is not a political system that exercises the separation of powers; not before the handover, not after the handover.”
Be that as it may, Hong Kong’s bonds with Beijing are likely to be debated not just in the legislative chambers, but in courtrooms. Edward Leung vowed to appeal his election ban as soon as the final count is published and official, scheduled this Friday, and many lawyers say he could win. That means this latest election is not, after all, finished.
Edward Leung is expected to argue that the Electoral Affairs Commission, which is officially independent and non-partisan, violated his rights to speak freely and run for elective office. The problem stemmed from a new requirement introduced in July that asked prospective candidates to sign a pledge stating that Hong Kong was an “inalienable part” of China. This galled many residents, and some LegCo hopefuls complained, but a judge refused to review the matter until the ballot count ended.
Edward Lueng told interviewers that he signed the loyalty oath with reluctance. The public knew where he stood: He had campaigned on independence for months as the spokesman for Hong Kong Indigenous, a post-protest movement that morphed into a political party. But he reasoned he’d accomplish more inside the chamber than out. The elections official who rejected Edward Leung’s nomination indicated she had perused media reports and Facebook posts and decided the young man wasn’t trustworthy. The young man countered that assessment. “I wholeheartedly uphold the Basic Law,” he told one interviewer. “If not, I wouldn’t run for election.”
In Edward Leung’s defense, the electoral commission appeared to be inconsistent in its approach. Some candidates who have opposed China’s Communist government were green-lighted, including a former professor who first raised the idea that Hong Kong could become an independent city-state. That man failed to get a LegCo seat. New lawmaker Baggio Leung ran in Edward Leung’s place, and spoke about putting independence on the LegCo agenda. It seems clear to government critics that officials targeted Edward Leung. In February, he placed third in a neighborhood district council race. He lost, but gathered 66,000 votes, more than 16 percent of the district, a stunning success for a newcomer with an unorthodox agenda. (The top vote-getter in the subsequent LegCo race for that same district won with only 58,800 votes.) More than any other neophyte, Edward Leung had the strongest chance to win a LegCo seat.
Lawyers and activists condemned the commission’s decision to blacklist Leung and others, accusing the government of censorship and violating the city constitution. There are two ways the controversy might play out. If city officials want to avoid a court’s involvement, they could seek guidance from the standing committee to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature. In 2014 the committee said all Hong Kongers could vote for the next chief executive, making good on a promise in the city’s constitution. But there was a catch: Beijing would screen the candidates. That proposal, which would surely nix any pro-democracy leader, was worrisome enough to spark the Umbrella movement. (LegCo later voted it down.) Any new dictate from Beijing that muzzles residents who favor independence would inflame an already riled city.
It’s more likely that a court will address the ill-conceived candidate ban. Lawyers say they expect a judge will fault the city for disqualifying candidates on the theory that they might violate the Basic Law. A remedy won’t be easy, says Wilson Leung, convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group, a league of 90 pro-democracy lawyers. If all the rejected hopefuls win their appeals, a court could order new elections in every one of the affected districts, a task that would once again let voters choose from dozens of candidates. The issue might take two years to resolve, the lawyer Leung said.
Of course, any appeal or ruling would keep the independence issue in the news, building support for the cause. That, too, might prompt the national government to clamp down on Hong Kong’s opposition. “For now this is merely a political crisis,” Alvin Cheung, a lawyer and scholar at New York University, said in August. If the courts fault the government’s action, the election results would be moot. Then, “it will be a full-blown constitutional crisis.”
Photo credit: ANTHONY WALLACE/Getty Images
Clarification, Sept. 9, 2016: Wilson Leung has told FP that legal questions surrounding the recent election might take two years to resolve. An earlier version of this article appeared to paraphrase Leung saying a possible appeal would lengthen the timeline beyond two years.