Argument

Hong Kong’s Silent Majority Can Speak at the Ballot Box

The upcoming vote is a prime test of public opinion—if the government lets it happen.

A protester holds up an umbrella at Prince Edward MTR station as he and other protesters take a vote on which location to proceed to next in Hong Kong on Aug. 10.
A protester holds up an umbrella at Prince Edward MTR station as he and other protesters take a vote on which location to proceed to next in Hong Kong on Aug. 10. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

This weekend, Hong Kongers will head to the ballot box for the first time since mass protests erupted this summer. More than a thousand candidates will contest 452 district council seats in the city’s only fully democratic election on Nov. 24.

Or rather, they may. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has already made noises about canceling the elections, as the city slips further into fire-strewn chaos. But that would be a deadly mistake—at a time when Hong Kongers are determined to have their voices heard, denying them this chance would only further curdle the government’s already sour reputation. The outcome of the vote will probably not favor the government—but canceling it would be far more destructive than even a sweeping pan-democratic victory.

Allowing the elections is important because they can serve as a litmus test on the popular legitimacy of the protests. There is a sense that most Hong Kongers, most of whose opinions remain underreported, are growing increasingly weary of the clashes’ constant disruption of everyday life in the city. Confidence in the protests’ local and international support has been thrown into doubt over the last few months as police brutality and protester violence are highlighted by supporters of each side.

China’s state media machine in particular has been churning out disinformation in order to undermine sympathy for the protesters by forging an alternate narrative of the protest movement. One of the most common spins in this narrative is that the protests are perpetrated by a minority of violent separatists in cahoots with foreign powers and that they do not have the support of the city’s “silent majority.”

When the silent majority did turn up to protest in the millions, nationalist social media users from the mainland would attempt to create an atmosphere of uncertainty by disputing turnout estimates. This is ultimately done to introduce a mentality of defeatist ignorance among Hong Kong watchers: the idea that we will never know how much or little support the ongoing protests have and will continue to have in the future.

A pro-democracy triumph at the ballot box this month would clear this fog of ignorance and destroy the nationalist-driven narrative put forth by Beijing. While it is easy to dispute crowd sizes, report selectively on violent incidents, postulate bias in opinion polls, or introduce conspiracy theories about foreign intervention, votes in an election are as conclusive and objective an indicator of public opinion as it will ever get.

It would therefore be hard for China to spin an anti-government election victory. China will find it hard for example to blame the potentially upsetting outcome on the machinations of “foreign forces” since the elections are sanctioned and supervised by the Hong Kong government, in which Beijing has expressed overwhelming confidence. China will likely be forced to resort to its original playbook of staying silent and muting all mentions of the election results in the firewalled mainland press and social media.

The outcome of the local elections could also have another significant impact on Hong Kong politics in the longer term, by allowing democrats to gain a greater number of seats in the electoral college, which selects the city’s leader. Hong Kong’s chief executive is selected by a simple majority of an election committee comprising 1,200 of the city’s business and professional class. It is an electoral college without a corresponding popular vote, and most seats are controlled by pro-China politicians, industrialists, and financiers.

District councilors, who will be elected in the upcoming local elections, will have the right by law to select 120 members of the committee to elect the next chief executive in 2022. As democrats already control around 400 committee seats, a local election victory would increase their influence over who shall be the city’s next leader.

Of course, the thought that China would ever allow the city’s democrats to have a definitive say over whom the next chief executive will be is a pipe dream—and the line coming from Beijing has been one of only tighter and tighter control. But there’s a small slice of people who are acceptable to Beijing but also more sympathetic and able to handle democratic concerns than figures like Lam.

A pro-democracy victory in the local elections is not guaranteed however, partly because history does not favor it. Hong Kong’s local district councils have been dominated by pro-Beijing parties for decades or a variety of reasons. For a start, democrats do not have enough financial resources to compete with pro-Beijing campaigners, most of whom have the support of mainland business and political networks.

A difference in campaign style also matters: Democratic candidates tend to emphasize the struggle for civil rights such as universal suffrage and government accountability, while pro-Beijing candidates stress their promise to deliver on livelihood concerns. While the democrats’ strategy works well in the city’s legislative elections, it has historically failed to win them significant seats in the local councils. Democratic candidates are hence also often regarded by the city’s electorate as inexperienced in dealing with local affairs relative to their pro-Beijing rivals.

Nevertheless, there are several indicators as to why the upcoming local elections may yield a different result in favor of the democrats. The first is the unprecedented number of voters registered for this election cycle. According to the government’s electoral registration office, more than 300,000 new people registered to vote this year, bringing the total number of electors to exceed 4 million for the first time in the city’s history. The biggest increases came from voters aged between 18 and 35. A large youth voting population could very well be the demographic weight that tips the balance of the election scale in favor of the democrats.

The ongoing protests, and the government’s countermeasures, have impacted every part of Hong Kong. Before June, protests in Hong Kong were restricted to a small area of the city. Even the Occupy Movement in 2014 had been largely confined to three downtown districts, leaving most of the city and its inhabitants unaffected.

In contrast, the recent clashes have reached across the city. The unusually brutal response from the police—making arbitrarily violent arrests in shopping malls and firing tear gas into residential areas—has also garnered fierce opposition from ordinary citizens who might otherwise have been politically apathetic. As these political issues start to affect Hong Kongers on a more granular level, people may be justifiably swayed to vote differently than they would have in previous local elections.

The Hong Kong government and pro-Beijing parties are well aware of the threat that anti-government candidates pose to the former’s control over the district councils. There is thus a high probability of foul play in the run-up to the elections.

The government has an array of tools to undermine the electability of the democrats. One such tool is its power to disqualify candidates over their alleged stance on Hong Kong independence, a political opinion that can strike a candidate off the city’s ballot sheets under the prevailing interpretation of the Basic Law. Joshua Wong, arguably Hong Kong’s most famous democratic activist, has already been barred from running for a local council seat over such allegations in spite of his denial over supporting independence.

The government has also made arbitrary arrests of democrat candidates and incumbent lawmakers over their involvement in the ongoing protests. It is certainly possible that many more will be detained as election day nears to undermine their visibility and campaigning efforts.

Finally, as Lam has already threatened, the Hong Kong government could always use its emergency powers to postpone or suspend the elections. This is not so much an ace-in-the-hole as a nuclear option that would blow a further crater in whatever credibility the administration has left in its promise to maintain the basic civic freedoms of its citizens.

Whatever the local elections’ outcome will be, de-escalation will certainly not be one of its consequences. Increasingly gruesome acts of physical violence have been inflicted on political candidates over the past few weeks and will likely continue in the weeks ahead. This month, a local democratic councilor had his ear bitten off by a Chinese nationalist; shortly thereafter, vocal pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was stabbed in the streets.

The elections will not eliminate violence. But they would give a peaceful voice to ordinary Hong Kongers. It would mean, in other words, that the millions of ordinary Hong Kongers who came out to protest in early June—and successfully forced the government to retract its extradition bill—might do so again in the future. Canceling them, in contrast, would only strengthen the case among extremists that peaceful protest has failed and violence is the only way forward.

Dominic Chiu is a native Hong Konger.

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